Can good design be ugly?

Drudge Report

In a recent article on 37signals, a writer asked the question, “Can good design also be ugly?”

He’s referring to the Drudge Report, a news site that is loved (and hated) by millions. It’s one of the most popular and successful Web sites in the world. And it’s profoundly ugly.

The writer’s conclusion is that, yes, good design can be ugly. And I heartily agree.

He says that the ” … definition of design goes beyond aesthetic qualities and into areas of maintenance, cost, profitability, speed, and purpose.” Or, in architectural terms, we might say, “form follows function.”

He’s writing from the perspective of Web design, but his take on what makes for good design applies to anything, most especially to direct response advertising.

Here are a few of his arguments about why Drudge is “beautiful.”

It’s classic – It’s generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge.

It’s straightforward – There are no tricks, no sections, no deep linking, no special technology required. It’s all right there on one page.

It’s unique – When you’re on the Drudge Report you’re on the Drudge Report. There’s no question where you are. The design has become iconic.

It’s bold – Drudge says “this is the story of the moment” with a huge headline. This is what’s important in the news right now and nothing else even comes close. It’s bold, it’s risky, and it’s pure Drudge design.

It’s good cluttered – Stories aren’t grouped or organized except probably more interesting ones up top. And that’s it. Your eye darts all over the place looking around for something that looks interesting. The design encourages wandering and random discovery. The site feels like a chaotic newsroom with the cutting room floor exposed.

It’s fast – When you visit The Drudge Report, you get the Drudge report. There are no interstitial ads. There’s no load time. There’s no buffering. There’s nothing but instant content.

It’s one page – Every visit and every visitor is focused on that one page with a headline and three columns. He knows exactly what people are going to see, he knows exactly how people are going to see it.

It makes him a great living – Based on published ad rates and traffic numbers, it’s estimated that Matt Drudge makes “over a million a year.” Not bad for a single black and white page on the internet.

It’s not hard to see how this applies to ad design. Good direct mail or advertising design follows many of the same principles. Specifically, good design means doing what’s necessary to get the job done. No more, no less. Good designers are those who aren’t afraid to create something ugly if that’s what the project calls for.

And there you have what is the single biggest hurdle for designers working on direct marketing projects. Their training and instincts often drive them to create something “beautiful” when that’s not what’s needed.

When I added design to my skill set years ago, I had a big advantage. I didn’t know anything about design and had no formal training. My entire focus was on communicating a selling message. So ugly was fine with me. And it works, because response rates for those projects where I handle design tend to be higher. If I need pretty, I call in one of my other designers.

Not all Web sites should aim for the ugly Drudge look. Likewise, not all ads should be ugly. But sometimes that’s what works. And when it does, that too is a beautiful thing.

What do you think? Can ugly be beautiful? Have you ever had an ad fail because it was too pretty … or for that matter, too ugly? I’m interested in your experience or thoughts.

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6 Responses to “Can good design be ugly?”

  1. vanderleun on December 30th, 2008 11:03 pm

    Key for me in that list is “one page.”

    More and more I’m coming to see that anything below about a scroll and a half is wasted.

    In general, probably because of sites like Drudge, the browser won’t scroll much but will click.

    Why? It’s easier. And easier wins.

  2. Ted Grigg on January 1st, 2009 6:45 pm

    You can sure pick them. This site looks terrible. But the copy is good. It’s nothing but a link list consisting of headlines with a few pictures interspersed to give the eye a rest.

    But to your point, it seems like ugly almost always wins in DM.

    Maybe its the power of content over appearance. Or copy over design.

    But back to the Drudge Report, all of the underlining makes it hard to read for me. It’s overkill. It discourages scanning because most people aren’t use to reading with that much underlinEd copy.

    Of course, it may be unavoidable if every sentence is linked. The Internet protocol for linked text requires underlining.

    So one has to ask. Could the site perform better with a modified layout? One wonders if they got there through testing. Or is it even worth testing such a big winner?

    Entrepreneurs like Drudge find a way to break the norms. And the end result is not always pretty. But people buy for reasons that transcend beauty or immediately recognizable logic.

  3. Dean Rieck on January 1st, 2009 7:03 pm

    vanderleun: Yes. Generally simple wins. Drudge is a good example of that.

    Ted: Drudge may be an example of function over form. If you’re into news or politics, Drudge always delivers something interesting. Frankly, I think its ugliness is part of the appeal. Nothing else looks like this.

  4. Cynthia Maniglia on January 5th, 2009 5:13 pm

    I feel like Bill Clinton …

    “Depends what you mean by the word ‘good.’”

  5. Dean Rieck on January 5th, 2009 5:19 pm

    Cynthia: LOL I’m so sorry you feel like Clinton. I hope you’ll feel better soon.

    Good means effective. Doing the job it’s supposed to do. It does not necessarily mean “attractive.” Advertising is about selling, not art.

    Good point, though. Because there is a big disconnect on this point sometimes.

  6. Mike on October 30th, 2009 12:43 am

    The Drudge Report must be one of the greatest sites ever created… I’ve checked it daily for years, not becasue of its aesthetics, but because it rarely disappoints. When I check Drudge, I can be reasonably assured that I’ve seen the most important news of the day without having to visit multiple sites. I also use for daily political news even though it actually looks worse than Drudge.

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