Why Ugly Sells

ugly-clock 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.

motorola-cobalt 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.

Xooter 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.

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  • Chris Powers

    This reminds me of what I read a few months back on design, why are cameras rectangular? They were originally that way because of the format of film but even after now with all things digital--the majority are still square to rectangular. Is it that as humans, we gravitate towards familiar looking objects? Would we revolt at buying a round camera or one with a triangular shape? I think so, we're creatures of habit. Think about how many times you see a chair with three legs? Rarely, most are four legs...because its what we're used to. As a graphic designer, we strive to push the design envelop to get the consumers to 'think outside the box' on form and function and perhaps maybe evolve it to a newer experience.

  • Chris (Efficient Guide)

    Focus group research is a top-of-the-funnel research tool intended to help inform subsequent broader and more statistically viable research. If you're using focus groups to definitively understand something like the question at hand (e.g., color preferences for a given target audience), you're misapplying the tool. Just want to note this b/c newbies reading the article might think it's OK to just do a focus group and call it a day...

  • Max Yoshimoto

    here's my take on ugly from a post a couple of years back. http://design-crit.com/blog/20... Having read it again, I still believe what i posted, and the point that market and consumer dynamics can often make or break a design, ugly or not. Including "meaningfull-ness" to John's point. But what makes meaning?

  • Isaiah Barrett

    I'm a big fan of "ugly!" Some of my favorite purchases have repulsed family and friends forcing them to the question, Why did you buy that? I appreciate the ugliness but don't buy thing for that sole reason - there has to be well documented reviews and inherent quality in the items.

    Two things pop in my head right off: Koss Portapro headphones[ http://www.koss.com/koss/kossw...^pt^PORTAPRO^Y ] and Vibram Five-toe shoes [ http://www.vibramfivefingers.c... ].

    Most people cringe seeing the headphones, but they are also debated as some of the best headphones around, 25 years in production.
    The shoes garner a startled response and many questions. I had read an article on the benefits of walking around barefoot and that inspired finding a suitable shoe to accommodate.

  • c. stadelmaier

    There are an entire book's worth of age-old issues here, and one of my favorite books is "Kitsch, the World of Bad Taste" by Gillo Dorfles (and various) published in 1969. What comes more immediately to mind is an entire wall of soft and cushy toilet seats with decorated covers in every imaginable theme from roosters and roses to skulls and crossbones that I saw at a Kitchen and Bath show a few years back. Someone is not only buying them, but my guess enjoying them immensely. In my mind, a broadly held and objective standard of beauty does exist, and we judge that by what stands the test of time. (Will anyone be fighting over the object when a household is broken up or will it go to the dump.)

    No, I don't think it is our job as designers to impose taste on the public, but as a product development consultant, I try to move my clients gently away from the "ugly," but someone is usually vested in the ugly product and even minimal sales continue to justify its existence. I am actually more offended by those in corporate America that say "we can't make a lower end product look too good, it might take away from sales of our more profitable products." I bet Ingvar Kamrad didn't become the 7th wealthiest man in the world by suggesting that his designers at IKEA make cheaper items less attractive.

    As for bureaucrats and design, Joshua Bell busking at L'Enfant plaza comes to mind. The bureaucrats getting off the train will respond to design as their did to his exquisite music, by ignoring what they don't understand.

    Those of us with a heightened sense of aesthetic awareness must continue to "endure" the "ugly" just because it IS. I wouldn't have dreamed of joining a perfectly delightful gym because the walls and awnings were in a horrid shade of pink; once they remodeled in soothing terra cotta tones I joined. The business did just fine before I joined...vive la différence.

  • Gen Hendrey

    At some point I got sick of some old, cheapo-looking kitchen items I had bought years ago during college (a plain cheese grater, veggie peeler, onion chopper, and whisk).

    I picked up some fancy, more expensive and attractive replacements at a well-known shop, and stashed the old implements in the kitchen "junk drawer."

    From the first washing, I noticed that when I took the fancy items out of the dishwasher, some water would have gotten inside their handles, and would leak out when I picked them up.

    After a few months, I was grating some Parmesan and the handle came off the fancy grater. Annoying enough, but inside the handle I discovered a truly horrifying growth of bacteria that seemed to have developed around little bits of cheese and water that had worked their way into the handle, probably in the dishwasher. Diiiiisgusssting! I tossed the whole thing in the trash immediately.

    It didn't occur to me to start pulling apart all my utensils and checking them, but a few weeks later, my beautiful, new onion chopper broke (the handy little sort kind with the plunger-and-blade), and I discovered the same thing. Ugh. After that, I took apart the other expensive implements that had been drippy and I found obvious bacterial growth inside their handles, too.

    Talk about being ugly on the inside! Previous posters have reminded us that of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, it's clear that beauty was also only skin deep.

    Now I am back to using my ugly, simple, long-lasting, one- or 2-piece utensils--none of which has any space for gunk to get inside.

  • Marc Librescu

    I believe you may have read too much into the motivations of the clock lady. Wood grain? Memories of Christmas? Some people simply have bad taste.

  • Jeanne-Marie Byington

    I love going to craft fairs. I don't stay long because I've seen most of the offerings and I look for fresh spins on crafts that I can afford. I am amazed at some of the booths with heavy traffic filled with items I find unattractive or unoriginal and some with fabulous, artful pieces that remain empty. Your Mom's "no accounting for taste" I experience almost daily.

    Interior designers fascinate me because they must find pieces of furniture/window treatments and arrangements that appeal to two people whose tastes may be miles apart. Somehow, they do. Genius!

  • Harry Otsuji

    As Obama organizes society through government control of more and more of American productive capacity, will design be driven by beaurocrats? Beaurocrats, having no creative capacity, driven by one size fits all mentality, will kill design. As one looks back into recent 20th century history of Hilter, Stalin, Mao Tze Dung, Kim Il Jong and other autocrats, everything ranged in color between black, grey and brown. Have you noticed about Barack and Michele, everything seems to range between hard-edged white and black. Ever see Michele in soft, warm colors?

    Designers, continue to be wildly imaginative with all the colors, shapes and forms to create designs wherein freedom of expression, with producers and consumers flourishes, to sustain individuality. Designers, Save America from the tasteless, drab, lockstep future being foisted by the beaurocrats in control along the Beltway!

  • Brian Ward

    For the ladies, here in Europe, are the finger nail 'painting' transfers!

    EUro-luce milan furniture fair- SOme of the 'high end' Italian lighting companies we all know are producing rubbish! How can they sell this stuff? Zaha, I love you , but your carbon fiber alien light that produces no light- What were you thinking?

    Also at the Milan furniture fair, there are literally THOUSANDS of 'Italian' (made in China) furniture manufacturers (cheap 'me too' copy houses) pouring copies of high end modern furniture into the US and Europe. They are HORRIBLE! The construction will last about 2-3 years max.

  • J. David Weiss

    John- I am very very much with you. That clock may very well haunt my dreams tonight. I am an industrial designer, and as such, I can never really turn off the "designer inside". This allows me to enjoy much of my life more that I would otherwise, but also causes me to surprise people with a very special collection of grimaces when confronted with very special designs, such as your clock, in my day to day.

    In my experience, great design falls closest to great food- there is consistency, with variety. Some viewers will have a narrow palate, while others will appreciate a broader spectrum of aesthetic. I do not subcribe to design as nirvana- "It's wrong until it's right". That said, I don't know any diet that includes digesting crap- and I believe the same should apply to design, as you have stated.

  • lime duck

    When "ugly" things sell, the people buying them either don't think they're ugly, or they value something else in them that overrules the ugliness. I don't think they sell *because* they're "ugly."

    When we say "that's ugly, why would anybody buy it" we're too often failing to look beyond our own highly subjective aesthetic opinions and prejudices. Lots of successful products are ugly to some but appealing to their targets. Sometimes we call them, "distinctive" which is code for "provokes a strong love or hate reaction" which is smart if you can target the "lovers" group.