22 March 2007
It seems as though popular websites, books, songs, movies, etc offend a lot of principles of quality and taste. What's more, it seems to be by design. It is. The funny thing is that this is exactly as it should be. It can't be any other way.
The reason is that people are more different than you usually like to think. The form of a message has to be tuned to the intended effect, to the semantic receptors of the audience. When your audience is large and the common thread between them so thin, the form of a successful message becomes self-parody, an appeal to the basest desires. Nothing escapes this rule. Just look at the highest of highbrow-but-popular stuff (say, Shakespeare or Cervantes) and count the profound ideas shoved next to diarrhea jokes.
I spent a few years designing ads for the phone book and direct mail. It's a no-nonesense business. Personal aesthetic takes a backseat to performance. In a way it's great: you have a single test of effectiveness (i.e., the phone rings or does not ring), reinforced by fast iteration and feedback. Direct Marketing is a real-world example of design by genetic algorithm.
This kind of design does not always produce ugly results. It seems that way because, by definition, you see more wide-audience-targeted material than other kinds. Yachting and Spa ads are pretty posh but odds are good you're not on the list.
Nor is popularity a good measure of quality. The books Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn
have the same characters, same kinds of silly scenes, pirates, farce. Yet Sawyer
is a kid's book while Finn
is a masterpiece. The difference is the stuff Mark Twain wove in between the crowd-pleasers.
I sympathize with esthetes. I am am one. But if you are trying to make a popular website, remember that you are a commercial artist. Commercial art is the most demanding because of its constraints: the worst being that you do not have final say. The audience does. Would Monty Python be as popular as it is without the flying sheep or the road-testing they did on each sketch?
Also: An essay on Whitespace
by Mark Boulton