Response Crafting

What “ugly” tells us and why we love it

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There are a lot of intentionally ugly things in our everyday lives, and, whether we realize it or not, many of us like them. We pursue ugliness and we promote it, recommending the ugliness to others.

Why? Because ugliness denotes something very important to many of us. That being: affordability. 

Most prevalent perhaps are ugly spaces – notably the “warehouse shopping” concept that has been popular for several years now. Places likes Costco or Sam’s Club.

We like these places. We may have started liking them in spite of their appearance, but now their appearance has come to signify something very important: the goods are cheap. Reminiscent of indoor flea markets, warehouse stores, often selling their goods in bulk, denote cheap consumerism. (And though the typical clientele of the flea market is likely different from that of Costco or Sam’s Club, ask each group why they go where they do and I am pretty sure both will beam something along the lines of: “for the deals!”)

Costco

“Weekend Pickers” Indoor Flea Market, MI

The ugliness factor comes into play with websites, too. One of my favorite examples of “ugly” is Craigslist, whose design has not changed since its inception in 1995.

According to a blog about analytics, marketing and testing, “what makes Craigslist so popular is how straightforward the categories are… It’s this kind of get-in, get-out experience that keeps people flocking back to the classifieds site time and time again… It just works. Sure, it’s ugly, but Craigslist operates by the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model.”

If you have ever used Craigslist, you know that you most often do not go to Craigslist for luxury goods. You go to get something cheap – a used sofa with only a slight stain; a bicycle for $50; free wood from someone’s old fence. You go for the online equivalent of the flea market find.

In writer Steven Bradley’s words, “a beautiful Craigslist could easily give the wrong impression of what you’ll find inside.”

The attraction to “ugliness” has permeated into other areas of our lives, too… namely, the aesthetic of bigger built environments. As we permit – even promote – ugliness in our shopping habits (both online and in person), it almost goes without saying that these standards will seep into other large-scale projects, such as housing.

Writer Lynn Becker wrote in an essay on the building boom and design quality: “if we don’t think twice about shopping in warehouses as long as they can provide the goods we want at a more affordable price, why should we be any less comfortable living in generic towers – the vertical equivalent of the big box retailer – if the spaces they enclose bring we comforts we desire within economic reach?”

Why not, indeed? Becker asks this question cynically, but I ask it with sincerity. Because while I am with Becker on the importance of aesthetics, I am also able to understand that priorities are personal, and some people consciously prefer ugliness if it means they can pay a little less. And it pays to understand that that value matters just as much, especially if you are a developer – whether of websites or brick and mortar.

If this is the case – if we are in fact perpetuating ugliness – and we do so in many different arenas, prioritizing affordability over aesthetics in our grocery shopping, online classifieds, then why not offer people the same option in housing, too? Many among us would happily sacrifice beauty for budget.

Make a thing too “beautiful,” it may in fact chase some consumers away, or denote the wrong image, brand, or price point. Ugliness has value, and stripping everything away down to the bare necessities makes a very strong statement about what the consumer can expect, and whether or not the thing at hand is “for them;” whether it will delight them and fit their value system.

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