It’s Good to Be Bad

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.

The truth be told, some of the most popular viral content and web sites these days don’t come from trained, professional designers applying respected standards of our craft. Instead, they are often roll-your-own web sites created by amateurs or hobbyists.

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 Dance
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
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 Baby
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.
(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.

About the Author: David Vogler is a vice president, creative director at Modem Media. Before becoming a full-time agency man, David spent his career at MTV Networks designing entertainment content for kids and teens. David can be reached at david (at)