How the Quantifiable Mediums of the Internet Changed Our Aesthetics

The way people think about aesthetics in business have fundamentally and irreversibly shifted in the last decade or so. The shift started with the advent of online advertising. For the first time in history, advertisers can quantify the return on their investment, and get detailed data back to examine what worked and what didn’t. It was a paradigm shift in the so-called “creative” business.

Here, I want to be extra clear about what I mean by “aesthetics”, “design”, or “creatives” as these words can mean a lot of different things. A design for a product can have a functional design and aesthetic design. In an ideal situation, they are synthesized together, but in many cases, they are separate where the product doesn’t work well but still looks beautiful, like a chair that looks like a piece of sculpture but is uncomfortable to sit in. Below, I’m discussing only the aesthetic part.

I would also like to include creative ideas that are funny, smart, shocking, or sad. Super Bowl ads are good examples. They are stunningly beautiful, hilarious, tear-inducing, or shocking, but it does not necessarily mean that they can affect the bottom line for their clients. People might remember the TV commercials but forget the products or the companies that they were trying to promote. The customers might say, “It was entertaining, thank you, but I’ll buy it elsewhere.”

In the days without the Internet, it was not possible to quantify the effectiveness of any given creative direction. So, even if it were a flop, we could have still argued that it was a success as long as enough people said it was funny or beautiful. And, ironically, the ultimate judge of these creative campaigns were often other creatives in the same industry, not the consumers, because there were no practical ways to get the data back from the latter. Even if the business boomed for the client, it was hard to pinpoint what exactly contributed to the success.

Now everything can be measured with strategies like A/B testing. We “creatives” have no excuse. And, what we are learning is that high aesthetics doesn’t really pay off. This is a tough reality for us to swallow. It goes against everything we believed in. There are websites that present the results of A/B tests where you are asked to guess which one performed better. It’s surprisingly hard to guess because there seems to be no rhyme or reason. The one with a better design does not necessarily win. Sometimes the one that is indisputably ugly wins. In some ways, we could say that the myth, or the mystique, of “creatives” has been busted.

Everything in life has a point of diminishing returns. For instance, beyond $20 a bottle, spending $20 more wouldn’t get you anything noticeably better. If you spend more than $100 on a bottle, the differences become almost entirely subjective. From the point of view of ROI (return on investment), there is a sweet spot somewhere in-between, and now with everything becoming trackable, this sweet spot can be mathematically calculated. And, unfortunately for us creatives, this sweet spot is nowhere near as high as we had assumed or would like it to be.

This busting of the myth had a tangible impact on the creative industry. In the last ten years or so, I’ve witnessed some amazingly talented people lose their jobs or switch their careers entirely. Many young people who studied graphic design in college are unable to get jobs as graphic designers. The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who was lamenting the fact that we used to be able to charge $1,000 for a logo even as a small design studio; now people expect to pay $100 or even less. The websites like 99designs.com have destroyed this market since you can always find someone somewhere in the world who is willing to design a logo for next to nothing simply because it’s fun for him.

But ultimately it’s not the fault of these websites. Although the vast majority of people are not consciously thinking about the fundamental shift we are discussing here, they got the message instinctively. The clients who are still willing to spend a lot of money for high aesthetics are not necessarily smart either. In my observation, most of them want high aesthetics for themselves. It’s like people who love having impeccably designed offices; they know their beautiful interior design is not going to contribute to their bottom line, but they want it for themselves. In some cases, high aesthetics can scare customers away because they might assume that the price would be inflated just for having the beautiful office. Wiser clients might ask, “Why should I pay a higher price just so that these people can work in a beautiful office?”

Now we live in a world where creatives have to be accountable for what we do. We can’t keep producing a hundred dollar bottles of wine. The true need for them is very rare. The sweet spot is somewhere in the range of what we call “good enough.” If measurable metrics is what we need to go after, we creatives are better off focusing on other types of design like usability which can have a more material impact on the bottom line.

So, what are we to do now?

If high aesthetics is not what we should be focused on, we might be tempted to assume that a more logical, as opposed to emotional or psychological, approach is better, but this is not true. Science cannot solve these problems because we are at the same time the observer and the observed. In science, the separation between the two is essential. If the observer can affect the behavior of the observed, everything we go after would be a moving target, and we could never arrive at the solution. Even if we succeed in coming up with a formula that reliably and predictably work, it wouldn’t take so long before it impacts the market. Since no formula takes into account its own impact, it would break sooner or later. Finding these formulas that work temporarily is the best we can do. It’s no longer about doing what we personally like and finding clients who are willing to pay for it. It’s about using our instincts to find the best “product-market fit” as quickly as possible. And, finding it requires creativity in a more basic sense of the word.

I’ve always had a problem with the word “creative” as used in the creative industry because most people in it are not any more creative than those in other industries like accounting. Creativity is an ability to make unexpected connections that add value to our society. This definition of creativity can be applied to any industry equally. Einstein, for instance, was exceptionally creative even though, I’m pretty sure, he couldn’t design a decent business card.

This is where we need to act like Luke Skywalker; we need to use the Force, trust our instincts to increase the odds of hitting the target. Logic is a tool that allows us to reach our goals quicker, so that we can try more different ideas. The speed becomes critical here because nobody can consistently predict the solution that works. All that we can do is to manage the probability statistically. The problems we need to solve are always going to be in a low-data-high-uncertainty environment until we actually execute the ideas. In such an environment, our instincts are still the fastest and the only solution.

This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said “the medium is the message.” The accurately quantifiable nature of the Internet is changing the message. It is no longer a monologue, one way communication, from the supposed authorities of “creative” ideas to the masses. As the mass media have become two-way, the content has become much more of a dialogue.