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Why Does “Ugly Design” Sometimes Work Better?

Designers like to make beautiful things. Whether it’s posters, logos, websites, or apps, designers want to make things they’re proud of. Beautiful design lets a designer brag to their peers, “Hey! I did that!” Also, consumers like to buy pretty products, so it’s great when things are pretty. But is there a time in which an “ugly” design might be the better deliberate choice?

There’s a lot of ugly out there. Not all websites are beautiful; not every mobile application is gorgeous. Look at the the shelves of your grocery store. Not every product’s packaging is amazing. By default, we might assume that the creative director for those brands didn’t know what they were doing. It’s almost as if the designer doesn’t have a clue as to what works well in the real world. Maybe the company heads couldn’t tell good design from bad or maybe they didn’t have the budget for good designers?

In some examples of “ugly” design, that might very well be the case. It’s not always true though. Why? Frankly, sometimes an ugly product just sells extremely well. For example, a garish, inelegant (ugly) website might have more traffic, better sales, and more lead conversions than a beautiful competitor. What gives?

It’s because design is about communication.

At its core, design is about communicating a specific idea to a specific audience. Sometimes, design deemed ugly by an audience, is actually what works better. Here’s an example…

A Case Study About Case Studies

Years ago, we had cool, little banners on our Rocksauce website that showcased our case studies of work. When you moused over the banner, there were some minor animation and color changes. We thought they were pretty cool. We also felt like they clearly indicated to the user that their job was to click on the case studies.

When I looked at what was happening with our traction, people weren’t going to those pages. I had no idea why! We reviewed screen recordings and discovered something interesting. While people were interacting with the mouse-over (sometimes obsessively mousing over just to wiggle the animation back and forth), they simply weren’t going in any deeper.

Frustrated (and motivated in part out of spite), I took a “well, I’ll show you!” approach to what happened next. I changed the more elegant banner to a large, inelegant “CLICK HERE” button. “Let’s see what happens now,” I thought as I tossed out the old design in favor of ugly.

What happened was a 75% increase in traffic on our case studies pages.

What Are You Communicating?

The user knew they could interact with that spot on the page, but they didn’t know why they should. I was failing them as a designer. My job was to communicate that they should go further and deeper, and I didn’t do that. Instead, I gave them something “fun” to interact with.

Being a designer for as long as I have, I’ve seen artists come up with really slick design concepts – the smallest fonts on the most negative space with navigation dictated by obtuse numbers or icons instead of language. They’ll post that work to their fellow designers on Dribbble or Behance and get a lot of thumbs up. They’re getting that “hey, good job” affirmation from fellow designers.

When those designs are rolled out to users, they don’t get any traction. Why is that the case? They’re not communicating effectively what the user needs to do. Users burn too much brain power trying to figure out what the hell is even going on with the design. Few users want to mouseover a menu multiple times just to remember where the “Contact Us” page is. Just revealing “Contact Us” in an obvious way is easier for the user and produces the desired results. It may not be slick, fun, or sexy, but it works.

A Tale of Two Sunblocks

A perfect example of this can be seen on the shelves of your favorite “big box” retailers, like Wal-Mart or Target. Go to the sunblock aisle. There are a lot of different products, but there’s probably something in a fancier, dark box with silver letter-pressed font calling itself “B L O Q” or something clever like that. It’ll look really sexy compared to the rest, and pricier than the norm, even if it’s not entirely clear what the product actually does.

Sitting right beside it is a garish plastic orange bottle with a squirt top and a logo that practically yells a brand name that states plainly what it does (something like “No Burnz!”). If you looked at sunblock sales figures, the brands like No Burnz are the sales leaders over the boutique, uniquely-designed competition. The “ugly” products communicate exactly to the user what they do, how they’re used, and what the benefits are. They’re looking for execution, not sophistication.

As is the theme in many of my videos, you have to know your box. Know your audience, and when you design, makes sure it works for that user. Never obfuscate a message just because it looks cool. Sometime saying “Call Now!” is the right thing to do (even when it feels “ugly”).

And speaking of “Call Now!,” Give Rocksauce Studios a call at 866-981-6847 or send us an email at We help our customers design and launch solutions that people will actually use.