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.
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?