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.