Ask Murketing (which in turn asks you): How much style will you sacrifice for function?

Posted by Rob Walker on August 18, 2008
Posted Under: "Good Design" (Tyranny of),Ask Murketing,Consumer Behavior

A friend of Murketing writes:

The other day I bought new running shoes, Asics. I like a certain model (Nimbus) which are super comfy, but they are designing progressively uglier, and this latest incarnation is just hideous, with these weird scribbles along the bottom. It also comes in pink and purple (’cause that’s what we gals like).

I like Asics not out of true brand loyalty, but because the shoe does fit me well and is most comfortable. But this tme I nearly bought something else because these are really just plain ugly; I had a chat with the clerk who agreed and said, in fact, every customer is saying the same thing. It’s like Asics has some death wish or something, to drive away customers.

It’s just peculiar how in the running kicks market, some brands never look ugly, and soem seem to go out of their way to look ugly. I guess my question is how loyal are people — can you make a product so aesthetically undesirable that even the faithful will ultimately go away?

Interesting question! Setting aside whether Asics has a design death wish (although if you have opinions on that, let me know), is there a point at which a product is just ugly you’ll switch to a different one even if it means sacrificing something like comfort or performance?

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Sounds like a really good signal of identity to me. If it is really ugly, it means that most people will avoid it, such that only people who are truly interested in the performance of the shoe (rather than the fashionistas) will buy it…

Written By Jonah on August 18th, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

It depends; surprise. I ditched my Treo 680, even though it did all that I wanted, in favor of an iPhone, losing the syncing of Notes and To-Dos in the bargain. I did gain a nice browser, 3G speed, and a sexy form factor, so maybe it isn’t the most apt comparison.

Meanwhile, I think there is something to the thought that Asics are willfully ugly. I suspect that Asics are a twisted sort of status symbol, a way to say “I’m such a serious runner that I WILL wear the ugliest shoes just because they are the right ones for my feet, aesthetics be damned.” New Balance has the same “problem.”

Written By Jon Plummer on August 18th, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

Don’t forget the campaign for Crocs… “Ugly can be Beautiful”

However, Asics seems to be caught in an awkward limbo. Their design isn’t simply ugly like Crocs are. They are just designed poorly. Over designed even. All of the extra textures and patterns just seem like idle hands and minds were responsible for creative directing their aesthetic.

Written By BWJ on August 18th, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

I agree with BWJ – those Asics aren’t ugly in a Scion, Ugly and Proud, sort of way. But I’m not sure we can make these sorts of judgements on the “mass consumer” any more. The answer to this question is a pie chart with slices for “hate it,” “love it,” “only care about function,” “I don’t run, just want to look like I do,” and several more. In that sort of a world how does Asics, or any brand, design for the “mass consumer” any more? You just have to accept that many people won’t like your product (for a dozen reasons) or you can produce a middle of the road, vanilla product and make a ton of money while your soul slowly evaporates.

Written By Rick Liebling on August 18th, 2008 @ 7:33 pm

Rob, a couple of thoughts — Comfort is more important to me than anything, especially when it comes to my feet. If my feet are uncomfortable, so is the rest of me.

To me, function and comfort aren’t synonymous.

Would the friend of Murketing have purchased her first pair of Asics had they looked like the photo above? Would she have even tried them on? Don’t know the answers, just curious.


richmond, va

Written By bonnie larner on August 18th, 2008 @ 10:32 pm

Jonah, at first I was going to say, “You think EVERYTHING is an identity signal!” but looks like Jon is backing you up, so maybe you’re right (again). Still, it seems to me the issue here is that my friend seems not to be motivated by such a thing, or she’d be anxious to wear the ugly shoes, and there would be no dilemma. In fact what she says is quite the opposite — they’re so ugly she almost sacrificed function for form. That’s what I find interesting.

BWJ & Rick, I suspect it’s right that there’s not a decision here to be conspicuously un-pleasing. I wonder if anybody from Asics has seen this discussion yet. (And also Rick I of course agree about the mass consumer point, I hope this post didn’t suggest something about the mass consumer was being plumbed here, it’s definitely an individual-level decision, etc.)

Bonnie, good question about whether the aesthetic would have prevented her from the first pair — My guess would be there’s a good chance, but I’m not sure.

Written By Rob Walker on August 19th, 2008 @ 9:41 am

Bonnie – I am the friend of Murketing in question and yes, I did in fact buy the sneakers, my utter dislike of how they look notwithstanding and Rob is right, I did almost sacrifice function for form, except in the end having had various running-related aches, I figured what feels the best on my foot is what I should go with, regardless of the ugly quotient (which made me feel really middle-aged).

What is odd is that different Asics models are really quite attractive (as opposed, in my opinion, to Saucony or Brooks), so I don’t think it’s a question of making the whole brand so ugly that only die-hard runners will buy it, thereby gaining some kind of elite cache–that the ugliness proves your commitment.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a self-appointed ombudsman tip and wound up writing a note to Asics customer service describing my disappointment in the design. I haven’t heard anything yet.


Written By Sara on August 19th, 2008 @ 10:18 am

I’m not sure if the over design is conscious, but perhaps it is related to feature creep that has been mentioned in Buying In and Designers and companies keep piling on more feature and addition to the basic design, when the simple form of decades ago, still work, under the misconception that everything has to be new and different. At times, I’ve bought two pairs of a shoe I really like, because I know unless it’s a classic brand, I’ll never find it again. Signal v. Noise has a great fairly recent post and image with text overlay on the similar pair of sneakers.

Written By Ray on August 19th, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

Great link, Ray!

Written By Rob Walker on August 19th, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

Ha. I love that the shoes used in Ray’s link are Asics as well.

Written By BWJ on August 20th, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

Sara, thanks for answering.

My guess is that Asics might be trying to appeal to Gen Y, tho they didn’t do a very good job.
Have you tried shoe-polish ; – )

richmond, VA

Written By bonnie larner on August 20th, 2008 @ 10:22 pm

Asics is trying to appeal to a middle-market consumer — who number in the millions of millions. We all know that the name of the game is sales. In stereotypical fashion, the middle-market doesn’t know what aesthetic appeal is. And if they do, they rarely care enough to change their buying habits. Add to that the misconception that less is less and more is, well, more.

Written By EnergonCube on August 21st, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

Thank you for this entry! Recently, when I’ve gone to look for running/athletic shoes, I asked the clerks if they had shoes that were completely functional as performance gear, but looked as cool and sleek as street wear. They look at me like I’m talking Chinese. But why? Well, I know the answer. You see, my wife (not a designer), thinks that these multi-featured shoes ARE cool looking. She’s tantalized by the shiny this, the air pocket that, the ventilated this, the high-arch that. You see, what we need is an iPod of the athletic shoe industry. We need a shoe that performs as well as every other ugly shoe, but has the same high level of design aesthetic that does our sleek consumer electronics and IKEA furniture. More than that, we don’t just need ONE shoe like this, we need an entire paradigm shift in the shoe industry. We need ALL (or many) shoes like this, that appeal to our design senses AND perform well. What will it take to get there? I don’t know, I’m not a shoe designer. But I do know that every day we’re not getting closer to that end, we’re getting farther and farther away. Damn, I hate ugly shoes.

Written By John Mindiola III on August 22nd, 2008 @ 9:30 am

You know I think it’s very interesting how everyone seems to be talking about what the company is doing wrong, or what the mass consumer base really wants. What all this really comes down to is individual rationale. If a customer comes to a store and thinks, I need something that is perfectly functional, and the company’s main target is performance than it will not matter, and it will not deter a customer to buy it no matter how ugly the shoe gets (let’s keep in mind that after a certain point the company will not be able to make the shoe any uglier). If a customer walks into a store with the rationale that only appearance is important, then all other factors like performance and price will be ignored regardless of what is better for them. For this situation, it really depends how much of each deciding factor relies on appearance. If I know before going into a store that price, functionality, endurance and appearance are the only factors in that order of importance that matter, clearly I’ll have a high level of tolerance to ugly shoes, therefore not affecting my purchase decision. So it depends on how easily influenced customers are by mediums like the media, friends, advertising, etc that alter their purchase rationales. It is the combination of people’s rationale “pie” and their degree of impressionability that determines how ugly a shoe has to be in order for one to move to another brand

Written By Farheen Jahangir on November 29th, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

Funny, stumbled across this post recently as I’m looking for a new pair of running shoes. It seems the situation has largely worsened as of 2011 / 2012!

I loved Asics shoes, they have been the most comfortable and best performing shoes I have had, but enough is enough. I want a performance shoe that isn’t ugly as sin. In the end I’m opting for a set of Nike free run+ 2s, relatively understated by todays athletic shoe designs, and more of a barefoot ride that I’m interested in.

Asics, get your act together! You must spend plenty of money designing mesh uppers of ridiculously hideous colors, and awful contrasts. I don’t even want to wear them casually, I just enjoy kit that is good looking and very functional.

Written By Ben on October 28th, 2011 @ 6:48 am
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