The ugly‐design‐is‐most‐efficient discussion misses the point

Just stumbled on a couple of not very fresh posts about the role of anti‐marketing design, as Scoble calls it. His conclusion: The „ugliest designs” seem to make the best profit on the net. Or the other way round: some sites are simply too pretty. Of course there are a lot of so called Elite Designers shouting „but i can make both”. Haha.

Most commenters tell the „design is form & function” and „design makes communication better” stuff. If you are designer it seems to be very painful to agree that Scoble is (mostly) right: there are a lot of overdesigned websites.

Whats the nature of the web? A powershift. The web makes easy access to information to everyone. I can look up stock quotes, price tags for consumer goods, crosscheck what my doctor says or my advocate. Things i could not do before. The web shifts a part of the power from companies and institutions to the individual. That’s great and therefore we all love the internet.

Design has its root in the opposite direction. Design is visible authority. Design is expensive, not everyone can afford it. Authorities always used design to make their power visible. Any designer must be reminded that the toolset we are using has its origin in expressing power within a society.

Assuming that you cannot not communicate, a well designed website always communicates that there must be a kind of authority behind the originator of the service. And that’s what annoys people, they do not want to have any authority in the web. Design – as it is mostly practised in website design – seems to contradict the original meaning of the web.

So design does not make sense at all in the web? I don’t think so. Design must simply respect the web’s nature: gathering information, connecting with other people. There are a lot of examples (flickr is the best in the web2.0 context) that show this can be achieved without producing ugliness. Designing web is more about thinking about functions and how to use them best.

Designers must stand back from their vanity and rethink their tools.


I did not to intend to offend anyone, no matter what religion or profession. I deleted the sentence and apologize about the misunderstanding.

19 thoughts on “The ugly‐design‐is‐most‐efficient discussion misses the point”

  1. I think this is the most confusing blog post I’ve ever read. You say design „does not make sense” on the web, and then you go on to praise Flickr for its design (and deservedly so – it’s one of the most well‐designed sites I can think of).

    So, which is it?

  2. I think the point he is making is that when websites are designed for other designers, as many seemingly are, they run the risk of alienating potential users. There’s a certain feeling of inclusiveness, maybe, that a ‚less designed’ site affords.

  3. If you read clearly jeff you will notice the question mark after: So design does not make sense at all in the web? Then he says, I do not think so.

    Jeff, read before posting please.

  4. This is wrong on so many levels.

    1. When the world first had a written history after centuries of a purely oral tradition, it was elitest. I’ll admit that. When the printing press was invented, words and ideas were able to be printed and distributed on a large scale with less effort. More people learned to read and write. People became empowered.

    Design saved these people from this mass influx of information. Design, at its purest and most functional, took from nature familiar forms and groupings in order to group like pieces of information together to make them easier to follow and understand. Imagine a newspaper without any perceptible headlines; with all the type the same face, size, and weight, let’s say with no punctuation at all. It would not be an effective communication tool. Imagine all your precious stock quotes on a web page in 8 point Courier New with no groupings of like information and in ALL UPPER CASE. It would certainly be a challenge to find what you are looking for.

    The earliest designers (ancient scribes to early book and newspaper designers) solved these very problems out of necessity for the COMMON GOOD, so that the masses may stay informed effectively. (Does this sound like ominous authority to you?) Today’s designers are learning these age‐old techniques and following in the footsteps of literally thousands of years of tradition. So you see, design is about making information legible, meaningful, and most of all accessible. Vanity has nothing to do with it. If these people you mention, who „do not want to have any authority in the web,” cannot accept the fact that design is working for them and not against them, I feel sorry for them. They’re missing the point. You’re missing the point.

    2. The power shift you’re talking about? It’s an illusion. Corporations are allowing us to check our account balances, pay our bills, price bargains, or do any number of the things you mentioned, so don’t get too excited. They could take it away in an instant if they wanted to. Sorry.

    3. Moreover, thousands upon thousands of designers have spent countless years designing brilliant type faces such as Verdana, Bembo, Georgia, Times, Bodoni, Trajan, etc. Are the works of these type designers now worthless because, as you say, designers need to rethink their tools? Would you rather we not have appropriate fonts for appropriate settings? Like it or not, designers’ tools are your tools too. Why don’t you delete all the fonts off your computer and design your own from scratch? Don’t take so many things you use every day for granted.

    > Any designer, even if having other – let’s say humanistic – intentions, must be reminded that the toolset we are using has its origin in expressing power within a society.

    Are you suggesting that my installation of Photoshop has Neo‐Nazi tendencies? If I use the same type faces as on old Chinese or Russian propaganda posters, does that make me a communist? Don’t be an asshat.

    4. All in all, design does not make communication better. Design is communication. Period.

  5. Kyle:

    I DID read. He says, „I DON’T think so.” Meaning, he doesn’t think design makes sense on the web. Right?

    Q. Does design make sense on the web?

    A. I don’t think so.

    Seems pretty clear to me.

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  7. In a nutshell it says that design is a tool used by global corporations and oppressive political regimes for propaganda. The author goes on to say that because of it’s nature design is not welcome on the Internet but then goes on to praise the design of sites like Flickr. Go figure.

  8. @Pat

    4.: I agree. Design is all about communication. But often designers miss the target. That’s what scoble says.

    1.: But what exactly is design? In my opinion it is important to distinguish between crafts, art and design. What the ancient scribers and gutenberg did is crafting. Crafts are characterized by the entity of the person who is drawing the form and the one who is producing the good. Same thing can be said for arts.

    Design on the other hand started when the roles were split into at least 2 persons. For (industrial) production is is necessary to have an extra person who is drawing the form. The rest is for the engineers. That’s the difference between an art nouveau chair in the late 1880s and a bauhaus chair in 1920.

    Regarding typography and graphic design, i would describe the difference by the intention of the person who is drawing the form. If his intention is to give the draft a meaning beyond the normally expected use of the good, it is design. For example, if you want to have the newspaper not only legible but also distinctive like a brand, then you are designing. Gutenberg would never have done this. In fact, he spent a lot of time in imitating the style of the handwritten bibles.

    Maybe a lot of the confusion is caused by the difference of understanding the word design in mid‐europe and US. If you look up „design” in de.wikipedia you can read a totally different definition than in the english version. Design in the european sense is derived from the italian „disegnare” which means „drawing” or „sketching” and includes a wide range of tasks, including thinking about the function and its social impact. In germany designers are also called „gestalter” which derives from the word „gestalt”, an untranslatable term which refers to the inner and outer shape of a thing.

    3.: I am saying „rethink your tools” because i am watching engineers and scientists doing the best working designs in the web (in the sense mentioned above they are „crafting”). Delicious is cool, it is engineered. Does Jason Fried of 37signals have a design education? (i don’t know, but i guess not). And Ben Cerveny (the flickr guy) studied a MIT, not at a design college. It is time that designers learn from these guys and make their conclusions.

    2.: Maybe you are right, „powershift” is overdone. The web empowers users and things are changing, but a real powershift is something different, right.

    cheers, christian

  9. I totally agree with your analysis. Blowing up Design always seems like an excuse for gaps in the content (or the relationship of the customer to his product). With a perspective from PR, texting and information‐management (also in love with Design) I still believe in one superior law – 1 thought, 1 visualization.

    Which is Web 2.0s major archivement in Design. Yet the mission of Design is to make products (whatever kind) look good. Fine with me: I just whish companies knew people feel if things are blown up.

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  11. One of the most foolish articles I’ve read in the past few weeks.

    Jung, you’re only seeing the form side of design, and not the functional side. Design is much more than aesthetics. There is usability, information architecture and accessibility.

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