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Beauty in the Beast: The Paradox of Ugly, Successful Websites

Posted on 4.06.2009

: By Craig Stout :

Powerful brands grow out of breakthrough ideas, sticking to a singular vision to achieve great success. And sometimes these brands excel despite a naïve design aesthetic. The authentic promise of a brand whose product is so good it doesn’t need design has been around for decades in the world of consumer goods. In many ways, the dismissal of design lends itself to the legitimacy of the product.

Prominent Web brands like Google, eBay, craigslist, and Wikipedia sidestep the expected visual vernacular of the marketplace, or ignore it all together. They defy current branding convention by focusing on function rather than emotions. Their leaders come from technical backgrounds where engineering and information technology are everything, while brand, marketing, and design are afterthoughts. And yet, in the world of business, their brands succeed.

Other online services go so far as stripping away all the traditional trappings of a brand — logos, messaging, color and imagery — to pure text and content. Instead, their beauty comes through in simple, clear access to information.

So why does it work, and what can we learn?

From Product to Phenomenon
The perception of a good product usually relies on good design. But when your product is great, users readily forgive poor design.

Google, one of the best Internet products today, is a good example.

The classic version of Google’s home search page has maintained its Spartan aesthetic which, since its inception, has reinforced Google’s “geek” quality. Backed by phenomenal product performance, the geek, academic image has helped build Google’s reputation for comprehensive and fair search results.

Overall, Google rarely seems to be consumed with design. Google News is simply two columns of headlines, article briefs and traditional blue hyperlinks.

Google Reader, as with any RSS feed, takes content from other sites, strips away branding and design, and delivers readers nothing but the customized content to which they have subscribed. But both content delivery systems are effective because of the product — quick delivery of easy-to-consume, relevant and timely information.

Google does have one key design element, however. And although it’s a point of engagement with user, an artist without a graphic design background designed the Google logo. Dennis Hwang, Google’s webmaster in 2000 and untrained artist, began designing festive logos for holidays as requested by Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Would any other well managed brand, like Nike, Apple, GE or Coca-Cola ask their webmaster with a knack for doodling to redesign its corporate logo for special occasions? It’s extremely unlikely.

This is just one way Google has changed the rules of branding on the Internet. It had the vision to follow its original plan and, to this day, offers an Internet experience not cluttered with thousands of links and sales offers, as seen on AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, Ask.com and other search options. It has been able to turn its geek look into a credible differentiator in the marketplace — and it works so well because it’s backed by stellar product performance.

Experience is everything
Ensuring a successful user experience at every touchpoint is key to any brand’s success. And despite being a visual eyesore, craigslist delivers a beautiful experience.

Everyone remembers their first craigslist moment — a lease was signed, a job landed, or someone’s junk becomes a coveted treasure. All because of a 21st Century bulletin board with the power to aggregate almost anything you desire from your local community and beyond. And it all happens through a bare-bones website managed by a handful of people who simply don’t seem to be concerned with making the site interface attractive.

The beauty of craigslist is in the experience. Conceived by founder Craig Newmark, the site’s objective is to facilitate transactions among users — and that’s all. Newmark has been said to have little interest in maximizing profit, instead preferring to help users simply find what they want and need.

As such, craigslist has emerged as a powerful anti-brand. No fancy logos, marketing budgets or ad campaigns were needed to build the brand into what it is today — an established presence in 450 cities in 50 countries with a rumored revenue of more than $80 million in 2008. And it’s this down home, get-what-you-want experience that has set craigslist apart from other online and offline competitors, and keeps it growing every day.

The Straight Story
Wikipedia founders Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales envisioned an online encyclopedia that anyone could edit. And through its evolution and success, Wikipedia snowballed into a place for democratically summarizing the world’s information on its way to becoming the 7th most highly visited website today.

Wikipedia is a marvel of innovative thinking and backend design. However, it’s no visual masterpiece. From a branding perspective, the core visual components are an odd conglomeration of elements that don’t often gel.

The bookish look of the black, white and grey design certainly speaks to the academic nature of the content. But the design of navigation, portal and discussion pages, while simple, seem like afterthoughts. They can often be confusing and cluttered.

In addition, the peculiar puzzle piece/ globe symbol is less of a logo than it is an illustration. It works to reflect the patchwork nature of the product but poorly expresses easy access to scads of multilingual information.

Yet, despite the strange navigation and peculiar look, the brand thrives because of the driving story behind it. It’s one of the best places to get unbiased information to fulfill our curiosities. The quirky visual nature of the site and lack of visual brand elements reinforces the focus on the information. At the same time, it creates a distinctive Web experience that helps differentiate Wikipedia from other sources of online information.

Pioneers of the past
A decade ago, Internet startups were booming. Thousands of entrepreneurs spent millions of dollars developing the latest and greatest online technologies and services with little thought to design and branding. The focus was product development, speed to market, and the hopes that the site would be in demand.

However, as history has shown, many of the early pioneers were lost in the dot-com bust. But the survivors continue to focus primarily on product, leaving design and brand as an afterthought.

Take eBay, for example. The site was created in a utilitarian way and it grew at a rapid pace. This growth was fueled by continuous functional innovation, with little attention to overall design or structure — and rightfully so. Why slow down product development teams to focus on design when your stock price hinges on how fast you grow? This early focus on product development has remained with eBay throughout the years.

The look of eBay is not particularly elegant. The site features oversized navigation buttons and links in random places. Overall, it’s a chaotic visual experience. Unlike craigslist, Wikipedia or Google, eBay has gone through many site redesigns, but all focused solely on the product, not the aesthetic. The eBay logo, comprised of compressed and condensed letterform (always a no-no by typographic standards), won’t win any design awards. But the chaos and lack of design sense of eBay all seem to work in its favor. It lends credibility to the brand, reminding users that it has survived the growing pains of online business.

Despite its lack of focus on design, eBay’s history also helps set it apart from newer competitors. It has been around for ages and will continue to be for years to come.

Design credibility
When all is said and done, some of the world’s greatest online brands have been able to throw caution (and design) to the wind because they have a key element that drives their brands to the top. Whether it stems from a truly phenomenal product, an exceptional brand experience, a clear story or vision, or because they’re simply industry pioneers, it’s clear these brands are exceptional. Yet, they’re also the exception.

So when does design become essential for the rest of us?

Nearly all the best global brands invest heavily in their aesthetic. They know design and brand experience are key to driving their businesses. Many of these brands have existed for decades. And most do not exist solely online — a key difference between them and the online brands previously mentioned.

However, some form of design is always essential. Whether your brand exists on the Web or on the street, whether you have a 10-month history, or a 100-year legacy, design matters. An exceptional offering often limits the need for high-end design elements, but for most online businesses a good design will be critical to consumer confidence.

Brands are also essential when making decisions based on information gathered online. While RSS feeds and wikis filter out design and democratize information, users need the promise of quality that only a trusted brand can provide. You can generally trust The New York Times brand, while you should be less ready to believe an unknown blogger.

Your site can be ugly and your interface beautiful. But the most important factor is that your overall design lends itself to your brand’s credibility, its mission and helps differentiate you from competitors. The online brands mentioned here have been able to couple a unique driving force in their businesses with little attention to a design aesthetic. For them, this translates into differentiated, respected brand experiences adored around the world.

About the Author: Craig Stout is the Creative Director of Verbal Idand Scott Milano, Director of Verbal Identity at Interbrand NY.

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