Respected entrepreneur Jason Fried recently wrote that the notoriously hideous Drudge Report is one of the best-designed sites on the web. He’s right. The design accomplishes exactly what it intends to, delivering the site’s irresistible headlines with lightning speed (and serving ads along the way).
Drudge features a dead-simple layout: An ad, then a giant headline area, then 3 even rows of underlined story titles: “13 Children Injured When Bouncy Fun House Blows Away...”, “FACEBOOK ABORTS PAGE OF UNBORN BABY...”, “Fifth Grader Punches Teacher, Breaks Her Nose.” Content is presented flatly, with no tolerance for navigation or instructions. Photos or red text indicate bigger stories. See news, click news. And with Drudge’s devilish sense for controversy, it’s tough not to.
Designing for the web is like cooking. Presentation has a role, but the taste of the dish is far more important. Aesthetic garnishes are valuable because they communicate the quality or professionalism of the chef, not because they make the food any better. Expensive restaurants emanate opulence through ambiance and presentation; many sites must do the same in order to accomplish their goals. Some sites may even desire a rough look, in order to communicate authenticity or save time and money. Most are somewhere in the middle.
Beauty is merely one component of design, like usability, speed, cost, or time. Design is not decoration, it’s a concerted effort to solve a particular problem. Some sites don’t need to be fast. Some don’t need to be cheap. Others, like Drudge, don’t need to be pretty.
It’s easy for creative professionals to fall into the beauty trap. Clients’ design feedback is usually delivered in aesthetic terms: “This is so beautiful” is far more frequent than “This is so usable”. Designers unwittingly play to that misunderstanding, delivering gorgeous but ineffective work that ultimately fails.
The design of the Drudge Report effectively solves a specific problem: How can we generate a vast and loyal readership, and serve ads along the way? It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s good enough. With 20 billion pageviews a year, Mr. Drudge is surely happy enough with the results of his ugly design. Craigslist is happy with theirs, too. So is Amazon.
Sure, they’re ugly. But so what? Sometimes, ugly isn’t worth fixing.