menu
Not looking ugly.jpg

Design is more about 'un-ugly' than beauty

What is the primary objective when designing a product - to create a design that is handsome and attractive to the customer? This is an unarguable truth, but then perhaps because it is most designers don’t give it a second thought...

But if we were to give it a second thought then perhaps we might consider this primary objective relative to the fact that customers are all different people with different perspectives on what is handsome or attractive to them. 

So then, perhaps let us agree that the primary objective when designing a product might more accurately (or pedantically!) be described as “to make a design that is as handsome and attractive to as many customers as possible”?

This then leads us to a truism that all designers know, even if it is not something many much care for: that to design a product that can be as handsome and attractive to as many customers as possible is different to designing a product that is as handsome and attractive as possible to a few customers. Just as in music, just as in literature, the peak creative achievement in design is not necessarily aligned with the peak commercial achievement.Not looking ugly.jpg

But does this mean that design is about not creating something ugly?

Is it splitting hairs to consider this subtle difference - where there is a difference - between trying to design a product that is as handsome and attractive to as many customers as possible, and designing a product that is as handsome and attractive as possible to a few customers? Well, perhaps it is worth some consideration, perhaps this is not splitting hairs but making more clear an essential truth rarely consciously recognised by designers in the west. Whilst design should always strive to be handsome and attractive as possible to customers, much of the time it’s commercial performance is a consequence of it not being un-handsome and unattractive to customers.  

This idea of “consciously striving to design a product that is not unattractive” may sound like the other side to the coin that is “trying to design an attractive product”, but it isn’t.

If we look at these two curves (below) that represent two designs that take these two different approachs we can perhaps see some of the key differences. Not looking uglyThe two core presumptions underlying the curves plotted on this chart are described below. Both curves are ’standard distribution curves’: a simple mathematical curve that lies at the heart of the science of probability and shows the distribution of different behaviour in many economic and consumer scenarios. The chart shows a theoretical set of responses from a body of people representative of a market, and their collective rating of how attractive two designs are based on their individual perceptions of either “Very unattractive”, “Quite unattractive”, “Neutral”, “Quite attractive” and “Very attractive” for each design. So the total area below each of the two curves must be the same as it denotes the total number of responses (100%).  

Curve A represents the product that has been designed to be as attractive as possible; so it peaks at “Very attractive”. Because it is harder to create a design that is perceived as “Very attractive” than “Quite attractive” this curve peaks lower than the height of Curve B that represents the product designed to be as attractive to as many customers as possible. Arguably for Curve A to peak at 4/5 of the percentage of people of the peak for Curve B (32.5% versus 40%) is rather high - in practice it would likely be a far lower curve peak as there are far more designs in the world that are rated by most people as “Quite attractive” than “Very attractive”. We have given it this high peak to have the best possible performance and show how even with this bias the product that has been designed to be as attractive as possible underperforms that of the product designed to be as attractive to as many customers as possible.

Curve A scores more highly than curve B for “Very unattractive” (and “Quite unattractive”) because a product designed to be as attractive as possible is inherently a more distinct design than a product designed to be as attractive to as many customers as possible. A more distinct design will be perceived as unattractive by a greater minority than that for a less distinct design. 

Both of the two core presumptions detailed above underpin this theory. There, are of course, instances where the profile of the curve representing a design may differ to these profiles: where it peaks higher (or lower) or further to the left or right on the axis of ‘attractiveness’. But it would be improbable that the shape of the curve should differ more than very slightly; the normal distribution curve and the rational behind it is both simple and robust. And the total volume below the curve must be the same - there are only a finite set of responses from people that a design may have, and this is the same for any design and the curve that shows its rating. So it may be that an exceptional design peaks at “Very attractive” and does so at a very high value and has a steeper curve that results in a very low value for “Very unattractive”: we have perhaps all known some exceptional designs that accomplish this. But they are rare. Far more common are designs that peak further to the left and have a lower peak - that are regarded by most people as average, neutral designs or even as slightly unattractive designs.  

If we are happy with the premise of these two curves then the argument for “consciously striving to design a product that is not unattractive” instead of “trying to design an attractive product” is this: there are far more positive (right side of neutral) responses for the design that was designed to be as attractive to as many customers as possible than for the design that was designed to be as attractive as possible. The product that was designed to be as attractive to as many customers as possible has a larger potential base of customers who like the design; the design contributes positively to the purchase decision for more people than it does for the product designed to be as attractive as possible. So design is perhaps not so much about creating something beautiful as it is about not creating something ugly…

Design performance is a complicated thing; it is not just about varying degrees of attractiveness. We will explore some of these other key roles in later Insights. But the tacit aim that designers have to create the most attractive design is perhaps shown here to be at least not always the best approach, or the only approach. Designing not to be unattractive might be something useful to consciously embrace if you are a designer serious about maximising the commercial performance of your products. Design is perhaps about not creating something ugly more than it is about creating something beautiful. It is more about 'un-ugly' than beauty.