A while back, I was standing in a checkout line at a drug store, passing the time by wondering who would ever buy the ugliest clock I'd ever seen, on display at the front of the store. It wasn't a regular sort of ugly. It was nuclear ugly.
Sliced from some unsuspecting tree trunk that never hurt anybody, the heavily shellacked face of the clock preserved pictures of red roses and drippy script type that read "LOVE." The hands and numbers were plastic with a cheap layer of shiny gold-crap covering them.
I was on a roll, hating this thing.
Then, out of the blue, the woman in front of me pointed at it. "Honey," she said to the young girl accompanying her. "Go see how much that is."
My own mother is known for a number of sayings which I carry around with me. One of them is an old standard: There's no accounting for taste.
The nightmare for product managers is working for months on a new product launch only to see their brainchild fail because the market says, "Ew, are you kidding me? That's ugly!" I think this is the reason why so many things we buy are just 'nice': They are perfectly fine products that focus on their functional appeal while borrowing their aesthetic from some other successful thing on the market.
In a recent focus group, we were getting feedback on preferences and habits related to certain electronic products. "They should all be black and silver," declared a rather vocal leader in the group. Everyone else nodded in submission. "Yes, black and silver," they droned. Then the moderator pulled out her Motorola Cobalt phone, a lustrous blue folding number with silver trim. Everyone ogled the phone. And they changed their votes.
The real trick is to resist navigating consumer taste and understand the emotional sources for taste so that you can appeal to them instead.
For the rose-clock lady, I suspect that she was responding to personal associations that I didn't have with the clock, a collection of pleasant memories centered around the idea of home. A remembrance of grandparents, warm times opening presents Christmas morning, the hearty family dining table. The natural grain of the wood showing through the clear overcoat, like a windowed view on nature, captured and brought indoors. Nostalgia. Nature. Nurture.
Around the same time as I encountered the rose clock, we designed a kick scooter, the Xootr, whose design was rooted in the very same framework of meaning as the clock. Its simple use of low tech materials, wood and aluminum and steel, is reminiscent of homemade scooters. Exposed mechanisms and lack of flourish appeal to our sense of so-called simpler times. Xootr triggers feelings of nostalgia subtly and without literally replicating the object of yesteryear.
So ultimately, don't all these things sell by tapping into a person's sense of what is meaningful? I would suggest that they do. That's why some ugly stuff sells, and some beautiful stuff sells more.
What ugly products have you seen being embraced by consumers? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
Read more of John Edson's Powers of Design blog
As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the ID Magazine Design Annual, the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award.
Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast, that he hosts with guest speakers ranging from Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum to author and cognitive scientist Don Norman. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.