Does Ugly Design Sell Best?

In his latest column in Target Marketing (1/07, p. 58), Denny Hatch repeats the old advice that in direct marketing, ugly sells.

He quotes Bob Hacker, who states “ugly works,” and Lew Smith, who says, “Neatness rejects involvement.”

But is the idea that “ugly sells” still on target?

Or is today’s more sophisticated consumer … in an age where branding is much revered … likely to reject a poorly designed mailing as amateurish and unprofessional?

What about you?

When you create a direct mail package, do you hire a top-flight graphic designer to make it look as clean, neat, colorful, and glossy as an annual report?

Or do you too believe that “ugly sells”?

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169 thoughts on “Does Ugly Design Sell Best?

  • If ugly equals simple, then yes, I agree ugly sells. Too much flash can be counterproductive. As always, though, it depends on the audience. A mass-market appeal to sell Easter Seals had better look neat, clean, and simple or it will look like the charitable donations are being wasted. (Several recent mailings from my church have been very high-quality, four-color affairs that I’m a little uneasy with.) A small-list mailing to yacht owners to sell pimped-out golf carts complete with air conditioning and GPS needs to have the luxury look and feel, definitely not simple or ugly.

    Ugly has a place and it will surprise many outside the industry how well it works. Appearance sends a message.

  • Bob, I read that article. (I believe he was quoting Robert C. Hacker.) And if you read the context (under the subhead “ad agencies can’t do direct marketing, and vice versa”), you can gather that he’s referring to what I believe is fancy vs. simple. Or in other words, glamorous, flashy, razzle-dazzle ad-agency creatives vs. “just-the-facts-m’am,” no-frills, easy-to-read direct response copy.

    Reason I point this out is that there’s difference between “ugly” in terms of what ad agencies consider “ugly,” versus ugly that looks poor, unprofessional, cheap and clunky (i.e., garish looking copy with multifarious colors and fonts, without any graphics, etc, etc).

    In my own split-tests, “ugly” (as in “simple”) outpulls fancy. But by the same token, clean, professional looking copy generally outpulls either the clunky or flashy stuff. As Makepeace pointed out, good design has boosted response in many cases. Quoting Clayton:

    “If you’re a business owner, marketing pro or copywriter, good graphic design is absolutely essential to producing peak response to your sales promotions. I’ve seen poor design cut sales by half or even more. Conversely, I’ve seen stronger graphic design bump response by 20% or even more.”

    Stated differently, there’s a difference of what’s ugly to an ad agency, and what’s ugly to a consumer.

  • I’ve been in the “ugly works better” camp for most of my career. But recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with a designer at Rodale (Associate Creative Director Christopher Farrell) who’s been proving the theory wrong with gorgeous-looking art that’s been kicking butt in split tests. Perhaps the real question is not ugly vs. pretty … but is it interruptive and does it strongly display the copy.

  • Economists say markets are often inefficient in the short run but highly efficient in the long run. If first-rate graphic design didn’t pay, successful businesses wouldn’t spend billions on it.

    The key is to not throw out the baby with the bath water. Test a hybrid that includes textbook direct marketing techniques and kick-ass graphic design. Then you may see results similar to what Richard Armstrong described.

  • Bob–I agree with Richard. I don’t think it’s an issue of ugly vs. pretty. It’s smart vs. dumb. If the design helps the process of getting the reader involved, it’s great. As Paul Goldberg used to say, “Pretty is as pretty does.” The point is to make the sale.

  • Yes simple neat designs really sell.
    ALso no one had tried changing a simple ( ugly 🙂 design which is really selling and then convert it into a stunning looking design and then measured the metrics once again. So suppose if after changing the design to an excellent one if sales drop or if visitors count drops then we could for sure say UGLY rules !

  • If a company doesn’t care enough to make something look professional for themselves I am certainly not going to trust them enough to give them my money and expeect them to do something quality for me.

    Ugly ads make me laugh at businesses and wonder how they manage to be so unprofessional without noticing.

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