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When was the last time you visited a website covered in clip art, animated GIFs, scrolling text banners, blinking text and Comic Sans?
In some corners of the internet, this design style is alive and well – and it’s still being reproduced now.
An article published by user experience firm Nielsen Norman Group calls it “anti-design”: the intentional creation of “ugly, disorienting, or complex interfaces”.
Unlike the similar trend of brutalism, anti-design seems to rebel against what are widely accepted as the best practices of design by overwhelming the viewer with confusing and distracting images.
The NN Group puts it this way:
“Antidesign sites often feature a complete lack of visual hierarchy. Some use harsh colors, disorienting patterns, weird cursors, and unnecessary distracting animations. The overall effect feels like bad 1990s’ designs on steroids.”
As the quote above suggests, most of the websites with anti-design qualities tend to draw on visual elements from the early days of the internet, in the 1990s.
What at the time was a result of the restrictions of HTML and CSS, or limited design experience, has now become a source of nostalgia.
This February, Marvel published a promotional page for its film Captain Marvel designed as a throwback to the film’s setting of 1995.
Existing relics of older designs also seem to have an audience. The original website for 1996 film Space Jam became a viral hit when it was rediscovered in 2010, after a link posted to Reddit reached the front page of the site.
Another link to the website which was posted on Twitter has gained more than 121,000 clicks to date, but the media coverage it attracted means traffic is likely to be much higher.
With Space Jam 2 set to be released in 2021, the continued interest in nineties web design could be part of a more general trend for retro style and media.
In many cases, websites that fall under the category of anti-design are not being used to advertise a genuine business or product, but as an in-joke among designers.
Others position themselves as an illustrative example of what not to do, such as the self-proclaimed World’s Worst Website Ever – complete with a comprehensive list of website mistakes.
When it’s not just a joke but a commercial choice, anti-design tends to be used by businesses that want to convey a similar ironic sense of humour.
Like the Mean Tweets trend, it could be interpreted as a means to appear authentic and self-aware – a way for brands to differentiate themselves from the corporate formality found on most websites, and to present themselves as more sincere by contrast.
Alternatively, it can simply be used to shock. This was the case for an internship website created by New York advertising agency Mother in 2015, which called for ‘fresh meat’ using graphically literal imagery.
The website is no longer live, but the accompanying promotional video should give you some idea of its particularly nightmarish design style. (View at your own risk.)
Another extreme but successful example of anti-design can be seen in the website for car leasing service LINGsCARS.
Along with its sister site Ling’s Wings, LINGsCARS has become notorious for its unapologetic disregard for all the accepted rules of website design, from its gaudy background to its cluttered text and flashing GIFs.
Depending on who you ask, it’s either the best or worst website on the internet. Either way, it’s inspired plenty of articles that reference it (like the one you're reading now) gaining valuable publicity and those all important backlinks.
Arguably what really makes anti-design work for this brand is the personality of the business owner, Ling Valentine.
Ling herself being at the centre of the LINGsCARS brand gives a sense of authenticity to her many marketing stunts, including placing a missile launcher truck next to the A1 motorway.
In an excerpt from Dragon’s Den: Success from pitch to profit, Ling explained her decision to market herself – a Chinese woman in the car sales business – as a “unique concept”.
“I like to have fun and that is what is missing from car sales,” she says. “I am confident enough that my service is quite simply the best in the UK, so I stuck my name and my head on the website!”
She added that she wanted to make “the most thought-provoking, useful and entertaining car website in the UK”, and use it to “tell the truth to customers without the waffle”.
Before you rush to fill your website with clashing colour combinations and bizarre Flash games, let’s have a reality check: this tactic won’t work for most businesses.
While bold and unconventional design choices can work for certain brands, particularly those that are themselves in design-related fields, others may struggle to pull it off. It requires remarkable sophistication to do a bad website well.
Plus, the problem with deliberately breaking web design rules is that it tends to come at the sacrifice of user experience and clarity. In most cases, making things difficult for your audience to understand won’t help sell your product.
That said, it can be helpful to reflect on the way anti-design rejects convention in favour of standing out from the crowd, and in some cases presents a more honest version of a business.
Does your website look exactly the same as every other website in your industry? Does it have pages or features that are only there because they came with the template, or because your competitors have them?
Even if you don’t go full Ling you might, for example, consider using a feature colour that goes against the grain – Chris Sedgeman’s bright pink scaffolding is a familiar and remarkable sight around West Cornwall, for example.
Ling Cars is legendary but you'd have to be very brave to attempt to recreate such a site. As said, user experience is everything really.