Class and Web Design, Part 4: The Vicious Circle of Desire

Published on Author Christopher Fahey
fleamarket.jpg

(This is Part 4. Please check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 3a)

Earlier, I talked about the markers of class that surround us every day. A person’s cultural immersion in a narrow range of class markers can create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious circle of desire: Poor people can’t afford expensive products, so manufacturers skimp on design, resulting on lower-quality and perhaps uglier products, conditioning the lower classes to accept bad design as normal even to the point of considering the markers of ugly design as appropriate and desirable to them.

Victor Lombardi reminds us that eBay is a kind of online flea market, so he asks: isn’t it appropriate that the design of eBay’s web site would have a similar vibe, and a similar level of design sophistication, of a roadside flea market?

In other words, if the bargain-basement is your intended milieu, it’s almost impossible, and quite possibly bad business, to attempt to escape it with a boutique design sensibility.

At designbyfire, Andrei’s article about ugly web design opens with an appropos quote from the great Paul Rand:

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.

I would say that this goes beyond design. The public is also conditioned to prefer bland and unhealthy food, sloppy clothes, simplistic politics, and crash-prone operating systems. Rand is simply saying that this is the result of the aforementioned vicious circle, that living among bad design makes people comfortable with it — and by extension, uncomfortable with good design.

Andrei puts it nicely:

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.

Andrei thinks, however, that this does not mean we should simply go with the flow and give em what they are used to:

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.

As much as I agree, Andrei is, I think, conflating two questions here:

  1. What is good for the overall quality of design in the world
  2. What is best for a particular design problem

Yes, every time a designer puts a drop shadow under an Olde English headline because the demanding client insists that “it makes us look classy”, it hurts the level of design overall. But it may actually be the best design choice for that client. Again, is it in the interest of a client’s business to (in Rand’s words) present them with “threatening” design in order to condition them to understand and appreciate good design?

That’s where this whole subject comes to a spectacular collision: when bad design is what the audience wants, should we simply give them what they want, or push them to something better? Along the same lines, Emigre’s Zuzana Licko famously wrote “We read best what we read most,” suggesting that design itself is a language, and by extension if we speak in the wrong language we risk miscommunication.

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Target’s hipster teapot (by Michael Graves) — bringing high design to the lower classes

I am not convinced that really good design is better than bad design for people who are accustomed to bad design. I’m also not convinced that bad design is bad for people who are accustomed to bad design. But I do think that there’s no excuse for a good designer to deliberately design badly. The middle ground — to design in such a way that you uplift and educate your audience with design without speaking an unintelligible design language — is to many designers a comfortable place to be. The folks at Target live there, offering sophisticated design to an audience traditionally unaccustomed to it.

I’ll admit I have some admiration this approach. For example, I think it’s culturally inexcusable for the movie industry to make schlocky films because the masses may seem to want them. Yes, from a business standpoint, it’s hard to argue with the box office. But as a creative person who takes pride in my work, I don’t think I could personally bring myself to practice bad design deliberately, nor would I want to encourage others to do so.

It reminds me of something Joshua Davis said once in a moment of dispute with the likes of Jakob Neilsen: It’s sometimes the designer’s job to make the user think, to give them design that challenges them. This is often true, of course, but it’s often not true, too. It’s confusing, I know.

Appropriateness

It comes down to knowing who your audience is, including among many other factors their socioeconomic class, and taking that knowledge into account when you design.

Ultimately, however, much of this discussion relies on value judgements I just can’t make. I can’t, for example, bring myself to say that Comic Sans is inherently bad, and that people who like it are wrong to like it. Is it even a good thing for the world if all the different styles and sorts of design practiced in the field were to converge on one narrow set of design styles, such as the high-end, high-class design that I might like? I may dislike a certain design language, but if millions of others like it, well, who am I to say that they’re wrong?

Perhaps the worst critique we can give to a design, then, is that it’s inappropriate for its target audience.

Next: Class and Web Design, Part 5: The Politics of Class

13 Responses to Class and Web Design, Part 4: The Vicious Circle of Desire

  1. Heh, now that you mention it I agree completely. Why in the world designers keep saying Michael Graves is such a good designer, I have no idea.

    In fact, I wonder two things:

    1) Target is constantly held up as an example of successful mass marketing of good design, but really, is any of their “good design” any good?
    2) Does Target’s “good design” actually make them any kind of good money, or does their massive inventory of regular old lowbrow-designed products pay the bulk of their bills just like they do at Kmart and Wal-Mart?

    I do wonder if Target’s “good design” public perception isn’t just a PR campaign designed to burnish the brand image of the company among the investor set (who don’t shop there anyway). I mean, yeah, that teapot is hideous, isn’t it.

  2. Target’s use of “good” design (or at least good designers) is intended to market along class issues (just as you’ve been discussing). Someone who would never in the wildest nightmares wear Jaclyn Smith’s ‘casual elegance’ at Kmart *might consider* Mizrahi’s ‘affordable couture’ from Targét.

  3. You are dead right on Target. I went to the one at Atlantic Center when it opened with very high hopes of finding well designed but affordable stuff and only found things like that tea-kettle.

    I can totally understand how that might be someone’s idea of “designed” but it certainly ain’t Dreyfuss’. Target’s competetors are Wal-Mart and Kmart and that’s clear once you step into one, although once you step out that image clings to you and somehow you feel you did better than usual. It’s such an anomaly.

    Really, I think the only store that gets closest to the ideal we’re thinking of is IKEA, god bless them Swedes.

    P.S. Not to beat ugly into the ground, but I did want to share this vlog entry, since the tea-kettle immediately reminded me of it:
    http://www.joshleo.com/vlog/2006/09/08/the-new-gaslight-village/

  4. twhid: Yes, even though Target’s “high design” as exemplified by the teapot may seem a little tacky to me, it may still speak to the class ambitions of the lower classes.

    Noah: Ikea is a far better example, yes! As a resident of Red Hook, however, where a Ikea is about to make a crash landing, I’m not gonna go so far as to bless them. That vlog is pretty funny, too, although I found the big tulipy thing appealing in the close up views.

  5. I think you have to separate design from style. The masses are used to a particular style that designers label as bad. Good design, however, is not style. Good design is presenting information clearly and effectively. If you can do that with cheesy graphics, garish colors and a dropshadowed script font, then it may be an ugly style, but it’s still good design.

  6. J: Separating design from style is like separating color from art, or separating melody from music. Design isn’t the same as usability or communication — design encompasses them, and it includes style, too. Fashion design, for example, is almost entirely about style. Teapot design, too, is all about style (75% of all teapots are identical when you strip away the decorative elements, really). When you choose Futura over Helvetica, it’s hard to argue that anything is at play besides style.

    There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with style, nothing at all. It’s part of what makes life worth living, and designers should savor the fact that style is part of their job description.

    I take your point, however, that the more narrow term “style” (or, as others have said, “taste”) more closely aligns with class than the broader term “design”. I mostly agree with that, but there are aspects of design outside of style that are influenced by class, too: Matt Dente’s points in the comments of Part 3a about how even interaction design styles might map to class shows that it does, in fact, go beyond style.

  7. When I see inner-city men and teens dressed in hideous jogging suits that they think are stylish, I despise them.

  8. foo: When these “inner city men” you speak of (really, that’s such a pathetic euphemism — why didn’t you just say “black men”?) see you dressed in your khaki pants and polo shirts (or whatever you wear) that you think are stylish, I wonder if they despise you, too. Probably not.

    Chances are some aspect of your personal style — the fit of your pants, your baseball hat, your sneakers — was a style choice that a prejudiced man of your parents’ generation would have despised, too. Clothing style moves up (sneakers) and down (Tommy Hilfiger) the class ladder quite easily (and across racial divides, too). Unless you go around wearing a tweed suit, tight slacks, wingtips, and a fedora, you probably dress in a style that in good part originated among black people. And dude it’s just plain stupid to “despise” people for what they wear.

  9. ok so here it is ….my confession , I must cruz target at least two to four times a month just to see whats new on the shelfs , dont buy much beyond razors and tp but what i’m impressed with is that they are slowly but shurly introducing style , perhaps not design , but this is the first step towards changing an asthietic in middle america that has otherwise not been challenged since the 80’s

  10. Great series. I think that a theme lost somewhere in the course of these posts is that America has particular manifestations with regard to class. As you mentioned earlier, Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of class itself and with talking about it. American mythology is deeply rooted in the idea that anyone can move fluidly up the class structure with hard work and good ideas. Because of this, Americans have a history of rejecting the manifestations of the ruling classes, i.e. the Boston Tea Party.

    Things become interesting with regards to design because taste and the classiness thereof is something that is both ridiculed and aspired to by a wide swath of Americans — witness the Paris Hilton phenomenon with a dash of Britney. That said, our cultural hysteria with regards to class/design seems to be just that: cultural. Poor French chaps, it seems, have less of a problem with dressing nattily than we do, and the Japanese can be said to have a cultural obsession with design however garish some of their exports seem to our eyes.