Lately I’ve been haunted by a troubling question: Does a web site have to be well designed to be popular?
Let's assume that the mission of graphic design in non-interactive
mediums (like magazines and books for example) is to simply connect the
reader to an editorial message or information. In a sense, design in
print connects people to data, design on the Internet connects people to
people. Viral communication and multi-user experiences are the
intrinsic qualities of the web that no other “traditional” medium
shares. That being the case, one could argue that those working on the
web require a heightened set of design skills, right? Well maybe not.
Below are my six favorite examples of immensely popular web sites that,
in spite of their arguably dubious design, caught the public’s attention
with their killer ideas and viral mojo.
The Hampster Dancehttp://www.xs4all.nl/~bart/hamster/hamsterdance.html
In 1998 Deidre LaCarte posted a crudely designed single web page that
presented rows of animated .gif images of dancing cartoon Hamsters. It
was a complete eyesore and had no redeeming qualities. The hook was,
the page was accompanied by a catchy little audio loop that was both
irritating yet embarrassingly enjoyable. No one could listen to the page
and not be affected. Many hated it, many loved it, but no matter what,
everyone remembered it. Within days of being launched, the URL was
exchanged by millions of people and it took off like wildfire. Within a
short time the humble singing ‘n dancing Hamsters spawned products,
spin offs and even a best selling novelty music CD.
William Hung is a Hong Kong native and a struggling student at UC
Berkeley studying Civil Engineering. Earlier this year, William appeared
in a dreadful audition for FOX’s highly rated American Idol television
show. Mr. Hung’s singing was so astoundingly bad he was immediately
booted off the show. Thanks to the miracle of Tivo, a few viewers that
evening digitized his earnest rendition of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs and
released the video clip onto the web. By the very next morning the clip
was a culture tidal wave and gathered a large fan base of sympathetic
users. Based on this one viral, grassroots ground swell, Mr. Hung was
immediately embraced by the press and appeared on dozens of radio and TV
shows to share his “failure.” Realizing that William Hung’s Q rating
was skyrocketing, the very judges that initially kicked him out hastily
invited William back for a special “losers show.” (Incidentally, that
episode remains one of the most highly watched in the series’ history).
Within weeks William not only had his own profitable web site, but also
signed a recording contract to produce an album of his “singing.” The
sad thing is, he doesn’t realize that the public is laughing AT him, not
WITH him. But that’s no surprise is it? Before the web, you could only
really be ridiculed in front of your peers in the schoolyard or the
office. Now, with the advent of cheap video recorders, fat pipes, and
ubiquitous Internet access, you can be ridiculed in front of the entire
world! Maybe that Andy Warhol prediction was correct?but for all the
wrong reasons! Whether he wanted it or not, one small piece of video
unleashed onto the web as a silly goof transformed an unsuspecting naïve
dork into a mighty pop culture icon.
All Those Prank “Shock” Sites(Sites are no longer live)
There’s a plethora of humorous, prank sites designed to do one simple
thing: get passed along and embarrass the viewer. I think these might
be a modern update of the classic “kick me” sign that has entertained
deviant sixth grade boys for years. Yes, all of these sites are poorly
designed and illustrated. But that’s not the point. They deliver the
goods and fulfill their objectives. In fact, the cheesier their design,
the more bitter the sting.
The Dancing Babyhttp://www.dancing-baby.net/
Not technically a web site, but one of the earliest examples of mass
viral content. The dancing baby was created and animated by Michael
Girard, Robert Lurye and Ron Lussier. Working with a common 3D
Viewpoint baby model, the team used 3DStudio Max to pervert the form
into a surreal dancing toddler. For months this small clip circulated
around the Internet and soon broke out into the mainstream media. The
crazy dancing baby actually became a reoccurring character on television
making appearances on Alley McBeal and was the frequent topic of many
monologues on late night TV. The baby reached its height of popularity
when Young & Rubicam made it the poster child (no pun intended) for
Blockbuster Video in a repelling 1998 television ad.
The Subservient Chicken(Site is no longer live)
This site presents a video of a guy in a homemade chicken suit that
actually responds to the user’s input. Simply type a command (like
“jump” or “flap your wings” or “take a dump”) and the chicken will
actually do it! It’s a devilishly simple idea that uses a logic tree
clip and a database of over 300 video clips. Certain keywords and
combinations trigger certain actions. (Keep it clean, kids!) The
low-tech, home-grown quality gives the site an underground, subversive
feeling. Not to mention the creepy suburban rec room décor that looks
like the basement den of a child molester. In fact, this is actually one
grand campaign funded by none other than Burger King to promote their
new chicken products. It’s a case where “bad” design is intentionally
used to enhance the experience. I would argue that if this were designed
as slick advertising with corporate logos all over it, the public
wouldn’t have embraced it. As of this writing, it’s one of the most
talked about pieces of viral web content in years.
Superbad.com (Site is no longer live)
There is simply no other site like SuperBad. Created by a mysterious,
unnamed web designer (the domain is registered to one “Ben Benjamin” in
San Francisco), SuperBad has long been an artistic and technical
pioneer. The site has been in existence for many years and has never
lost its edge. Unlike most sites that are either whored up with cheesy
ad banners or sold out to hidden agendas, SuperBad has steadfastly
maintained its integrity. The site must be seen to be believed. It’s
the only site I know that can actually be described as “fine art.”
SuperBad is pure eye candy that perfectly blends imagery and code.
There’s no fancy-schmancy browser plug-ins here. No flash. No
shockwave. Nothing. Open it up and take a look at the source code. The
entire site is executed in good old-fashioned HTML and Java script. The
site is as beautifully crafted under the hood as it is on the surface.
SuperBad is a rich blend of both left and right sides of the brain. It
challenges the viewer to reconsider their perceptions of a web site. In a
word, it’s pure poetry. This is a site that dares to elevate the
interactive medium to a higher level of artistry. The design isn’t bad,
it’s just coded that way.
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