Ugly design, great personality

Let’s face an unfortunate truth — American culture is fixated on beauty.

That obsession carries into marketing and design. Some privileged souls work in organizations steeped in a planning culture where a project never begins without a clearly defined creative brief. Others wander a busy highway of squirrel-chasers.

You may relate to the idea of a GMOOT. It’s that moment when your supervisor leaves for a conference or has lunch with a colleague, and you know to expect an urgent email or text message telling you to get me one of those (GMOOT). They are convinced that impressive new feature or innovative design style will translate into higher sales.

You walk away convinced that your new UX-based website design isn’t good enough; your brochure images aren’t saturated enough; your digital advertising isn’t provocative enough, and your billboards and t-shirts need more QR codes.

To be fair, marketers, advertisers and designers often do this to themselves.

In the endless quest for new and beautiful, marketers and designers fall victim to thinking that marketing and advertising are first and foremost about beautiful design and fancy features.

Would it surprise you to learn that email, direct mail and coupons are still among the highest-producing means of promotion?

Would it surprise you to learn that some of the most famous websites are also the ugliest?

Repeatedly, advertisers have shown that ugly ads can outperform beautiful ads if the value proposition is compelling and the content is relevant.

The same is true in the most successful email campaigns. The highest-yielding email campaigns are little more than a combination of a well-targeted audience, a compelling subject line, basic text and timely messaging.

I have great respect for marketers who purposefully use ugly and minimal accompanied by a heavy dose of tactical.

At the end of the day, success in marketing is measured by results, not feelings or beauty. And these six things create marketing success.

Value proposition

Most important of the six factors, value proposition identifies and prioritizes why someone would respond to your ad, browse your website, or request information. The clearer and more relevant your value proposition, the better your conversion rate will be.


Do you deliver on the person’s expectations when they take the step you asked them to take? There is nothing worse than Buzzfeed telling you “She spent her life searching for happiness and found it. You won’t believe what happened next.” and showing you pictures of cats. Fulfill your promises.


Clarity is the most design-centric element. How easily is your value proposition communicated? Take into consideration eye flow, imagery, copywriting and calls to action. Most often, less is more.


How are you creating urgency in the offer? Are you using scarcity? Exclusivity? Incentives? If someone feels like they can wait to make a decision, they will.


Are elements of your design or content distracting from the primary action you want them to take? The more distractions there are, the lower your conversion rate will be. Less is more. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.


What elements, words or concerns in your materials might cause your audience to freeze? Consider Hick’s Law. Named after British and American psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, the law describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she faces. In simple terms, increasing the number of options will increase the decision time logarithmically. Too much choice (or too much information) can cause a person to freeze or postpone decision-making.

If we consider these things together, we can conclude that successful design has little to do with beautiful design. It has everything to do with purposeful design.

The next time you feel compelled to turn your nose up at an ugly ad or website, pause to think, “How strong is their value proposition, relevance and clarity?”

The next time you see a beautiful ad and think they have their stuff together, ask yourself, “Yes, but is it fulfilling a purpose?”

As the quote goes, “Creative without strategy is called art.”

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