The Culture of Fugly Jun 25th, 2006
Paul Rand famously wrote:
The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.
In the context of web and high-technology product design, this observation from Mr. Rand takes on special import. For those that doubt this, please consider the evidence:
eBay. Garish colors, poor composition and a mixture of poorly rendered aliased type in an apparent attempt to make eBay feel homey, like a garage sale. One has to wonder though why you would copy K-Mart when it’s pretty clear people respond to the design mantra of Target.
Yahoo! One would think that Yahoo! would have learned by now that less is more. That is, less stuff vying for your attention, less line noise, fewer gradients. The new home page approach slated to be released soon is barely better.
Google. The poor typographic implementation of Google was designed by engineers, not designers. Now the company and most of its copycats seem to use the success of the engine behind the search results page as some excuse to make everything else equally difficult to read and parse.
Amazon. One of the worst offenders in neglecting to use an effective grid to anchor ones’ ability to scan and read a page. One would think that this is something that would be vital in a site that generally mimics the same sort of use as a sales catalog.
From time to time, crazy proclamations are made that bad design is actually good design when it comes to high-tech products or web sites. That somehow what people want is crap that’s cheap, like a $2 burrito from Taco Bell. It doesn’t matter what damage that kind of product does to a person over the long haul. Nor does it matter that this sort of thinking has been consistently disproven by the success of the likes of Target or Japanese automakers. Apparently, some people believe it’s what customers want so why not just give it to them?
Somehow, not only is it acceptable to produce work that most children wouldn’t be proud to display on the family refrigerator, it’s actually expected because some usability guru who seems to know little about the actual craft of good design — as evidenced by his own web site — wears the “Kiss me, I’m ugly” badge like it’s some sort of lottery prize at a Star Trek convention. (Hint: Those people are dressed in Klingon costumes. They don’t mean it literally.)
Further, the MySpace guys are gajillionaires. So who are we to tell them they’re wrong when it comes to how poorly MySpace is designed? MySpace is a success even though it has allowed common people to create the ugliest, most atrocious designs to have ever existed in all of human history.
So good design doesn’t matter, right?
Do I really need to answer that question?
To think that bad design is actually good design and that good design is not that important in every day life is the epitome of the worst kind of cynical thinking in the web and high-technology industry. Let’s put it this way: Do you think the MySpace guys rushed out and bought used Pontiac Aztecs with all that cash they made? Sure, and aggressive, unregulated fossil fuel consumption hasn’t created a looming environmental disaster that can be ignored.
I recognize that not everyone can play at the professional level. That there are some students who are A+ students on some subjects and others who are just Bs and Cs. That there are people like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods who seem to have some unexplainable God given talent to be… well… Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods of course.
But that’s not a good excuse, nor is it a reason to think anyone should be allowed to get away with crap design because in some alternate reality created by a focus group that’s what the people want. To be clear, if you have the word “designer” printed somewhere on your business card, then yes, I am talking directly to you.
I fully expect your average Jane or Joe Public to have not a lick of understanding about what it takes to make good design. I’m not so shallow as to expect everyone to be a professional designer. I say this in the same way I would hope that software engineers don’t expect me to be able to write elegant pixel processing algorithms that optimize the anti-aliasing of edges on an outline font while providing precise serif hinting in less than fifty lines of code.
However, I do expect more out the designers that have now flooded the tech industry and work on high profile products that actually make good money.
You guys can do better.
During the early days of the desktop publishing revolution, the world was carpet bombed by some of the most hideous examples of typographic and graphic design that could ever have been imagined. Make no mistake, yours truly contributed his fair share, and still does from time to time. But after the giddy high of being able to typeset your department’s newsletter using San Francisco wore off, things got back to brass tacks. The professionals came back and took over the tools from the technologists. Within a decade, magazines, newspapers and corporate marketing materials became arguably more refined and better designed than they were in quite some time. Possibly even better after the Dark Age of Graphic Design (1988 through 1998) ran its course, which some could legitimately argue was worse than Disco Fever.
So here we are in the web and high-tech product space. It’s been more than a good ten years since that fateful day Netscape arrived back in 1995. Have things gotten better?
Did I already mention MySpace?
Paul Rand stated the problem with regard to bad design in clear, simple language. We live in a culture of fugly. A result of modern day technology that has gotten much too far ahead of the design curve while making far too much money from feeding the masses those $2 burritos. If you doubt this point, take a drive down to your local mall and simply meander through it. There can be no question that the public has no choice but to tolerate bad design because if they couldn’t, they would probably have to commit suicide from the pain and anguish of just stepping outside of their home.
What Rand left out though, no matter how well implied, was an explicit warning that bad design begets more bad design. Especially when the decision is left to a public conditioned to prefer whatever it is that they are currently living with. The problem then exists when bad design becomes accepted by designers as business as usual.
The more things like eBay, Yahoo!, Google and Amazon succeed in spite of the fact that the design of their products and web sites contain the most basic of graphic and interaction design errors — errors, by the way, that would get a junior level programmer fired on the spot for writing the functional equivalent in code — the more we’ll see something like MySpace, which only ups the ante on just how horrific things can get. The more the guys at 37signals keep using excessively large type and garish color schemes to create the visual aesthetic of a successful product like Basecamp, the more other people will copycat them in a never ending competition to see who can make their product look and behave like the best damned Tonka toy ever made in the history of Tonka toys.
Watch out guys! Technorati sees your excessively large type with its blunt color palette and raises you an abusive use of rounded rectangles. Your move.
If you are a designer, accepting or ignoring bad design is as irresponsible as ignoring the mounting evidence that significant amounts of industrial pollution is radically changing the environment we live in.
At some point, the temperature outside reaches 114 degrees in April and your grandchildren’s children read in their classroom eBooks about all the accounts of how some people thought driving a Hummer was the cool thing to do. They express shock that some people actually thought mankind had little impact on the ecosystem of the planet. They’ll simply frown and not understand how it was possible for people to think like that in the first place.
I’ll admit it. When I read my history books back in high school, I often wondered how people in the time of Columbus could be so crazy as to think that the world was actually flat. I mean, to even begin to believe in such a crazy notion? Absurd!
Then I think back on how I felt when I woke up on November 3rd, 2004, realizing I was living in the same country where people actually voted for George W. Bush.
That was a cheap shot. I’m sorry. My apologies to all those who voted for George Bush. I’m so sorry, in fact, that I invite all of you to head on over to MySpace and partake in a page dedicated to our current POTUS to make up for it.