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.
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 couldnâ€™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:
- What is good for the overall quality of design in the world
- 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 â€œWe 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.
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.
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.