Companies increasingly turn to pretty design as a solution. A clean look that directs people through your site is supposed to be the way to make the virtual world pay off. But for all the shouldas and couldas, there are a lot of people still dissatisfied.
That might explain the interest in so-called brutalist web designs. Rather than celebrating minimalist approaches and Swiss design aesthetics, brutalist design harkens to the architecture movement of the 1950s and '60s. Structures were often clumsy looking, blocky, and sporting plenty of raw concrete.
The power of ugliness.
And yet, great examples could also soar and offer a feast of detail for the eye. Although different in many ways, brutalist architecture had some interesting parallels with gothic. Designers fought against the weight of material and celebrated scale and complexity.
As Jonathan Foyle, chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, told the Financial Times a few years ago, "Both were designed from the inside out -- the purpose of the building and what happens inside is the important part. The outside is merely the envelope that wraps it up."
Where nice web design goes wrong.
Much website design today suffers from two major weaknesses. One is that the design becomes the predominant feature and focus of the company. They want a beautiful site that will impress people. It's all well and good, except that customers don't come to your website to think, "My, what clean and elegant design." They go to a website to get something done, whether ordering a product, finding information, making use of a service, or amusing themselves.
The other problem is that the design becomes trendy. These days, how many places on the web look like they were made from a cookie cutter? There's the major splash page and then a scrolling series of other big images or pages that come one after another. There's nothing wrong with leaning from others, but the potential issue is that the world sees one concept after another taking turns appearing everywhere. It's like schools of art, in which practices become rules and nothing is done differently. The only solution is for another school to develop, declare war on the old concept, and push it out of the way to again allow for new ideas to grow.
Look at the big successes.
Instead of looking at what almost everyone else seems to do, focus some attention on ugly design that works, as interface designer Jonas Downey points out. Craigslist is a hugely popular and useful set of sites, none of which are attractive. The main pages are cluttered, overrun with text links, and include no graphics. But it puts everything that visitors want within easy reach.
Facebook and Photoshop are two more examples of interfaces that are complicated, which do gain complaints, and yet which have many regular users. Again, what people need is at hand and, after they get used to the interface, usually straightforward to find. Or you could add The Drudge Report, Hacker News, and other sites that give people what they want, not what designers think they need.
The result is like things direct marketers used to know through testing, that sometimes the ugliest, least "designed" pieces did the best. Instead of trying to gussy up your site, think like some successful non-designer designers. If you have what people really want, they'll overlook your lack of refinement. In fact, that lack may be exactly why they're there.