Home    All Articles    About    carlos@bueno.org    RSS

Why Popular Sites Are "Ugly"

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

I spent three days of my life designing one phone book ad. This living piece of commercial art went from bland to conventionally hideous with the gentle guidance from my boss, a big fan of the KISS principle, and a predictable oscillation pattern from the first "S" to the latter, and back. A tribute to all uncomplex spread frequencies of boss-distribution in every boss-spectrum: starting from classic golden ratio composition, and watching it gain commercial virility with having to give up things dear to my heart, like good proportions & readable fonts, I realized something. The conduction velocity of commercial ideas is not a function of any kind of aethetics. It does not rely on a conscious or subconscious analysis of its harmonious, cute, fun, silly, entertaining, discordant or pretentious qualities. The judgement is not of taste, but of the after-taste of the most compelling mechanism instilled in us by nature yet: the algorithms of cheater-detection.

A successful boar hunt in prehistoric society meant feast. A gala if you must, a jubilee somewhat tainted by the uncertainty of the next date of another such merry-making. Getting food was hard. And if I noticed my brother Hairy Foot slacking off during the chase itself, or the daunting task of dragging the tasty carcass home... Well, the crook better keep his hands off my grisle. Or else.

It seems that what most appeals to the masses at anytime are warning messages, pointing at how and by whom they are/might be being swindled. I disagree with the literati in that the popularity of Shakespear lies in his masterful use of language to portray ubiquitous struggles of the human soul, and see his plays as moral-less stories of recognizable characters being continually screwed over.

Design covers all. The principles of imagery extend beyond the usual enterprise creative meetings about "relaxing" or "energetic" color schemes. It is the fastest language of communication, its units being worth multiple batches of 1000's of words, most of them being not very nice ones :) Bad design is an expensive industry. Its charm is its disarming brutality, perceived as lacking the corrupt casuistry of NLP, the dirty tricks of propaganda; or some other proselytic scapegoat à la mode.
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.