High Class / Low Class Web Design

Loose notes on SXSW 2007 session: High Class / Low Class Web Design

Christopher Fahey, Behavior
Liz Danzico, Daylife
Khoi Vinh, The New York Times
Brant Louck, World Wrestling Entertainment

Fairly fascinating panel discussion re: Class-ism in design. Not particularly practical except for full-time designers working for clients from all over the socioeconomic map. What is the mystique of elegance and quality conveyed by good design? Why are so many hugely successful sites (craigslist, ebay) so badly designed, or barely designed? Do highly designed sites convey elitism to the masses?

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How many got here by airplane? How many flew first class? Airplane is one of the few places where class is made explicit in our culture. Sometimes we’re all equal – like when it’s time to get frisked/degraded.

craigslist, ebay – people look at sites like this and think “It’s not designed” or “It’s designed badly.” Well, maybe there’s a class system here – maybe the sites are designed for another class of people, not for the “elite designers” in this room. Last year at SXSW designers developed a free redesign for Craigslist, but it has not been adopted [I’ve personally talked to Craig about this – he said there’s no interest, either from his staff or from craigslist users – while we all thought the redesign was a huge improvement, the staff thought the redesign was “amusing.”]

Why talk about class? Because it lets us talk about education, economic power, cultural literacy.

When we think about class we think of a wealthy aristocracy, vs. the working stiffs – the class warfare structure. But the American mythology is that we had a revolution to escape from the aristocracy of Great Britain, but this is b.s. We don’t talk about it because it’s a dirty word. We use euphemisms. Instead of talking about good/bad design, we talk about blue collar / white collar; popular / underprivileged; Joe Six Pack vs. Latte-Drinking, Volvo-Driving, Sushi-Eating, NY Times-Reading …

Marketers talk about SES (socio-economic status) – which TV shows appeal to whom?

Many people think they’ve transcended class – they’re in Class X. “Oh, I can drink Pabst Blue Ribbon ironically. I can wear shorts to work…”

Aspirational design: Lending the mystique of a higher class to a lower class. Walmart may market a Tiffany look.

When designing, do you design for yourself, or for your audience? How can you get into the shoes of someone whose class experience is different from your own? Do you respect your audience? Are they your equals?

NY Times designer says they never talk about class: They talk about effective storytelling, talk about how to make a button findable. But World Wrestling Fed. designer (formerly designer for Spin Magazine) says they talk about “our guy” – the archetypal WWF viewer. “Will this picture of a dude with toothpaste on his chest make ‘our guy’ uncomfortable?”

Within the wrestling industry they call their consumers “marks” – they’re designing to their marks. Smarter fans are aware that they’re called marks and they’re fine with it. In cities where the smarter “marks” live you can do more stuff that pulls back the curtain on wrestling.

NY Times designer: If you become too conscious of class, disrespect your customer, distance yourself from customer, you’ll do damage to your business.

Sites that market to the lower end tend to rely more on statistical methods – which version of the mag cover sold more copies? It’s out of the designer’s hands. At the higher end it’s the opposite – less democratic – designers have the final word. Steve Jobs is not polling users to see how they react to new web designs – he just hires the best designers. But not exclusively true – some high class designs take analytics very seriously.

Do you move towards your audience, or draw your audience closer to you?

It’s moving like the evolution of TV – we’ve gone from Starsky & Hutch to Lost and Six Feet Under. Because designers stopped looking down on their audience. TV’s gotten a lot better…. web moving that way too.

The language of design: “The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.” -Paul Rand

Class X is an emerging class, and it’s based on design culture. Business Week and business schools are focusing on design. “Interior decorators” are becoming “interior designers.”

Web 2.0 and user-generated-content: The cathedral vs. the bazarre. People making more and more themselves, not relying as much on design from on-high.

Adaptive Path questioner: Vernacular design (myspace is considered low class but is an expresssion of what the people are doing when given design tools). Are people who execute upper class design excluding the lower class?

Question: More fun to design for Spin or for WWF? A: More fun selling to wrestlers, because you can give them big meaty fonts, since they’re dudes.

Designing for another audience: How do you stop outside of yourself – must respect that other audience. You want to reach the fans, and you have to find a way to do that.

20 Replies to “High Class / Low Class Web Design”

  1. Scott – its a classic mistake to confuse design and usability. They are not necessarily compliments. Ebay looks like crap, but is highly usable. Craiglist too. Design adds no additional value. Focusing on design as a measure of the end user value proposition misses a bunch of what works for most users and replaces it with what looks good to a few. Designer love to tell us why they fail because the public has no taste. Elitism incarnate. IMHO pragmatism is more important than class any day. And when designers stop getting high on the smell of their own farts and actually learn how to listen, we will get something better.

  2. Joe – Thanks for the typo, fixed. I know the captcha isn’t accessible. Some guilt about that. There’s an audio option component for it that I haven’t yet installed; will soon.

    Lee – That was one of the main messages of the panel (not confusing design with usability) – guess I didn’t get that across in the notes. But yeah, there’s definitely a “designer’s disease” rampant out there. BUT: There’s absolutely nothing preventing any site from being both beautifully designed and very usable. It’s not like craigslist or ebay would have to sacrifice usability by introducing better designs. I think there are other reasons why they don’t redesign – the seduction of the familiar, and fear of alienating the public. ebay may not want to convey high design because it could convey a high-end mystique that would give off a scent of “Not for the average Joe.”

  3. i would argue that changing craigslist would actually destroy it’s own manifestation of one objective of the designer: brand recognition. CL has actually branded itself through its “anti-“design. a CL page is instantly recognizable, and that is probably 50% of a designer’s worth right there.

    i also don’t quite get the “bad design” critique for ebay. maybe i would if i were shown alternate mockups. not sure that i would agree that design and UI/UE aren’t mutually exclusive at some point. (ie, at some point the prettification DOES get in the way, even if just temporarilly while transitioning for one look to another. here, i’d abide by “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”)

  4. ebay certainly isn’t undesigned, but it’s pretty chunky clunky, and things like that top nav with the hideous font are hard to explain, even by terms of “it ain’t broke.”

    There’s a lot to be said for function over form, but it seems like they could add a lot of polish with no ill effect on UE.

  5. but why? just to satisfy shacker’s aesthetic sensibilities?
    i don’t see the added value in having ebay look more polished; if there
    was i’m sure their UE group would have implemented such changes already. (and, as alluded to in my first sentence, who is going to be the arbiter of taste here? the only one that matters for ebay is the paying customer).

    also, for the truly design sensitive, there are web services – use sherlock or a dashboard widget or go for the uber-tech aesthetic of http response headers in green courier on a black background as your design theme, and just do it from the terminal. there are also firefox extensions that will allow you to totallly customize a site (via css and web monkey scripts) and maintain the look for all similar pages in a given site.

  6. but why? just to satisfy shacker’s aesthetic sensibilities? Hrm? No, not at all. This is not me saying I think ebay is only marginally designed – this was a premise of the panel – that some major sites are marginally designed, and why that is the case. ebay was held out as a perfect example of that, and no one in the room objected to that characterisation – I certainly don’t. Seems patently true to me.

    unix/header design aesthetic: WordPress CLI theme – it really works!

  7. well, i thought i made it clear that i was using “shacker’s design sensibilities” in a a more general sense…. so feel free to reread that post like
    s/shacker/the conference audience/
    .

    i still don’t understand what the point is. moreover, i think ebay probably has a design department that would take issue with the assessment that it is marginally designed. it comes back to arbitration of taste. you (and a particular seminar audience) don’t think the site is pretty. fine. why does it need to be pretty? and , does not being pretty necessarilly lead to the conclusion that it is marginally designed? my own answers to these two questions would be “it doesn’t” and “no”.

  8. i still don’t understand what the point is.

    The point of the panel (and my notes on it) was to explore the very issues you’re raising, and how/whether they tie into class-ism. Your comments and mine are just summarizing some of the issues/questions under discussion. It wasn’t like there some kind of collective head-nodding “ebay should be redesigned.” It wasn’t like that at all. More of a “How peculiar that a site with so many resources would stick with such a crude design – why do you think that is?”

  9. i guess my point is just that i find it somewhat presumptuous to call it crude.

    going the extra step of delving into whether it’s classist just strikes me as absurd — intellectual wankery.

  10. oh wait. i think i get it now. the audience was acknowledging that just asking the question about classism puts them on the elitist side of the fence, right?

  11. Why is it presumptuous to call it crude?

    I don’t see how it’s intellectual wankery. A designer has to ask questions like “Who is my audience, and what kind of look will pull them in / put them off?”

    the audience was acknowledging that just asking the question about classism puts them on the elitist side of the fence, right?

    Ummm… no? Where is this elitism business coming from? How to design to an audience is very relevant to designers.

  12. ++How to design to an audience is very relevant to designers.++

    exactly. so why is it called crude, if that is exactly what is done (re: ebay)? with ebay’s resources, i think it’s safe to assume that they know exactly what they are doing and are not flying blind.

    or am i missing a part where a focus group was done that argues against my point? were ebay designers there saying that execs wouldn’t let them do what needs to be done design-wise?

    i’m trying to reconcile what i perceive is an sentiment that ebay is poorly designed (or is this not it? is it already implicit that crude does not equal poor?) with the notion that a corporation will design to its audience (and by extension, that revenue will decide whther the design goal is being met).

    if the former is the case, then i would argue that ebay is well designed. if one is going to continue to argue that it is poorly designed, it becomes a “my design aesthetic is better than your design aesthetic” argument.

    i guess it’s kind of like debating the aesthetics of a UPS truck to me.

  13. or, put another way:

    before one can ask “why is ebay so crudely designed” one must ask “is ebay crudely designed”.

  14. with ebay’s resources, i think it’s safe to assume that they know exactly what they are doing and are not flying blind.

    Of course – they know exactly what they’re doing and who they’re designing for – the masses, who might be scared off by refined design, which would probably convey expensiveness. That’s one possible reason anyway.

    what i perceive is an sentiment that ebay is poorly designed

    I don’t think anyone would argue that ebay is beautiful, or that it has a polished design, even though they have the resources to do so if they wanted to. Obviously it’s crudely designed on purpose. The point was to discuss the reasons why this is the case, and the consensus was that high-end design for a site like ebay would communicate the scent of something “not for the masses.”

    it becomes a “my design aesthetic is better than your design aesthetic” argument.

    Is it somehow off-limits to say that one thing is beautiful and another ugly, and another thing middlin’? We’re getting to the old relativity of aesthetics debate here, but I certainly reserve the right to say one painting / piece of music / web site is beautiful and another is not. In some areas, this will be hotly debated, but I think you’d have a hard time finding someone who didn’t agree that ebay is crudely designed, relative to what would be possible with their resources.

    one must ask “is ebay crudely designed”.

    This is what I, and I think almost anyone, would take as a given. I don’t think you have to ask that question. Of course aesthetics are ultimately subjective, but here it’s subjective at a point on the spectrum where it would be hard to find disagreement. It’s got a chunky, clunky, brash, aliased look all over it. It’s not the sort of site that’s going to win any design awards – it’s hard for me to see where this would be a controversial point. I think that both designers and non-designers alike would agree that ebay is no gem of design.

    The question is not *whether* it’s crudely designed, it’s why.

  15. Put another way: If I said that a Mac is nicely designed while a beige PC box is crudely designed (i.e. all function little form), would you disagree with that?

    I’m saying (or rather the speakers were saying) that ebay is the equivalent of that beige PC box.

  16. ++Is it somehow off-limits to say that one thing is beautiful and another ugly, and another thing middlin’?++

    that’s why korzybsky invented e-prime :)

    ++It’s got a chunky, clunky, brash, aliased look all over it. ++

    but why does that means it’s poorly designed? if the designers have a mandate, and they achieve that mandate in spades, then i find it hard to say that their product is poorly or crudely designed.

    ++ I don’t think anyone would argue that ebay is beautiful, or that it has a polished design,++

    the shareholders might.

    again, your explanations just reinforce my opinion that the seminar and it’s audience we’re exploring the notion design in very narrow sense — that “good” design is that which is pleasing to the eye (of a particular group of people).

    i’ll use UPS for illustration again. a few years back, they changed their logo. they “declunkified” and “polished” it. i’m sure most everyone would agree that it is less clunky and more polished. It was probably successfull in it’s greater mass appeal as it rode some trends (glossy look, incorporated a swoosh of sorts). However, to me, it was a slap in the face to their long-established branding, and on a personal aesthetic level, grotesque.

    so, to me, to ask “gee why doesn’t ebay take that aliased logo and polish it” is to me asking “whydon’t they make peanut butter out of grapes”. but i extend that to the whole of the site. it is part of their brand identity. one doesn’t need to invoke classism to analyze it. and i submit that it is one more reason why the site’s design is perfectly fine. sometimes *aesthetics* is not the point of design.
    (especially where business is concerned)

  17. ++Put another way: If I said that a Mac is nicely designed while a beige PC box is crudely designed (i.e. all function little form), would you disagree with that?++

    c’mon – you know the answer to that! of course i would disagree: it’s little function, little form!

    however, back in the day (pre-clones), that ugly beige box was immediately recognizable as a *IBM* pc. twasn’t no amiga, twasn’t no atari. (early macs were beige too IIRC). and it carried its own cachet.

    why don’t you stick with my example of the UPS truck :)

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