The Best Design? Ugly Design…

December 22nd, 2006 | Categories: marketing, off topic, strategy, trends

What design elements do I hate most on websites? Flash intros, heavy graphics, scrolling text, tiled backgrounds, centered alignment, and the list goes on. Nowadays, so many websites ‘overdo’ the experience and clutter the page in an attempt to captivate the user. In many cases, this approach is counter-productive. The user suffers from a bad experience, exits the site, and never returns. Time to rethink the strategy.

A new form of design, ugly design, is becoming a mainstream technique. What is ugly design? It’s a website that isn’t overly attractive or appealing to the eye, but serves a very useful purpose and is easy to navigate.

The following is a list of companies that are considered to use ‘ugly design’:

  • Craigslist
  • Wikipedia
  • Google
  • PlentyOfFish
  • MySpace

Sites that make use of ugly design are also usually quick-to-load, uncluttered, low on fancy fonts and colours, and optimized for search engine crawling. The URL structure tends to be simple in many cases as well.

I think that this tactic in itself can be considered a marketing strategy, as well as a competitive advantage - although I’m sure many would disagree with me.

Back in the late 80’s, Tim Berners-Lee’s had a vision. It was called the semantic web - a landscape full of links. This vision came to be known as the World Wide Web. However, at some point between then and now, the web became disorderly with graphics and cluttered design.

But now we’re seeing a resurgence of the old. Ugly design is what the web was meant to be. I guess that’s why it’s so useful and  effective. It just makes sense… and works.


  1. Ankit Says:

    Interesting concept! But I disagree with few points.

    All the designs you have mentioned above including Myspace, Craigslist, etc no doubt are not good looking by any means but they are very useful in serving a purpose to their audience.

    You don`t need to have an ugly design to be useful. Netvibes, BBC, Digg, NYTimes, Facebook, Newsvine all have beautiful designs and yet are very useful.

    Adding unnecessary flash object, flashy fonts, crayon colors or ajax widgets neither add to the beauty of the design nor the usability of it. You can easily incorporate things like seo-friendly pages, quick-to-load, uncluttered elements to the design of the page and yet make it beautiful.

    P.S.: Myspace is one of the sites which neither has good design, usability or seo friendly pages. It has uncluttered elements, crap content, is very slow to load and to increase its pageviews it is devoid of any Ajax elements.

  2. Aidan Says:

    Hey Ankit,

    Some good points there… I definitely think beautiful design and usefulness can collide, although it is somewhat rare. A nice list of examples, however, with Digg and Facebook among them.

    I just wanted to outline some of the ‘ugly designs’ in particular that have gained traction and exposure :)


  3. Owen Says:

    The common thing with the sites you have given is that they are all *reduced* to their core offering. The problem with many applications and sites out there is you have a number of groups of people all wanting to add their part to it. Marketing wants some widget or capture thing, programmers want the latest technical gadget, the boss’ cousin wants his picture on the startup screen…..

    Your examples are good, and there are lots of other ones out there that reduce the website/application/… down to the core offering.

  4. Stefani Says:

    Well apparently you don’t have to have a “beautiful design” to make a site successful. If the topic and usefullness of it is popular, its not necessary. However, usability is very important to most people that have any knowledge of the Net, so yea, it would be nice to see these sites updated. Will it stop others from using or viewing these sites?? (ie Myspace, Craigslist) Probably not. :)

  5. Labnotes » The design movement that never happened Says:

    […] ugly is successful. Or at least that’s the impression you got from reading Robert Scoble, Aidan Henry, Joshua Porter, and many others. For a while there in 2006, I really thought we’re […]

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