Did both ESRI and MapBox steal from Fitbit?

Note / disclaimer: I work for 3-GIS, and we work a lot with ESRI. This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of 3-GIS, ESRI, MapBox, Fitbit, or any other entity. These thoughts are my own and are hopefully unbiased. I’m just a web developer and don’t have a stake in this. I simply find the implications for web development and site design to be interesting.

“ESRI, shame on you guys!”

The other day, I saw several tweets regarding ESRI’s new ArcGIS for Developers website.

James Fee even wrote a blog post about the emulation of MapBox. From his assessment of the situation:

I’d like to think there wasn’t malicious intent here, just that those who created it want to be like MapBox and Developement Seed. Still, when the 800lb (363kg) gorilla does things like this, you can’t but help call it a dick move.

I was on my phone at the time. Clicking through to both websites, all I thought was…

All Bootstrap Everything

Upon investigation of the sources, it seems that not all of these sites are indeed using Bootstrap specifically. However, I think the style is evident. The Bootstrap style has become so ubiquitous on today’s web that there are even sites dedicated to helping you un-Bootstrap your Bootstrap.

The Simpsons Already Did It

If we follow the evolutionary chain of ESRI to MapBox, then surely we must follow MapBox’s back to Fitbit. Note that all three share the design elements listed below, and note that you could probably find countless more sites that share the same.

  • a tall header
  • rounded buttons
  • pleasant typography
  • lots of scrolling down
  • a feeling reminiscent of a grid system (or actual use of a grid system)
  • columns of links at the bottom

There was one tweet that pointed out the use of cartoon maps in circles.

MapBox's cartoony map icon

MapBox’s cartoony map icon

ESRI's cartoony map icon

ESRI’s cartoony map icon

I want to be clear that even the idea of “cartoon” icons in circles is not a groundbreaking design technique. Fitbit has that too (decision for color vs. silhouette notwithstanding); they just didn’t need a map in their domain.

Fitbit's cartoony icons

Making It Your Own

Here are a few of the obvious differences between the sites

  • MapBox uses ALLCAPS NAVIGATION, Mixed Case Navigation for ESRI
  • Social links are presented quite differently
  • MapBox has an introductory video, while ESRI has various text areas
  • Signup placement is raised for MapBox, inline for ESRI
  • MapBox colors their footer, ESRI does not
  • MapBox put their logo on the left, ESRI on the right

Now admittedly any of these changes taken individually would be trivial, but when taken together, I find it unlikely that ESRI said, “You know, MapBox is pretty. Let’s steal their CSS!” I think it is much more likely that ESRI said “You know, on our new site, let’s go with the prevalent patterns taking over the web today, and incorporate a tall scrolling site with rounded buttons.”

Benefit of the Doubt

Hey internet, let’s try to play nicely together. Like I said in the note/disclaimer, I have no dog in this fight. I’m just a developer, currently developing for the web.

I will give those pointing fingers some benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I missed design elements that truly were plagiarized, rather than just being common to today’s web. Perhaps they really haven’t seen so many other sites with Bootstrap qualities, and honestly thought MapBox’s site design was novel.

On the other hand, maybe we can extend a similar courtesy to ESRI and restrain ourselves from wishing death upon them.  Perhaps they are just last in line to pick up on this style. I maintain that MapBox was certainly not the first. If accusation becomes our default response, what will we all have to do for our next site design?


About David Ruttka

I've been "making computers do things" since I first saw King's Quest on a 286 PC in the mid-80's, but I turned it into a career just over a decade ago. While the majority of my experience has been on the Microsoft stack (C#, .NET, ASP.NET), I've recently been diving deeper into JavaScript and exploring the Ruby universe. Occasionally, I'll do a public speaking gig or write a blog post. When I'm not coding, I enjoy spending time with my family, watching hockey, and playing the occasional video game. You can also find me on Stack Overflow, Google Plus, and Twitter. Microsoft Certified Programming in HTML5 with JavaScript and CSS3 Specialist; MCPD Windows Developer 3.5
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