Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Hungry? Want another bullshit sandwich?

January 26, 2006

There has been too much nonsense spouted about the effectiveness of certain successful companies’ websites and it’s time to correct it. Those who say that poorly designed websites are partly responsible for some companies’ success are feeding you a load of crap. And too many of you are eating it up.

Update: Since this article was written, some of the sites referenced here have been redesigned to one degree or another. Even so, the ideas I originally expressed here, I believe, remain valid.

Stop it. Bad design harms business, it does not help it. Websites like Boingboing, Google and eBay are successful in spite of their poorly designed sites, not because of them. What kills me is that I continue to see designers, some of them professionals, buying into this drivel and helping to perpetuate it. This whole business of contemplating the elusive wisdom of bad design and ugly layout is amateur hour on parade. It’s time to call bullshit.

Commercial success plus bad design does NOT equal good design. The reason Google is the premier search tool is because it works. It is the most comprehensive and best-respected search tool for most Web users. It’s well managed, a business leader rather than follower and it has been around for quite a while. Google is a mover and shaker, constantly finding and providing tools, solutions and applications for everyday people to use online. The Google brand has gravity, respect and delivers tangible results every minute of the day. THAT’S why Google is the search engine of choice.

The fact that Google’s website is unremarkable and poorly laid out is ancillary to these facts, mostly because the main interface is very simple. Poorly designed “simple” is far easier to swallow than poorly designed “complex.” It works okay in spite of the bad layout and un–design.The fact is Google got it right where so many fail. They built their reputation on substance rather than on style. They’re not important because of their style, but because of execution. They don’t have to look important because they simply are important.

This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck.

Most companies put the cart before the horse and try to build their success on how cool their company culture is or how awesomely awesome their logo is. Google’s logo pretty much sucks. So what? They can buy and sell any company that has a cool logo any day of the week; not because of their awful main interface layout, but in spite of it.

All of these companies that have suckass website designs and layouts but are successful anyway did the same thing. eBay was best at what it does before anyone else was that good. They’ve locked up the category with execution first, not style. Boingboing is one of the best-known and most popular weblogs because everybody loves to go there to hate on the Bush administration. The design sucks, but the content and advertising always bashes the readers’ #1 enemy. Substance, not style.

This is commercial success we’re talking about, boys and girls. In commerce, if your product sucks, you suck. It won’t matter how awesome your website looks, you will fail if your product is not up to snuff. By the same token, you are allowed to look like a dog if your product is the cat’s meow. Think about it; the successful businessperson will always have a hot date to the dinner party. We’re talking about human behavior here, folks.

But let's not be too smart by half. Craigslist, for instance, is a clear winner with an un-design, but it's not an example of bad design. The site content is nothing but relevant text links, and rightly so! The “design” it uses is well-suited to the type of content, so it is quite effective. This site is not like eBay or Google, as it succeeds because of the design rather than spite of it. Google and eBay have layout components and content that were clearly added as afterthoughts, ruining any true layout or design. Not so with Craigslist, the layout is solid and design appropriate. Design is a solution to a problem, not a decoration or embellishment.

So we should stop swallowing tripe for cream. As designers, it’s time for some of us to see that the emperor has no clothes and to use our insight, understanding and training to define what we agree with rather than mindlessly going along with idiots in the crowd. We have a responsibility to avoid pseudoscience and pseudointellectualism as it relates to what we produce for our clients and what we share with our fellow designers. If we’ve not got a sufficient grasp of things to see through this sort of drivel, perhaps we should go back to school or find another line of work.

Bottom line is designers need a foundation to ward off ridiculous ideas like “bad design creates success.” We shouldn’t relegate ourselves to simply sailing whichever way the wind is blowing this week. When the wind smells bad, it’s time to get upwind of the bullshit.

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