So the other day I asked: If “good design” is more important than ever, then why is (the basically hideous) MySpace so popular?
I got a variety of answers in the comments to the post, and having pondered them. One of the first responses was: Design isn’t how something looks, it’s how it works.
I understand this point. I should have used the word aesthetics. That’s what I was talking about. And I think it should be indisputable that design at least includes aesthetics, and I’m not aware of any example of something that it is said to be “good design” that is not also aesthetically pleasing, at least not in the consumer market. Correct me if I’m wrong.
I also want to clarify that the importance of aesthetics in the current marketplace isn’t a point of view that I made up, or even one that I necessarily hold. It’s one that is repeated almost constantly by a wide variety of commentators. (Virginia Postrel, to name maybe the most obvious example, makes a theme of pointing out new examples of businesses responding to the “aesthetic imperative.”) Stuff that is judged to be aesthetically beautiful sells well in many categories now, categories where that didn’t matter before, and this is widely taken to be evidence of improved design/aesthetic taste among masses of consumers. This isn’t something I’m declaring, it’s something I’m repeating.
Okay: So if aesthetics are important, why is MySpace successful?
To me there are basically two possible answers. One is that aesthetics are simply overrated. MySpace users don’t care that much about the look of MySpace, they just care about its functionality. Some comments suggested things along these lines. (And this line of thinking is bolstered by the idea that people are moving over to Facebook, if that’s actually true: Facebook is certainly more aesthetically pleasing to me, not because it’s anything special, but because it’s relatively clean and uncluttered.)
The second possible answer is that MySpace users like the way the site looks. Some comments also pointed in this direction, and it’s what I find most interesting.
When I first looked at MySpace, my reaction was: “What a mess. It’s just (visual) noise.” In fact I think I reacted to it much like parents reacted to some of the music I listened to when I was a kid: That it wasn’t music at all, just noise.
Now what’s interesting about that to me is that, from my point of view, it most certainly was music. It was not “noise” in the way they meant, at all. They just didn’t get it. We differed.
And since I first looked at MySpace, I’ve wondered if something analogous isn’t going on. It looks like visual noise to me, but maybe I just don’t get it. The people who made MySpace a hit originally were largely members of a generation that I’m not in. Maybe MySpace spoke to them in a graphic/visual language that not only made sense to them, but pleases them — the same way the Ramones or the Clash pleased me, but agitated my parents.
Given the size of the MySpace audience, the real answer is probably a combination of all of the above, and everything in the comments to an earlier post. But this last line of thought is the one that interests me the most. And of course it’s worth pointing out that the difference between me and my parents is that they did not end up listening to the Ramones on their own time in an attempt to “get” what I heard, whereas I gritted my teeth and got a MySpace account even though I hated looking at it. Draw your own conclusions on that one.