I wrote a post a few months ago about how homogeneous design patterns are a sign of maturity but I want to flip that argument by highlighting how persuasive and effective intentionally ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ design can be.


What does ‘good design’ really mean?

Good design to most people can be boiled down to something useful that solves an existing problem while also familiar and easy to understand. Admittedly, it can be a bit of a hive-mind concept propagated by the leaders of the design community, albeit necessary to maintain structure in the design world. The idea of what is actually ‘good’ can be difficult to pinpoint as the sum of a person’s experiences influences their opinion on what is good and what is bad.

But sometimes good design is abandoned in favour of intentionally bad ideas and new concepts are created that resonate better with people.

A bad website is like a grumpy salesperson.
— Jakob Nielsen


Ugly design is anti-establishment

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, I read some very, very good articles criticizing his overall design aesthetic. Trump was making designers’ blood boil with awful choices in typography and amateur graphic design execution. Some designers realised early on that his visual communication was another strategic aspect of the underdog persona he created in his bid for president. And it worked! Trump built an image of a straight-talking rebel who would use his business savvy to ‘drain the swamp’. His style of visual communication was as unconventional as his candidacy.

Clean design can sometimes feel cold, authoritatian, aristocratic, bureaucratic…etc. Trump used uninspiring colour palettes and lacklustre typography to appear relatable to the average citizen who wouldn’t think twice about graphic design.


Ugly design is trustworthy

In the same way ugly design goes against the grain, it’s also a powerful technique to build trust with users. Keeping with political examples, The Drudge Report website use design patterns fresh out of the early internet days to help spread their conservative agenda. The black and white, table-based layout is a cacophony of curated articles. It uses bad design patterns to force users to focus on the ‘merit’ of the content in stark contrast with overly-designed mainstream media websites. The Drudge Report website design does a brilliant job of positioning itself as the antithesis of the status quo.


Ugly design is frugal

If you’re like me, you walk past dollar / junk stores and cringe at the branding. The less-than-subtle colour palette and WordArt type makes you want to throw a brick through the window. Everything about these brands reek of cheapness, from the logo to the painfully generic name.

I was talking to another designer recently who pointed out these design decisions from cheap stores are intentional. It’s true, these businesses understand their customers and the kind of discount products they want and cater the shopping experience for them. These stores are usually messy, cluttered like a hoarder’s house and full of big, loud messages. Customers shop at these stores aware of the lower quality but looking for something cheap and nasty. And ugly design helps them know they can find a bargain.


Ugly design is nostalgic

I grew up with dial-up internet. I reminisce with friends about Geocities, Newgrounds, Alta Vista, MySpace, /mu/, Yahoo Chat and the list goes on. As sad as it sounds, I get a warm feeling whenever I see screenshots of these sites from back in the day.

Most millenials feel deeply nostalgic for the pre-social media internet and you can find massive online communities that celebrate this era, paying tribute with music, art and culture.

We admire the comparatively primitive design from the past because it reminds us of good times we had. The feelings associated with a design will always trump how technically ‘good’ the execution is.