Can Good Design Be Ugly?

And by ugly I mean real bad.

Good design can be visually stunning, but it doesn’t have to be. Often, good design is unseen, and at times, it can even be quite distasteful.

Beautiful Design

This category of design is the easiest for anyone to recall. The design is often visually provoking, and it leverages various aspects of our perception, making the design both impressive and easily remembered.

Just think of the most beautiful website, ad or commercial; any problem recollecting them?

Invisible Design

This kind of design is the kind that focuses on function rather than appearance: it does not get in the way but simply allows for things to work.

These are the things that are so well-designed that we don’t even notice them. (Unless they break.)

This design is timeless, authentic, and does not cry for attention.

“Good design strikes a balance between elegance and invisibility”
Vitaly Friedman

In literature, it is said that the pages of a book disappear from view as the reader becomes lost in the unfolding story.

In a similar way, the objective of interface design is to provide just enough UI at just the right moment, and nothing more. We’re not trying to impress our users, but rather empower them.

As Jared Spool says, “Great design is always invisible.” An expertly designed interface gets out of the way and lets the experience take center stage so the user can achieve their task unhindered. Great UI needs to hide behind an unmistakably fantastic UX.

That’s the great irony of great design… it’s often unseen.

Ugly Design

You might be wondering how good design can be ugly.

Please consider this case study we have experienced first hand:

Company X is in the recycled cartridge business; things are doing well, and they want to update their site. We help them with a sparkling new site with slick illustrations, typography, and a new simplified site flow.

A week after the new site went live, we realized that conversion went down . . . how can it be? The new site is so much better!

Well, after some calls to clients, it turns out that the incredibly slick design scared away consumers because it gave them an “expensive” perception in a market where users expect everything to be made on the dime.

So, was that good design? Of course not. We had to change all sorts of things to make the service look more scrappy, and business went better after that.

Good design should serve the user needs and expectations.



The Invisible Side of Design

Design Standards Let the Interface Disappear Behind the Experience

The best interface is no interface

So, is good design invisible, or not?

Good design is invisible: an interview with iA’s Oliver Reichenstein

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