A sign yes … but from what? (image by the author)

Lost and hungry is not a good combination. Imagine driving in an unfamiliar place, stomach growling, and not exactly sure how close or far away you are from any landmarks. Many miles ago you’ve dropped all your pretenses about needing to eat all-organic food and your concerns about maintaining your diet. Your diet has been compromised. The urgency of hunger is upon you. The onward-stretching road seems like a dim and unhappy place, and you’re starting to wonder if previously chewed gum still contains enough calories to sustain your energy.

Then suddenly you see it, a huge billboard with the words: MCDONALD’S NEXT EXIT. At that moment, you’re probably not thinking about the fact that it’s typeset in Arial without consideration for negative space, that it lacks attractive colors or that it’s just not a very nice-looking billboard. No, all you see, blazing from atop the trees and urban wasteland, is a glorious sign from God telling you all you need to know at that very moment.

Now, if said billboard had been dressed up with lovely graphics, scripty fonts, beautifully-lit interior photos, and text describing their new value menu in great specific detail, you may not have noticed it. You’d still be driving along, wondering how you’re going to find a place to eat. The ugly billboard has arrested your attention by screaming essential information to you as plainly as possible.

Sometimes, ugly design is really what we’re looking for.

While the definition of ugly is subjective to some point, there is a collective understanding of what is pretty to look at versus something that gets the job done. The kind of ugly we’re talking about here isn’t about what’s in or out of vogue. It’s a visual product demonstrating the essential purpose of design: to communicate and get a point across.

This is where we start to see the two different priorities in design. Form versus function. Form being “oh, this is lovely” and function being (as Larry Cable so eloquently puts it) “git er done.” Ugly falls into the category of function by default, while beauty is the form which builds upon it. For those who are dessert-lovers, let’s just say that “pretty” is icing on the “ugly” cake.

Function must proceed form. Design and creative briefs almost always begin with a statement of purpose and desired message. Not a checklist of color palettes, typographic choices or whatever. Those design elements are absolutely a part of it, but are subsequent to a higher priority.

I sell potatoes. My primary objective is to have you buy my potatoes, and I don’t care if you paint “POTATOES” (or “POTATOS” for that matter) on wood or metal or on your torso or just paint an image of a potato — I just want people to know I’ve got potatoes.

No matter how you pretty things up, it’s still just a potato … umm potatoe — apologizes to former US Vice President Dan Quayle (via politicalhumor.about.com) (click for reference)

But suppose potatoes become endorsed by Justin Bieber for some weird reason, and they become the hottest ingredient in town. Kids and teenage girls go crazy over french fries (I know, it’s a stretch), hash browns, baked potatoes, perogies, potato chips, you name it. So I paint my sign in bright colors, slap some Comic Sans on there with a blown-up pixelated image of Bieber’s face that I found on Google Images.

The potato fad gets picked up by Dolce & Gabbana, and potatoes become the new statement of the year. I drop the family-friendly look and hire someone to design an immaculately-kerned Potato Sans for my unique typeface, which will be etched onto pristine sheets of high-polished platinum.

By now, potatoes have risen in value to the point that they’ve flooded the stock market. What goes up must come down, so inevitably the potato market becomes ruined and no one wants them anymore. What else can a poor potato-seller do? So, I find the largest surface-area possible and paint in big red letters, POTATO LIQUIDATION SALE ALL SPUDS MUST GO 90% OFF ALL MERCHANDISE.

Bankruptcy ain’t pretty. Neither is my sign, but in the end, I just want people to know that I’ve got potatoes.

Obviously, this is a ridiculous analogy, but in design (signs or not), getting a message across is the ultimate goal. Graphic trends come and go; beautiful or in vogue styles are afterthoughts that eventually fade or are replaced by other fashions. Designs remaining steadfast for so many years are often the ones that are unashamedly base and cut out the frills. You can’t negate the worth of beauty for utility, but when you’re starving and lost, function always triumphs over form.

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4 replies on “The Timeless Beauty of Ugly”

  1. Of course, occasionally things are ugly and not functional — think of those webpages in the late 90s and early aughts when people would cram in as much visual elements as possible: blinking, sparkly graphics that followed your cursor and text that didn’t contrast well against the brightly colored background and was therefore unreadable. That’s beyond the point you were discussing, however.

    More on that point: The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A Norman. It’s a great book about design that discusses exactly form vs function. It’s more about general product design than graphic design, but the points are still there. Anything that serves a purpose that requires conscious thought on how to use it/get information from it is not good design, and very possibly trumps form over function (ie pretty glass doors with bars across the middle that appear that you intuitively push when you actually need to pull them to open them.) I’ve learned that design is much like a great editor: it’s doing its job the best when you don’t notice it.

    1. Very true! There are certainly ugly (as well as cheaply-created) things that are not functional. The late 90’s websites are a great example of that. Websites are a great discussion point, especially since the general perception of the web/internet has changed and evolved over a short amount of time. If you take a look at “Web 1.0” in comparison to “Web 2.0”, it absolutely makes webpages with crazy blinks and marquees and cheesy midi codes seem superfluous and annoying. Now, with an internet that remembers your history, has auto-fills, tabbed browsing, and CSS3—essentially, built like a sinewy mass of user-targeted beast, it’s hard to find any value in what we used to see in the 90’s when the internet was still a bit of a playground. But you’re right, it is a certain digression.

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