Can ugly design be good?

Can ugly design be good?

We've all seen signs, walked past packaging or watched an ad and wondered: Who kind of designed it? Shouldn't design be beautiful? The short answer is no. The long answer is below.

What is beauty?

When a child draws a picture in kindergarten, technology, color selection and perspective are irrelevant. What matters is that the child used all his ability to create something that was conceived. The reason behind the drawing's order makes it beautiful. 

Beauty is subjective. It is hidden behind the meaning we put into it, habits and expectations, cultural behaviour and menstrual spirit. What was once beautiful is now ugly. What was once ugly has become a trend. Beauty is fleeting, subjective and temporary. 

Although design is subject to the same fleeting policies, menstrual spirit and beauty, design is intended to be different. Design follows other rules and objectives, and we should judge it based on other criteria. 

Design is often beautiful. No designer enjoys the long-term creation of ugly things. But beauty is a side effect or, at best, a foundation. 

Design is about communication. It's about the designer trying to communicate information to the user in the most influential way. Design consequently should not be judged based on her beauty but how she fulfils her role as a means of communication.

Product packaging is a good example. Beautiful packaging is plain and simple. They serve the brand and the user wants to watch them. For expensive products this is a good design, packaging around mobile devices should primarily be beautiful. The message they send is: It was a good decision to buy this phone, look how cool the box is.

But we buy more than a phone. When we design packaging for energy drinks, however, the goals change somewhat. Then the design needs to be prominent amid other similar products. Plain and beautiful design disappears while the screaming and clear design succeeds. The design doesn't have to be ugly or beautiful, it just needs to work, that's all that matters. If an ugly design sells more energy drinks than a beautiful design, then the ugly one is better.

But what about ugly signs? 

Labels should generally not be judged based on their appearance. Labels should primarily be judged based on the bigger direction of the brand. Does the signal serve the brand and return its values? If so, the logo is good regardless of its aesthetic value. 

Signals take on the value of the brand it serves. If the brand is about providing good and professional services, the label will take on that meaning and become even more beautiful as a result. A logo will be beautiful with good strategy and management if it achieves its goal. 

Are there ugly signs? Yes, of course, but the thing is, that's the wrong question.

Good or bad

When it comes to design, we need to stop wallowing in aesthetics. We should stop asking if the design is beautiful or ugly and ask instead if the design is good or bad.

It doesn't matter how cool the implementation is or how the reaction design gets on Dribble from other designers. What matters is whether the design is likely to achieve its goals. 

Good design is a communication channel that creates success for the brand. If design works, it's good, otherwise it's not. Beauty doesn't matter much in that context.

Do you want a design that succeeds?


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