They say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. Meaning good looks and gorgeousness are all relative baby. You can be as ugly as you want as long as the right people think you’re pretty great. Just ask Craigslist, the poster-child of ugly web designs that totally work.

The lesson here is that web design should be informed by the audience. What do they respond to? If they respond to ugly, well. Maybe ugly up your web design. And it’s not about pretty vs. ugly anyway. It’s about how well your web design serves its visitors.

I’ve got four more examples of awesomely awful web design, paired up with a few thoughts about why they work for their audience.

NPR’s Secret, Text-Only Website

Did you know NPR’s homepage hides a so-called “thin”, text-only version? Go to, scroll to the very bottom and click “text-only”.


What are they saying, modern web design with pictures and video isn’t good enough? Is NPR a secret hipster, going back to stone-age, artisanal HTML?

Nah, they just know you’re busy and need that link to the latest All Things Considered. The text-only NPR is a pure performance machine. Just the episode article names and links. Like Craigslist, thin NPR strips away distractions and potential interruptions. What do you value more? Animated slideshows or immediate access to the soothing tones of Terry Gross?

In addition, the text version is also easy for listeners with special accessibility requirements. These folks use screen-reading software and devices that may read the page aloud or even translate pages into Braille. NPR has made a special effort to accommodate all radio listeners with this ugly, but important version of their online content.

Ello: It’s Not Facebook

Confession: I forgot about Ello. And I work with social media every day. So, I guess that’s not a good sign for how successful and popular this alternative social media network is. It debuted to great fanfare with a mission statement that specifically condemned the ads and data collection practices driving today’s online privacy concerns. Ello promised something different. You can stay anonymous and never worry about moderation or censorship for any reason.

The original web design for Ello expressed this anti-Facebook sentiment with stark white and black layouts and the complete lack of complicated graphic design and styling bulking up Facebook at the time. They even picked a retro non-font that reminded people of ASCII, a code system introduced in 1963.


Ello never took off. But the backwards-looking, ugly design caught the attention of young creative-types and gave journalists something to talk about when the website launched. Even though they’ve since abandoned the retro font, the web design still eschews clutter and chrome in favor of spotlighting art. That’s what Ello users want anyway. Just like Craigslist and NPR, Ello steps out of your way on the path to enjoying what you came for.

Germany’s Hottest Club Is Hotel Shanghai

So far, the ugly web designs we’ve been talking about have been ugly because they allow form to follow function, stripping everything else away. This club in Essen, Germany is not like that.

Hotel Shanghai is the club stuffing flyers in your pockets for the latest, hottest, freshest DJs playing Essen tonight. There might be hundreds of Stay Puft Marshmallow Man blow-up dolls. There might be cockatiels with dogs for beaks or Furbys with people lips. Who’s to say. The web design’s wild style offers no clues, just possibilities.


The background changes every time you visit and design elements float around as you navigate. Just like a crazy club flyer, the web design is over-stimulating, even disgusting. You want to go just to see what it’s like. This ugly design is both on-trend with elements in popular culture and consistent with the club’s exotic branding.

This Ugly Businessweek Article About Yahoo

Is it me or do news magazine websites look amazing now? I’m talking about features by Pitchfork, this Wal-Mart expose by the Tampa Bay Times and this New York Times article with a virtual reality segment. Bloomberg Businessweek is doing great stuff too. Especially this amazingly ugly article about Yahoo.

It’s all intentional, a reference to notorious eyeball-bleeders like Yahoo’s Geocities and other 90s internet junk. There isn’t an obvious headline displayed. Instead, you get a cheeky rebus of text and images that manages to be both irritatingly old-timey and tickles people’s new-ish demand for interactive content.


This ugliness works because it’s directly inspired by Yahoo’s dire financial state and the struggle to escape its early-internet roots. The design is not so stylized as to be too bad, but you feel like you’re reading a relic. Which may be the future of Yahoo. The design isn’t ugly, it’s a part of the story.

We’ve looked at web designs that lack style because they’re totally focused on function and web designs that look bad to look good for their chosen audience. Good looks are truly in the eye of the beholder. Do you know who’s looking at you? First calibrate your web design to match their needs and expectations. Style it to suit them, not your own idea of fashion. Don’t need style? Don’t add it. It might pay to be ugly.

Extended Reading

The hottest trend in Web design is making intentionally ugly, difficult sites – The Washington Post

Brutalist architecture turns “ugly” into a design statement. Here’s what that looks like on the internet. – Vox

4 “Ugly” Sites that Make Millions (and What We Can Learn from Them) – Kissmetrics

Hold up.

Maybe you’re really not looking to make an ugly website. I know not everyone’s a magazine publisher or crazy German dance club. Maybe you really want something beautiful and easy for customers to navigate. Maybe you want a web design that matches your brand and your style with easy-to-edit pages.

Talk to Roundpeg for a website that looks just as you need it, ugly or not. Call the office 317-569-1396 or send us a message online for more info about our web design options.

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Roundpeg is an Indianapolis web design firm.