Class and Web Design, Part 1: The Class Struggle

Published on Author Christopher Fahey

Three ugly ducklings by zefrank.

In the last year or so, hundreds of articles, blog posts, and conversations in the web design world have revolved around the question of “Why does bad design succeed?” MySpace, eBay, Google, and craigslist are usually cited as examples of “bad design” (or even “ugly design”) that works. And everyone has a theory about it:

  • zefrank and Brian Fling say MySpace’s ugly design empowers the untrained designer to express themselves with tools they’ve never had before.
  • Jason Santa Maria, Greg Storey, Joshua Porter, and Andy Rutledge take a usability, features, and content focus, arguing that when ugly sites succeed, they do so despite their bad design — that while they may arguably employ “bad” visual design, they indisputably have valuable content or efficient interaction design.
  • Tom Chi at OK/Cancel says that business strategy is a critical key to success, independent of design.
  • Andrei at Design By Fire says that the sentiment behind Paul Rand’s famous quote (“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.”) has led many designers to cynically and deliberately produce bad design even though they know better.
  • Tony Wright at GoJobby said that the success of these sites simply proves that good design doesn’t matter at all.

Robert Scoble, who published the original inspiration for much of this debate, missed the mark overall but in one respect I think he came a little closer to the right idea by arguing that “ugly” design is populist in nature, that the sites in question deliberately avoid looking fancy in order to seem more personal and less corporate. I say he comes close because he actually makes the connection between design and taste, and he notices that taste is closely related to a person’s self image.

But none of these discussions dare to speak of something that seems painfully obvious to me: talking about taste is one step away from talking about class, and nobody likes to talk about class.

Class is a Dirty Word

Class is a deeply sensitive issue in America: It is rarely even discussed in any sort of design discourse or criticism at all, especially not in web design. Most of us tend to either not think about it, or at best we dance around it or hint at it with euphemisms. It’s a shame because I think class is so central to what designers do.


President Bush speaks to his base with design.

Steven Heller, senior art director at the New York Times, wrote an interesting article about the truly terrible graphic design deployed in President Bush’s banners and backdrops. He calls the signs “garish” and “thoughtless”, lambasting the White House’s awful typography. His commentary, however, is also deeply condescending and more than a little snobby (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here’s a fairly typical line:

While his handlers would never allow the leader of the free world to go out in public wearing a rayon leisure suit and white bucks, they nonetheless use clownish shareware typefaces with hokey beveled edges and cheesy drop shadows to represent his ideas.

These are clearly the words of someone who designs exclusively for the upper ends of the class spectrum, someone who doesn’t typically design for Bush’s target audience: unsophisticated right-wing voters suspicious of what they perceive to be snobby upper-class sushi-eating/latte-drinking design ideas. Momus agrees, writing on his own blog:

I’d argue that the “good design” Steve is advocating … will never be adopted by this right wing populist administration because what Steve and I would call good design would be seen by Rove and Bush and Cheney as liberal design. They’ll keep giving us “bad” design because it’s populist. This regime’s distrust of design professionals maps to their distrust of the “liberal media”. Just as they see “the liberal media” as biased, infused with the values of sophisticated left- and right-coast urbanites who characteristically vote Democrat, so they see designers as incarnating the same values. Visual bias, we could call it.

It wouldn’t be appropriate for a populist right wing government to appeal to people who drive Volvos and read the New York Times Book Review section. In fact, this regime wants to alienate those people, and reject their aesthetic standards. If those people love austere good design, then, damn it, this regime will use drop shadow.

Are these backdrops really design failures? Or do they, in fact, use a design style that strongly appeals to a different (i.e., lower) class than Heller’s typical target audience? This is a class question as much as a design question. But Heller, like most of us, doesn’t go there. Even Momus (a Brit!) doesn’t actually use the word “class”. That’s the problem with discussing design and class: We can never actually bring ourselves to talk about the class part.

So let’s actually talk about class. Do you talk about class issues in your professional environment? Do you talk about class at all?

Next: Class and Web Design, Part 2: What Class are You?

27 Responses to Class and Web Design, Part 1: The Class Struggle

  1. Though I think the class question is an interesting one, the larger point of my MySpace piece was that we are continuing to ignore the real issue: that the sites in question are well-designed.

    Their effectiveness is in their social design, not their interaction or visual design. That’s new, and a significant change from the commonly-held notions of what design needs to be in this day and age.

  2. Joshua: Thanks for the clarification. I agree that “what it does” is an important part of the overall “design” of a product, probably the most critical. It’s the “business plan” aspect of holistic product design, distinct from “visual design” or even “interface design”. Still, most people who are baffled by MySpace, et. al., are specifically wondering about the question of how it can possibly be that anyone can actually tolerate using something so ugly — saying that the underlying product design is “well-designed” doesn’t really answer that question.

    But in keeping with your larger perspective on the design of such sites, I would contend that even the “social design” you speak of is at least in part class-based, at least for some sites. Do upper-class people (besides Paris Hilton) care about who knows how many thousands of people they are friends with? Do people who wear Prada and Brooks Brothers need a web site that helps them auction Beanie Babies online? Even the question of “what it does” for some sites needs to be class-conscious.

  3. I don’t know…I’m hesitant to get into a class discussion because I don’t think that most people think that way…

    From my experience most people are much more inward-facing…worried about themselves and their relationships with others. Very few folks step back and say: “What class am I in and how does it relate to others?”. I do know that designers are much more likely to get into that sort of discussion, because they have more refined senses of taste and aesthetic differences. (for better or worse)

    I think that almost everyone (in all classes, if you want to cut up the population that way) worry about who their friends are. That’s one of the key insights from the success of these social web sites. (in the same way that Freud and McKinsey discovered that everyone thinks about sex all the time) Many folks find social software useful because most have social lives and are increasingly comfortable online, and our workplace is following suit. And when talking about’s a much higher percentage taking part which only suggests that it will get more important in the future. And to these folks the ugliness isn’t even an issue, and in many cases their world is beautiful to them, no matter what it is to outsiders. As you mention, that’s another key insight here.

    And, to your point that I’ve just stated that they are “well-designed” and haven’t really gone deeper…well I’m working on that…

  4. Joshua: Very few folks step back and say: “What class am I in and how does it relate to others?”

    We don’t do it consciously (in fact, I think we deliberately avoid it on a conscious level), but I think we do it subconsciously all day long. For example, class is a key part of the essence of brand identification — we are drawn to or repelled by brands in good part based on whether or not the brand enhances or hurts our personal class image.

    I think that almost everyone (in all classes, if you want to cut up the population that way) worry about who their friends are.

    Right, but I said worry about “who knows how many thousands of people they are friends with”. It’s a lot different to want to have lots a friends and wanting the whole world to know who all your friends are, a functional difference that I suspect makes MySpace undesirable to the ultra-rich.

    Social software in general is a tough area to talk about class, though, insofar as MySpace and others of the type target primarily teens and very young adults, ages where class distinctions are probably more blurred (and skewed more downscale).

  5. As I stated in my article, if taste and class were part of the issue, then Target and Japanese automakers wouldn’t be as successful as they are with both inexpensive and well designed products.

    I don’t think class has anything to do it. Rand’s quote is pretty much spot on.

  6. “…how it can possibly be that anyone can actually tolerate using something so ugly…”

    Visual design continues to be confused for Art, which is *always* about class because it ends up bogged down in rules and history that only those with the time and resources to learn its complexities can fully understand. It’s like “proper manners” — they only truly matter to people who know exactly what they are. Putting weight and importance to these rules allows them to flaunt their training and culturedness, and posit themselves in a higher class than others.

    But we all know this.

    However, the terms “good” and “bad” are entirely subjective, and must be contextualized to an object’s purpose in order to be valid.

    The problem that the “uncultured” have is that these terms are regularly used *without* context in a “Well, I’m important and I don’t approve” manner, or that the context applied is of so little end-importance for the users of the object that it’s not really that big a problem.

    They objectively swoop down on web sites not for them, singling them out for being “ugly”. These people often do so because they want to be seen as the arbitrators of good and bad design — naturally, they want to be hired to make these decisions for others.

    Art has its place in design, but visual design like all other aspects of design must have a *purpose* to fulfill. What are the terms that matter in *design?*

    Easy vs. Hard.

    Fast vs. Slow.

    Affordable vs. Costly.

    Satisfying vs. Disappointing.

    Even these are subjective. But they’re leagues better than “Pretty” and “Ugly”. Leave that for Art.

  7. Andrei: Target is one of only a few examples that I consider exceptions to the more common practice of “downmarketing” the design for lower-class products and audiences. Another example, of course, is the iPod’s success… but note that the iPod’s success hasn’t really extended so much into the Mac computer market, where Apple is still generally considered to be a highly upscale brand that is out of reach for most consumers, a product for wealthier people and design-conscious artsy types.

    And anyway, it’s really hard to identify more examples (of mass-market products using high-end design) besides iPod and Target — can you? I’m not sure I get how Japanese cars qualify as high-end design or if their marketing is particularly upscale. Anything else?

    I wonder if these few examples really do constitute proof that “upscale” design can be extensible and beneficial across every marketplace. Would a web site selling the weight-loss drug Hoodia actually do better business if they looked like Kate Spade? When the class differences of the target audiences are so stark, which is not the case with MySpace, craigslist, or even eBay, the answer isn’t so easy.

  8. Noah: I think when designers use the term “ugly” they usually mean the object of their derision has such a huge number of negative design qualities that no one term can quite capture it. Sloppy typography, weak branding, clashing colors, hard-to-read fonts, inappropriate imagery, sloppy grids, cliche backgrounds, etc. When my peers use the word “ugly” I give them the benefit of the doubt that they are not only expressing their artistic tastes, but are also expressing their professional opinions about specific design approaches.

    That said, I am specifically arguing that far more of what you might think are design fundamentals are, in fact, still matters of artistic taste. The three ducks on this page are examples of what a great many people think of as really good design, while others think they are the worst design imaginable. The chasm between these opinions is not reducable to design fundamentals or functional purpose. The difference between these schools of thought is taste, and thus, I think, class.

  9. I think the concept of “class” has a certain attractiveness (in spite of its taboo nature) because it divides things up nicely, and it seems to get at a subconcious motivator for qualifying design that is present but not spoken.

    But I think it’s a bit too easy; to use crass business terms, it’s a ‘horizontal’ way of thinking about markets, where the world tends to be divided more along ‘verticals.’ Granted, that’s just as simplistic, but the larger point is that it’s more a world where interests, tastes and subjectivities aren’t easily tied to economic strata, and class is an organizing principle based almost exclusively on economics.

    In most of the examples cited here, bad design doesn’t seem so much targeted at specific classes of people as at subsets of people sharing mindsets that combine factors like religion, geography, social mores, history AND economics. If nothing else, I think thinking of these target audiences along class lines, while it might be helpful in limited terms, is problematic because it distracts from considerations that aren’t economic in nature.

  10. Khoi: As I’ll discuss in my next post, class is not inextricably tied to one’s economic means. It’s tied up in lots of other things, too, for example education, profession, geography, and family histories, and the other factors you mention. It’s interesting that you equate class with money — I think that’s probably an obstacle to this topic, which I hope to address in the next post. Needless to say there are ethnic, “racial”, and cultural issues, too, but I think I’m going to leave that for another day (class is easy to talk about compared to that stuff!!).

    Quick example: Because of economic mobility, it’s possible for wealthier people to maintain lower-class tastes, and to a far lesser extent vice versa. It’s not unusual for a blue collar worker to make the same income of a middle-class white collar worker, or for the child of a manual laborer to go to college and become a yuppie — yet in both cases the person’s native class, and thus their tastes and sense of where they belong in the social hierarchy, may linger long after they’ve left their economic strata.

    Noah: The upper-class people you speak of who buy “gaudy” art are most likely slightly-lower-class people with money. It’s the taste for gaudy art which defines them as lower-class, not their income.

    Again, it’s not simply a matter of “taste” anyway, it’s about one’s sense of place in the social fabric. No matter how much money you have today, if you grew up in a poor family, you’re always going to feel like an outsider at Lincoln Center — and, most likely, at

  11. The common definition of class is the hierarchical standing of an individual based on social or economic standards, such as education and occupation.

    If you have a different definition, you need to spell it out soon, because it sounds like you’re taking about breeding and elitism more than class.

    By the way, I grew up in public-assisted housing in New York City in the 70s and 80s by seperated, starving-artist parents. So… isn’t for me then, eh?

  12. Noah: You just added several criteria (occupation, social standards, education) beyond money to the definition of class. I agree with that! All I am saying is that it’s not only economics.

    Regarding your background, it sounds almost identical to mine except I was in Philadelphia. And having grown up barely able to afford going out to the movies, I still feel a little out of place at places like Linclon Center where I feel like everyone else in the place has grown up knowing what to do and how to act. I can only imagine how a poor person from a family where nobody has ever graduated from college might feel there.

    But you and I have something in common, and we have our poor-but-bohemian parents to thank: we’ve managed to remove ourselves in large part from the influence of class consciousness. For people like us, we can be poor and still “cultured”. That’s a recent phenomenon in the social fabric, and although it’s increasing, it’s still something that most Americans don’t quite have access to. A lot of people in this “creative class” live almost completely outside of the class structure, and I suspect that it has made many of us less able to understand the class consciousness that others live with.

    I’ll explain that, too, in my next post, which I guess I should finish up ASAP!

  13. Chris, I’m very relieved to hear your Lincoln Center analogy comes from somewhere personal. And good call on the Bohemianism — willing exceptions of the castes of their times. Even as I described this thread and my opinion to my wife, I had to admit that I am somewhat of an exception myself. Spare you the details now, perhaps another time.

    I look forward to part 2.

  14. We had a heated debate on Be A Design Group about class a while back. We framed the issue with less political rhetoric, but the meat of it was the same. I don’t think good design has much to do with political points of view just like I don’t think that design should change depending on a class of people. We need to be especially careful not to assign “good design” or “bad design” to a class. If anything can cross the lines of class, politics, religion, age, sex, etc. it is design. This discussion should be talking about design as a tool to overcome those obstacles, rather than reinforce them.

    As for the other subject of your post about the merits of bad design, I also want to point you to this post where I give some more examples of where the “bad design is good design” subject is getting attention in design circles.

  15. Adrian: If anything can cross the lines of class, politics, religion, age, sex, etc. it is design. This discussion should be talking about design as a tool to overcome those obstacles, rather than reinforce them.

    Very well put, and my heart is totally with you there. I do, however, think that designers subconsciously cater to the class preconceptions they have about their audience, for better or for worse. I have to be clear in the next parts about whether I am describing (a) the way things are or (b) the way things should be & how we can make things better. Descriptive vs. proscriptive. Thanks!

    And the BA discussions are great, too. Thanks for the links.

  16. I think everyone is over thinking MySpace along with most “bad design”. Although it has been mentioned that MySpace was deliberately designed “ugly” so it will appear less corporate and more personal… I highly doubt any of that. The fact is, it was started by those without any sense or care for design. Functionality was the only issue. They most likey hired a programmer, or used one they knew, and asked for features not looks. What “case” would you put most web porgrammers and developers? The moajority of the ones I have come in contact with have no interest and even dispise design. MySpace was not deliberate in any way, it was a complete accident as far as design is concerned.

    One of my biggest complaints is simular to the complaints of others… with 600 billion dollars or whatever you would think that someone would fix that piece of poop. Not just visually but internally.. their code is messier than some of the homemade templates. Although it will most likely never happen until the success rate drops. Why? this goes back to the in spite of it theory… the site is already so messy that fixing it would be impossible without haulting it completely and changing too many rules. This has nothing to do with class in that aspect. It has to do with one huge mistake that has become unreachable.

    All users of all classes will catch on as they do with all trends in out society. That’s why rock-n-roll lived and died and pretends to live, why bell bottom pants are in and out and in, …all trends lose their cool. The main reason MySpace has survived is because it would be too much work to do it again. For the company and it’s audience. Most users would like a cleaner and faster site but they would never want to go into the process of signing up for something new, adding friends, leaving new comments, …etc. With MySpace they are done. When they lose interest, they will leave. Not for better design, not to enter a new class, but simply because it was time to move on.

  17. cpawl: Let’s assume you’re right, that MySpace simply ignored design, and that they did not actually design the site with deliberate ugliness. I’d argue that MySpace’s decision to not redesign, or to not do any real design in the first place, may come in part from a perception that their customers do not want or deserve good design. You can bet that any brand that targets higher-class people wouldn’t have neglected that step, or would have even considered for a second the idea that it was perfectly okay to hire a crappy designer or design firm. Can you imagine, say, Apple building a site that looked like MySpace? That’s the thing about class — when you think of your customers as low-class, you lose any incentive to want to deliver them a high-class product. MySpace thinks of their customers as largely unsophisticated and unappreciative of good design, which maybe isn’t so unreasonable when you consider that most of them are in middle school anyway! :-)

  18. “I’m not sure I get how Japanese cars qualify as high-end design or if their marketing is particularly upscale.”

    I’m not sure how you can say that. Japanese auto makers defined and continue to define the most popular car shapes and design aesthetics sicne the 80s. Their entire appeal is that they are “high end.” in style yet completely affordable.

    Have you put a Toyaota Camry next to a Pontiac? How is the Camry not a high end design aesthetic in comparison?

    The entire American middle and lower classes responded head over tails to Japanese cars, both because were less expensive, high quality *and* promoted a high end design aesthetic.

  19. Andrei: I’ll admit that there was a time when US cars were 20 years behind Japanese cars in terms of style and quality, but (a) those days seem to be over, and (b) both Japanese and American cars are light years less stylish than even the most run-of-the-mill German cars. Today’s Toyotas and Pontiacs are equally bland, if you ask me, and are stylistically indistinguishable (Pontiac, in fact, does have some more stylish cars these days).

    More to the point, though, I can’t imagine any upper-class people driving Japanese cars. Audi, Mercedes, BMW, some VWs… that’s what I think most people see as high-style auto design.

  20. You were the one arguing the class issue, not me. The example I was pointing out is that along with folks like Target, Japanese auto makers very much appeal to a higher design aesthetic, and that people of middle to lower classes have respond to it and continue to respond to it overwhlemingly these days.

    Heck, even Honda Accords are now cars that folks in urban jungle buy just to pimp out.

    Sure, if everyone had more money, they’d all buy high end cars. Until then, regardless if you think the Camry is bland (which is like thinking Helvetica is boring in my book to be honest), it’s still a high end aesthtic when compared against 80% of the American cars in the same price range. Same goes for nearly all the Japanese automakers.

    The point remains: Class has little to with what people respond to aesthetically speaking or with design matters. When given a choice they can afford, the examples of Target and the Japanese automakers prove that people prefer better design.

    The problem is that more often than not, people in lower incomes are not offered well designed choices, which is why I agree with the Paul Rand quote I cite in my article on this topic. I think design and its appeal has nothing to do with class or taste based on class. It has, as Rand stated, everything to do with what people are surrounded by and what they become comfortable with.

  21. Andrei: In my heart, I agree with the idea that “When given a choice they can afford … people prefer better design.” but only if they are also, as you also say, “surrounded by” and “comfortable with” good design. I’m not sure how you’re interpreting the Rand quote, however, because when you write “people in lower incomes are not offered well designed choices” it almost says to me that you are saying that people who are not exposed to or offered good design might be conditioned to (a) think that certain types of bad design is what is appropriate for them and (b) not feel comfortable around design that is typically only offered to people in higher social classes.

    Exposure to and comfort with good design creates a kind of “design literacy”. Think about your own experience: as you personally have thought about and exposed yourself to good and bad design over the years, some things that you used to think were acceptable design are now in your eyes hard to bear. There was probably once a time when you thought the drop shadow tool in Photoshop was cool, or that chrome effects were pretty sweet. What changed in you is that you immersed yourself in good design and your tastes changed as your “fluency” in design language grew. Many people lack any exposure to that kind of immersion, and thus their tastes don’t end up in the same place yours or mine do.

    Mind you, I suspect this works in reverse too: People in higher classes don’t feel comfortable with the styles and designs typical of the lower classes, and in my mind sometimes what comes up from below is better than what is at the top. Still, ultimately wealthier people can afford more design options, and usually better design does indeed simply cost more to make.

    So, to the point that “When given a choice they can afford … people prefer better design.”, I would say that it’s a sort of a Catch-22: people who are exposed to good design will seek it out more and more, people who are not offered good design will feel comfortable with the vernacular they know best. One won’t grow in design literacy unless one is offered good and affordable design. So it’s our job as designers to always push up the ante, perhaps — even if we are designing for a non-design-literate audience we can push the envelope a little and offer a little sophistication where it may not be expected or asked for. After all, everyone ultimately wants to go up the class ladder.

  22. I rather agree with Christopher on this one. Just take a look at Facebook (populated by college students) vs. MySpace. Facebook has a registered user base of about 7.5 million, whereas MySpace has over 100 million accounts.

    The design differences are numerous. I might be biased since I actually use Facebook. But take a look at the screenshots: vs. Just by looking at the photo album feature alone, and the Facebook one is much more aesthetically pleasing.

    Many college students are poor in money, but generally do have more, shall we say, expectations of good design.

  23. “One won’t grow in design literacy unless one is offered good and affordable design.”

    Which has nothing to do with class inherently, and everything to do with the choices one is offered in that class.

    I’m not sure why you are disagreeing with me here, as it sounds like you are saying the same thing as I am, just in a different way. The only issue I disagree with you on is that the issue is *tied* to class instead of the issue being tied to what people are exposed to.

  24. Andrei: I’m not sure I’m disagreeing with you either. Except to say that I think it’s important to point out that class perceptions exist and that they affect how things are designed. Class affects so much of who we are, including what we are exposed to. I think you might think I’m saying that class is the primary factor, which isn’t what I think at all. It might not even be a big one — it’s not the magic key to fully explain why design differences exist, but it’s one of the factors that comes into play and it’s strangely one that most people feel squeamish even talking about.

    As an analogy, think about gender, age, race, or regional differences between people, and how some (not all) products are presented differently to these groups. Does Apple show fat people in their ads? Does WIRED show black people on their covers (no)? Does ESPN show gay people in their ads?

    Of course, these are examples of photography, which is a lot more “loaded” than other design choices like colors, fonts, and textures — but I think they’re all in the same continuum of kinds of design choices. Class is a lot like these other factors that differentiate people’s tastes, and we ignore it or disregard it at our peril.

  25. It’s interesting to recall that, when the NY Times ran an op/ed comparison of the Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards campaign logos, the Bush/Cheney won hands down. I can’t remember who did the critique, but it was a design critique, focused on contrast, alignment, color, etc.

  26. […] OK, that was fun. Incidentally, I found a really fascinating article on class and internet design on, what looks like a hopelessly intellectual design blog that I just subscribed to. Part three directly addresses class issues inherent in infomercial marketing, and if you’re at all interested in sociology or class issues like me, go read it, cuz it’s neat. ~~ | Subscribe via RSS or email […]