Open Question: If good design has been democratized, explain MySpace

Posted by Rob Walker on October 23, 2007
Posted Under: The Designed Life

Seriously, how can something be both so popular, and so consistently, relentlessly, hideous, at the same time?

I’ve read a million stories and experts talking about how more of us know more about good design than ever and we crave it and we’ll pay for it etc. But face it: MySpace remains more popular than almost any good design product you can name, and it’s uglier than the 1970s.

So has the country’s collective design taste improved — or not?

UPDATE (December 8): In addition to the comments below, which are now closed, see this follow-up post and comments.

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

Reader Comments

The glib (but true) answer is that design isn’t about how something looks. MySpace works for those it was designed for. In fact, I think you could argue that their success has to do with creating the right design tools for their communities (bands & their fans), and then they got out of the way.

I like Josh’s thinking through of this:

Written By Brian Oberkirch on October 23rd, 2007 @ 3:58 pm

I’ve always been a bit shocked at just how atrocious MySpace design is. As to the above argument that use = good design, well…the world is full of poorly designed products that many people use. Take the classic potato peeler, at some point I would imagine every household in America had one of those, if you’ve ever used one for very long its likely you either found blisters developing or cut your hand open. Now take the new Oxo peelers – wow, no blisters with a nice cushy no-slip handle – now that is good design.

Back to the MySpace question, I think our collective design awareness has increased, but not nearly as much as the media would like us to think (after all they are trying to get us to buy these products, and while the Oxo peeler might work better – it costs more to). I think the success of MySpace comes from a combination of Branding, being at the right place at the right time (if this can be said to be true of cyberspace), and the fact the people (esp teens) enjoy few things better than to create personas/identities and see them in a public space with relative ease. Not to mention “MySpace” has a nice ring to it (oops that’s branding again)

Written By Mathew on October 23rd, 2007 @ 5:10 pm

“Seriously, how can something be both so popular, and so consistently, relentlessly, hideous, at the same time?”

McDonalds food comes to mind. As does professional wrestling. And modern country music. And MySpace.

They all “just work” for their audience. Design as readers of Dwell magazine are led to understand it doesn’t enter the equation.

Written By Alex on October 23rd, 2007 @ 5:20 pm

I think the answer is much more simple. Take a look at the Myspace homepage. There’s a company with plenty of access to designers and everything else, yet you have no clue where to focus your vision. As you dig deeper into the site it becomes obvious it’s optimized for pageviews, not user experience. All of these combine to set a tone that is clearly focused on things other than design and I believe that bleeds down to the users (who on top of all that aren’t given any significant framework/guidelines to work with).

Written By Noah Brier on October 24th, 2007 @ 8:11 am

MySpace’s success can be wholly attributed to basically offering the right thing at the right time. Friendster didn’t work. We all wanted to use Friendster, but the traffic always overloaded the system. MySpace actually worked when it came along. And giving musicians the tools that they needed to promote themselves drove a lot of the early adoption.

As far as the design goes, I agree with Noah that it’s designed for pageviews. But really it’s about personal ownership and personal relevance. Most users have no conscious awareness of, let alone appreciation for, the kind of UX design ideals that we have in mind. They just think, “Maybe some MySpace pages are ugly, but my own MySpace page is mine. I designed it myself, and therefore it’s the perfect design.”

Written By Mike Arauz on October 24th, 2007 @ 8:38 am

I think the story will be different in a year. Sure, MySpace has nearly double the number of users. But Facebook, with it’s infinitely more elegant and usable design, is catching up. And it has an audience that advertisers find ever so appealing (read: educated and affluent). Does anyone else think this is reminiscent of the Wal-Mart v. Target race?

Written By Don Ball on October 26th, 2007 @ 12:49 am

I think this tries to answer the ugly question in an interesting way:

Written By Ryan on October 26th, 2007 @ 10:34 am

MySpace Low class? You bet. Facebook snooty? Indeed. I keep thinking the two can coexist exactly for these reasons. One Berkeley grad student even wrote an essay comparing Facebook to the suburbs and MySpace to a working class neighborhood.

Written By akugel on October 26th, 2007 @ 6:21 pm

Okay, thanks everybody, there are a lot of great points here. I think rather than respond one by one I’ll do a follow-up post later in the week.

Much obliged to all…

Written By murketing on October 30th, 2007 @ 9:41 am