The name should have been the first clue that something was off. When Dogecoin—a portmanteau born from the internet dog meme, “Doge”—blew up in 2013, it wasn’t totally clear that the cryptocurrency was a joke. It had a silly name, sure. And a tagline that read, “An open source peer-to-peer digital currency, favored by Shiba Inus worldwide.” But it also had a website, logo, and legitimate market value. In the weird world of 2013 cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin was just as real-seeming as any of the other fake-looking currencies on the web. Which, to be clear, was pretty much all of them.
To nobody’s surprise, soon after its launch, Dogecoin revealed itself as a parody coin (granted, one with a market cap that hit $1 billion dollars earlier this year), and scammers flocked to it like a moth to light. In hindsight, Dogecoin’s perplexing rise should have taught us all a valuable lesson: If it sounds like a joke and looks like a joke, it’s probably a joke. And yet, it’s hard to blame people for not getting it. When you’re wading through an endless river of dubious design, how can you ever tell what’s real and what’s fake?
Cryptocurrency has a design problem. It’s had one ever since bitcoin blew up in 2008 with its kids’ stamp of a logo. That orange circle with a “฿” in the middle set the trajectory for a seemingly endless rollout of non- or poorly designed cryptocurrency logos that include Litecoin (a gray circle with an italicized “L” in the middle); Dash (a blue circle with an italicized “D” in the middle); Zcash (a black gold coin with a “Z” masquerading as a dollar sign in the middle); and countless others.
There’s little debate that blockchain-powered cryptocurrencies could stand to add some graphic shine to their shoes, but it’s about more than just that. Though the design problem might start at the surface with slapped-together logos that render in blown-out pixels across the web, it goes as deep as the unintelligible user interfaces on digital wallets that control millions of dollars. Blockchain is a complicated technology, and it’s made even more so by bad design. “The industry does a terrible job of explaining itself,” Connie Yang, Coinbase’s director of design recently wrote on the company’s blog. It’s a worrying observation: If a company can’t explain exactly what it’s doing, then there’s little hope for the rest of us.
So why did bad design become the default for an industry flush with cash? And what does it mean when nearly every facet of a midas touch technology looks as if it were designed by a friend of a friend’s kid brother who’s studying marketing? We’ll get to that, but let’s first take a step back.
Technology has always had a fraught relationship with design, and understandably so. The ethos of code first, make it look good later is in the DNA of companies like Google and Amazon, who only recently have embraced the value of a good user experience. Back in the 1990s, this resistance to design didn’t come off as willful ignorance in the way it does today. The brutalist web design of the time—plain text, simple boxy layouts—wasn’t so much an aesthetic choice as it was a reflection of what was technologically possible.
Still, people love to compare blockchain technology to the internet circa 1998, and both spiritually and aesthetically speaking, it’s absolutely true. Like the progenitors of the early consumer web, blockchain enthusiasts tend to glorify ideas and ideals above all else. It’s enough to make you wonder if bad design isn’t intentional, a badge of pride. Like a programmer who abides by a stress-free wardrobe of hoodies and flip flops, a lack of design can be an unspoken signifier of priorities—a technology first, aesthetics second mindset and sign that a project hasn’t been corrupted by the capitalist powers of marketability.
Today, companies have fewer excuses for muddled UX and janky UI. In the last few years, design has become a buzzy market differentiator in the tech world. Consulting companies like McKinsey and Accenture have gobbled up design studios in the hope that they can buy the design-thinking mindset that leads to “user-friendliness.” Tech giants have entire teams dedicated to highlighting their company’s dedication to good design. There are people like John Maeda, who came up straddling the worlds of graphic design and technology and are now evangelizing the idea that technologists should think like designers and that designers should at least have a fluency in the technology they’re designing for.
When it comes to blockchain and crypto, though, that last point is easier said than done. “It’s taking us so long to wrap our heads around how all of this really works,” Jesse Reed, a designer with the branding studio Order, told me recently; Reed and his partner are working on the visual identity for a blockchain entertainment studio. For them, not fully grasping the technology’s intricacies has actually helped them be more creative. Starting with fresh eyes allowed them to break free of the lazy visual metaphors that technology companies have relied on for so long. “We’re approaching this project like we would any other identity project,” Reed continues. “We’re trying to clearly communicate what a company is trying to accomplish.”
So what are blockchain companies trying to accomplish? Depends on who you ask. Designers have the opportunity to improve more than the aesthetics of the industry–it’s a chance to figure out what problems this industry should be solving in the first place.
It’s not entirely clear where all of this is going to go, but the smartest blockchain companies will embrace design as a foundational part of their business plans. Design is often the great legitimizer, after all, for better or worse. On a purely aesthetic level, it signals that a company is trustworthy, that’s it’s taken the time to figure out what it is and what it wants to say. More importantly, it’s a matter of user respect; helping people understand what your product is about and how to use is table stakes in 2018, not grounds for a gold star.
Of course, this all comes with a disclaimer. Design never was and never will be the end-all, be-all of good technology. Glossy marketing has led us astray before, and it probably will again. It’s built us potemkin villages of trust that eventually crumble. There will be good companies that look bad and bad companies that look good (and plenty of companies that fall into the gray area of OK, but does it really need to exist?). Thoughtful design won’t be a faultless guide for determining what’s good and what’s bad, but hopefully it will cut through at least some of the noise.