This article was published on October 14, 2017

Bad design isn’t just ugly — it’s expensive

Bad design isn’t just ugly — it’s expensive
Anthony Wood
Story by

Anthony Wood

After working as a senior designer at leading ad agencies like Havas Worldwide, Anthony Wood transitioned into teaching design. Today, he is After working as a senior designer at leading ad agencies like Havas Worldwide, Anthony Wood transitioned into teaching design. Today, he is the Global Managing Director of Shillington Education, a comprehensive, immersive design school that transforms career changers and recent grads into fully-fledged designers within the span of 3-9 months. Shillington has campuses in Sydney, New York, London, Manchester, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

Badly drawn, derivative, and forgettable logos. Poorly designed websites and mobile apps. Formulaic products with no flair or originality.

If you’re a business, bad design hurts — from uninspiring packaging to interchangeable ads that don’t differentiate you from the competition. The truth of the matter is that design is an integral aspect of your business — inextricable from revenue and profit considerations.

Though bad design affects your business in myriad ways, let’s focus on brand, customer experience, and return-on-investment.


Brand is your identity, reputation, and persona, all rolled into one. The best, most effective branding will distinguish you from your competition, give a voice to your business, and depending on your market and circumstances, perhaps even carve out a niche for your business.

For better or worse, your business brand hinges on the snap generalizations that customers have learned to associate with your company. This form of storing information, which relies on short, brief associations born from observations, is a quintessential part of human nature: in the wild, our ancestors learned to recognize patterns and from them, come to conclusions quickly. This was the difference between life and death: some hunters learned to pair certain tracks with dangerous predators, while others learned to track herds of prey by discerning migration trends.

Over time, this advantageous trait developed into a useful shorthand for organizing memories, to the point where specific parts of our brains became optimized for these rapid pattern recalls. Though we’ve moved beyond the savannahs and jungles of early humans, this habit persists today — albeit in a totally different environment: we’ve learned to associate boxy, ugly, unwieldy designs with Yugo cars, or sleek, cutting-edge products with Apple.

For that reason, bad design, be it unimaginative, boring, or confusing, will only hurt your brand. For instance, because logos are such a key part of your business’ public persona, any missteps are highly visible — and magnified a thousandfold. After all, it’s always much harder to re-brand (and thus, change your customers’ existing perceptions) than to form new ones.

Much of this comes down to familiarity: people are so accustomed to what a brand looks like (especially if it’s an iconic, well-known brand like Airbnb or Tropicana), that any change is seen negatively.

Take Gap’s expensive, disastrous 2010 redesign. The old logo, which featured “Gap” in block letters against a denim-blue background, was much known — and well-loved by customers worldwide.

The new logo, on the other hand, featured a small, blue box over a plain letter P, a redesign that both failed to break new ground, and was hardly worth the time (and money) spent on it.

In terms of design and branding, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

Customer experience

In an increasingly fragmented digital ecosystem, with countless firms and products competing for a limited user base (whose average users have an attention span of eight seconds), user feedback and experience is everything. The more seamless and effortless an online experience is, the more likely a business will close a lead.

Though good user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design are far from easy, bad UX and UI, in the form of buggy, confusing, and lagging websites have a very tangible, negative impact. This is called the cost of frustration, and can be measured in one simple way: just divide the yearly budget for a customer service department by the quantity of calls handled.

Moreover, in a digital world where companies live and die by page views, optimizing your company’s web presence (for both customer experience and search results) is essential. Leading marketer Neil Patel explains his reasoning very thoroughly: he paid design firm Digital Telepathy $20,000 to refine his company’s web pages, with an eye towards closing more customers.

In less than 30 days, Patel’s company, Crazy Egg, saw a 21 percent increase in conversions — making back the money paid to Digital Telepathy in less than a month. Patel saw similar results when he hired designers to help him create a guide to growth hacking; this resulted in an increase of tens of thousands of pageviews per day, backlinks, speaking gigs, and even a job offer.

Return on investment

Lastly, the impact of design can be (and has been) measured. In 2014 and 2015, Motiv Strategies and the Design Management Institute conducted two back-to-back studies on the impact of design. These surveys, the Design Value Index, measured how selected companies (which placed a strong emphasis on good design) performed when compared to a control group (i.e. those who didn’t prioritize design).

Essentially, Motiv and the DMI isolated a sector (in this case, design-centric organizations) that fulfilled a specific set of criteria. For instance, corporations had to be publicly traded for over a decade; they had to show tangible evidence of increasing investment and influence in design; and they had to have experienced design executives in senior-level positions. Selected firms included, among others, Apple, Starbucks, Intuit, Steelcase, Procter & Gamble, and Nike.

The results were impressive. The 15 selected companies beat the S&P Index by 228 percent over the course of a decade. Researchers cited Nike as one example: its CEO, Mark Parker, began his career as a designer.

By the time Parker became an executive, Nike’s culture was thoroughly permeated by designers, who worked in units as diverse as product, footwear, fashion, and brand. Furthermore, human-centered design, putting the end-user first and foremost, drove innovation at the company. Though other departments (such as marketing) also had a say in their respective fields, designers were trusted, empowered, and never second-guessed.

But Nike’s not alone. Design-centric organizations regularly top the list of the world’s most innovative (and profitable) companies. Powerhouses like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Snap regularly round out the top five slots, with design-obsessed upstarts (like the $750 million mattress startup Casper) regularly nibbling at the fringes.

Ultimately, great design has a cost — albeit one that pays for itself many times over. However, the costs of bad design are far more devastating, with far-reaching consequences beyond just balance sheets and profits and losses statements.

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