Why you don’t need design like Apple

Authenticity vs. Beauty

Apple proved that beauty not only works. It sells.

By marrying design and technology, Apple evolved from a niche brand for hobbyists into one of most valuable companies ever.

After their success, many companies followed suit and leveled up on design.

If you can’t beat ‘em…

Many of the products we spend our time with — our phones, laptops, and the software that comes with them — were originally designed, or at least inspired by Apple. And with Apple creating and managing the App Store, a huge chunk of the software industry is now required to have ‘Apple-approved’ design to survive.

For design and beauty, our expectations as consumers are higher than they’ve ever been. And the future of where products will compete will hinge more and more on the emotions driven from thoughtful, pleasurable design.

As a designer, I appreciate this attention to design.

I look at my laptop screen and the icons look like candy.

I zip fluidly through my apps, getting hits of pleasure from well-designed transitions along the way. The visual beauty of technology is so much different from how it was even just 10 years ago.

A computer used to feel like you were navigating a maze in a cornfield. Uncertainty around every corner until you finally found the path to get something done.

Yet, for all the good this focus on design has done for us, this same focus on visual polish has a cost.

In our worship of the design and marketing of companies like Apple, we creators lose sight of an even more powerful way to present our ideas to the world.

Because we’ve seen the results of visual beauty in product design, we expect putting this level of focus on visual beauty in our brand’s message will have the same effect.

I’ve seen companies spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars perfecting a website, email, or ad’s visual design while spending the last few hours on writing the words that will make up that design.

Our intense focus on visual design can blind us from focusing on the most important part of the message: The story.

Choosing substance over style

We’ve had a taste of this ourselves.

A year ago, we sent out two versions of this email campaign.

One email closely followed the principles of how a well-designed email is supposed to look:

  • Not too many words
  • A big, attractive image
  • A clear call-to-action

The other version took a different direction. We wrote it as if we were telling a story to a friend. It broke every rule:

  • The email was long
  • There were 11 links before you got to the main call-to-action
  • The call-to-action was buried at the end

Here were the results:

Even though our ‘less-beautiful’ email broke many of the rules, the longer, story version had almost three times the click-through rate compared to the shorter version.

Though this example is limited in that it was constrained to people in our community who might prefer a more story-oriented approach (since this is our usual style), it supported our hunch that beauty isn’t always best.

And that being more authentic (i.e. telling our story just like we’d tell it to a friend) has a bigger impact than we might expect.

A lesson from Pixar: It’s not about animation, it’s about story

There are examples of this same preference for a well-told story in all creative fields.

In 1995, Pixar released Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film. And while Toy Story went on to smash box office records, Pixar had a rocky start.

Star Wars Director, George Lucas, sold his shares in Pixar before Toy Story was made, and Pixar almost went bankrupt (if, ironically, it weren’t for Apple founder Steve Jobs stepping in to invest).

The film industry thought a mainstream audience wouldn’t care enough to see an animated feature film.

What they neglected to see was the power of story.

Even though animation was at its core, the Pixar team knew their success would ultimately fall on one simple thing: Their ability to tell a good story.

Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar, wrote in his bestselling book Creativity, Inc. about his company’s creative process:

“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you aren’t getting the story right.”

Pixar has won the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture for 8 out of their 16 films. And every single Pixar film has landed on the respective year’s top ten list of most profitable films.

No other studio comes close to this hit rate.

Telling a good story, whether that’s through email, film, or any medium, creates a connection. And it’s this connection that leads to attention, which leads to trust, which leads to sales.

As Pixar realized early on, you can get away with lesser visual effects if your story is good. But the reverse is not always true.

Case in point, if we look at the ten most expensive movies ever made, the average production cost was $274 million per film.

And the average ranking across these films according to Rotten Tomatoes? 59%

(The highest rated film was Tangled at 90% which was produced by Disney/Pixar).

Meanwhile, the average Pixar film cost an average of $145 million and averages an 89% review from critics and audiences alike.

What’s even more telling is that if we take a sampling of the critic consensus from the poorly rated movies in the top ten, you’ll notice that critics rarely say the quality of the animation or special effects as the reason why they gave a bad rating.

They cite issues with the story:

“…this Pirates runs aground on a disjointed plot and a non-stop barrage of noisy action sequences.” — Review of Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides
“…mixes in too many characters with too many incomprehensible plot threads.” — Review of Pirates of the Caribbean 3
“While John Carter looks terrific and delivers its share of pulpy thrills, it also suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization.” — Review of John Carter
“…a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action.” — Review of Batman vs. Superman

While the other producers may have had the budgets to make something as visually stunning as Pixar, where they didn’t level up was in their story.

We can make something look pretty. But if pretty doesn’t tell a good story it won’t matter.

Why beauty doesn’t always work (especially today)

Just like you can’t rely on beauty alone in the design of your product, you can’t only focus on beauty to tell your story.

A well-designed message is one that tells a good story first.

As we saw in our email campaign example, a story is powerful enough to overcome an email design that breaks all the rules.

You might not have Apple’s marketing budget ($1.2 billion this year) or design chops. But that’s okay. Sometimes Apple-level beauty isn’t the best way to present your story. And sometimes it might even make things worse.

In a recent article published by BBC, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte reviewed findings on if there was a drawback to being ‘too beautiful’.

The researchers uncovered several studies, including one in 1975 that found people tend to move away from a beautiful woman on a pathway. A similar behavior was found from a review of the profile photos from the dating website OKCupid. Men with ‘average’ looking profile photos got more messages than men with the ‘most attractive’ profile photos.

The researchers suggested this behavior could be because attractiveness conveys power. As a result, people feel they need to respect an attractive person more and keep their distance.

These examples illustrate that beauty can backfire. If something is too beautiful it can be seen as less approachable, further distancing you from the people you are trying to reach.

Similarly, clothing brands like American Eagle recently saw an increase in sales after they stopped photoshopping models.

Too much beauty can be seen as a sales tactic. Though we may be attracted to something that looks good, we also have a strong unconscious aversion to being sold to.

And this aversion is getting stronger.

First, because of the internet and the power of online networks like Facebook, we have more access to information, which means we see more instances of bad things.

For instance, of the top movie documentaries all-time listed on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 of the top 10 are stories of injustice or corruption and have been made since 2005.

Every phone has become a media device. Stories spread fast. And while there’s a lot of good happening in the world, stories of corruption and distrust tend to surface to the top because they grab our attention.

Trust is at an all-time low. As this 2013 USA Today poll suggests, two thirds of Americans polled said they were suspicious of others. This is double the rate of distrust since the survey was first done in 1972.

We’ve become hypersensitive to bullshit. We have an increasing lack of trust for everything, including beauty.

Beauty can be perceived as a layer of bullshit, making people feel like they are being sold to.

As one of the lead researchers from the study said: “If you are obsessing about attractiveness, it may alter your experience and interactions.”

This is exactly it.

If we focus too much on the visual attraction of our message, the experience people have with our stories will likely suffer.

Increase in information; Decrease in attention

Adding to our natural aversion to being sold to, we’ve become overloaded with things vying for our attention.

In the last decade, as the world moved mostly online, messages started to attack us everywhere. And these messages are smart. With billboards we could just look away. With TV/radio we could shut it off. But today’s messages are connected to all the tools we use to communicate. And brought to us by people we trust.

“If we focus too much on the visual attraction of our message, the experience people have with our stories will likely suffer.”

Facebook. Twitter. Email. Phones. Laptops. Tablets. Notifications come flying at us from all angles. Because today’s messages come in bits and pings, they are cheap, effective, and easy to spread.

With so much access to information, we only have two options:

Either we try to consume everything (which isn’t possible) or we filter (i.e. we stop paying attention to a lot of things).

Since we can’t consume everything, we’ve become experts at filtering. Filtering out crap. Filtering anything that looks remotely untrustworthy or has the tiniest hint of salesmanship.

To quote multi-platinum musician Rihanna:

“My fans can sniff the BS from very far away. I cannot trick them.”

Our brains have actually changed to adapt to the current information overload.

A recent study by Microsoft on Canadians found that our attention spans have dropped by a quarter, from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, since 2000; which is less than the attention span of a goldfish.

There’s a general fatigue that’s happening. We’ve been forced into becoming B.S. detection experts.

While ads and marketing may have gotten prettier and better with more data, we’ve gotten better at filtering. Resisting.

It’s an arms race. And it might seem like we’re doomed to lose as creators. That no will ever care what we have to say.

But we’re not. There’s an easy solution.

The solution is easy and you already know how to do it

When you see an email from a friend saying, “hey lets catchup for coffee monday. you in?” it cuts through everything.

Even though it breaks every standard of writing: no capitalization, missing punctuation. It grabs your attention. You answer it first. Why?

First, this message comes from a person you trust so that plays a huge factor. But, adding to the trust you have in the messenger, is a message you know came from a human. Not a machine.

There’s no fancy headlines, graphics, or words so you feel safe. You’re not being gamed. You can let your guard down for a second.

There’s plenty of results to back up that you don’t need visual beauty to connect with people.

Multi-platinum musician Beyonce’s most watched music video on her YouTube channel is her song, 7/11. Even though many of Beyonce’s music videos have a high production quality, 7/11 is shot with low-quality video. Yet, it outperformed every other Beyonce video.

Kelly Starrett is a physiotherapist and trainer who has some of the most consistently viewed fitness videos on YouTube. He recorded most videos with a phone in his garage with no professional gear.

Some of Kelly’s videos even show his daughter accidentally walking in and ‘mistakes’ in editing.

Kelly could have edited these things out but because they were kept in, I feel an even deeper connection with him. These ‘mistakes’ make me feel like Kelly is a human and he’s not trying to sell me. Like he’s one of my friends in his garage figuring something out and he’s sending over a video for me to check it out.

He’s a person who has kids, a dog, a somewhat messy garage. And he shoots low-resolution, unedited videos just like me. I can relate to that. His videos aren’t the highest quality or the nicest shot. But what they do have is some of the best fitness coaching I’ve ever seen. They have substance. So I trust Kelly. When I’m looking for fitness tips, I search Kelly first. When Kelly wrote a book, I bought it.

Maybe if Beyonce and Kelly used professional equipment for these videos, viewership would have increased, but the way they shot these videos in raw form is partly what makes them attractive. These videos make Beyonce and Kelly seem approachable and relatable.

Comedian Louis C.K. does a similar thing with the emails he writes.

Louis sends email newsletters that feel like he’s just writing to you. Some have spelling mistakes or improper punctuation but that’s part of them. I don’t care about those grammar mistakes. In fact, I like them. It makes me feel like Louis is simply talking to me like he would talk to a friend.

Here’s an example:

Time and again we see the substance of the story is more important than the look of it.

We don’t need beauty to connect with people. When we sense someone is being ‘real’ with us, our brain’s natural urge to resist influence is calmed.

What your message needs is authenticity. Your unique way of sharing your message with all its blemishes and imperfect sentences.


Authenticity doesn’t mean beauty.

Authenticity means substance. It means cutting the bullshit.

While visual beauty counts for something, it isn’t the only thing that connects people with your message.

If you want anyone to trust you. To pay attention to you. To maybe one day buy from you. Your best option is to remove all the barriers in your message. To sound more like how you sound when you talk to a friend. To sound like just another human. Because ‘just another human’ is much more relatable than a corporation.

Authenticity is powerful. It’s easy. And we all already know how to do it.

We just need a reminder sometimes that it’s ok to be authentic. Even when it comes to business. Actually, especially when it comes to business.

When you think of our company, picture it as a person. A brand should sound like a person, rather than a company. Whether it’s a website, an email, a tweet, or an ad, everything should feel like it’s coming from a person. Because it is.

You might think you need to use industry words because you think you need to sound like an ‘industry leader’, or you feel like you need to watch what you say so you don’t offend a partner, investor, or customer.

Or in certain cases, there might be legal or company policy reasons outside your control that require you to hold back from saying what you really want to say. But the closer you can get to what you really want to say, the better your message will connect.

That said, I know how hard it is to wipe the business off a message when we’ve been trained to think we need to sound a certain way when we operate professionally. One thing I do is start rough drafts for any of our company announcements as Facebook posts.

There’s something about the context of writing the message directly in Facebook that shifts my brain and makes me write like I’m writing to a friend.

Sometimes we can overdo a message because the tool we use to write these messages that makes us feel like the stakes are higher. Writing in professional tools subtly tells your brain, “Hey, this is going to be important cause you’re writing it in your WordPress backend so be careful.” This kills your personality.

Try lowering the stakes. Write your important business messages using a tool where you communicate with friends and family. I bet your personality will come spilling out.

The way you explain your company to a friend is how you should explain it to the world. If you’re being overly formal just because it worked for someone else, you will sound like everyone else, and you will be tuned out.

We’re all humans. Even under a suit.


Making something pretty is fine, just make sure this beauty is paired with substance because beauty alone won’t be enough.

And if you have to choose between making something prettier or making the message more authentic, choose the message.

Without a story you have nothing. Without a story, people will glaze over you even if you spent hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars making your story look pretty.

Showing your imperfection is better than faking perfection.

More so than ever before, direct communication is expected. Instagram, Twitter, and newer communication platforms like Snapchat are even more focused on raw, direct connection.

For all the bad the connected world shows us, this same connection is a unique opportunity to share your beliefs and connect with people on a massive scale. Never has it been easier to reach so many of the right people with your story.

You might think you need beauty to create impact but you don’t. Authenticity is more powerful. Authenticity is approachable. It creates connection.

Being authentic is the most beautiful thing you can do.