Layout and Structure
Okay, this is perhaps one of the more obvious ways to differentiate your site from the rest. It’s also the most difficult. On the pro side, using a fancy layout or site structure that no one has ever seen before is instantly memorable. It can also be a lot of fun. After creating your fifty-second three-column site, mixing up the layout provides a challenge for your visual design skills and your front-end dev skills that can’t be beat.
Branding is the other really obvious way to make your site stand out. And it’s easy. Just find out what your client’s branding guidelines are, and stick to them. Embrace them. Make your client sick of seeing their own logo and colors. Then maybe tone it down a little, and you’re good to go.
The cons: This approach only works if your client has highly original branding. If their brand style guide consists of Helvetica and not much else, you are at a severe disadvantage.
Graphics and Imagery
If the branding isn’t enough, you can use graphics and/or photos on your site to establish a distinct visual style. Sites with big images do tend to convert more, after all. People are visual creatures, so visual stimuli can make it easier for users to connect with you on an emotional level. Plus, the stylistic options are just about endless, which makes it easier to create an original-feeling design.
The cons: Graphics and photos that look original are expensive, because they pretty much have to be custom made. Using stock images will likely kill the distinction that you’re going for.
Text and Content
This is probably the most important—and sometimes the most difficult—way you can set yourself apart. What is said on any site can and should be a reflection of the client’s personality and/or company culture, while still being clear. You can use copy, microcopy, and even things like video to communicate personality in a way that sets you apart.
The cons: Ok, first you have to get any text at all from your client. Heh. And then you have to get copy that actually feels like a human wrote it. Most marketing copy has a very specific tone that seems to transcend borders and cultures. Getting the reader to see past the obvious desire to sell them things is the trick, and it’s a tough one.
I mentioned microcopy before, but it really makes a difference. Users expect sales copy when reading up on a product or service. But if the rest of your site, especially the interactive bits like forms, treat the user as human rather than as a mere customer, this will make your site stand out in big ways.
Animation is a huge deal right now, and for good reason. When done right, it can take a pretty good experience and make it unforgettable. While I’m glad splash screens went the way of the dodo, I can still remember some of the animated web experiences I saw during the ’90s. Did I say before that humans were visual creatures? Well make those pictures start moving, and you can start a new industry in California.
The cons: I saved animation for last because it’s very effective, but also very hard to get right. I mean, everyone and their dog is animating their sites now. That means that if you want your animation to stand out from everyone else’s animation, you’ll have to step up your game. Bouncing buttons ain’t gonna cut it. Animation that’s badly done can also cause usability problems, performance problems, etc.