Quotation Mark-Up:
The Cost of Bad Design

This quote is useful because it isn’t terribly specific. The word “design” can be assumed to be in reference to vehicle design, but we can also apply these insights to design of the smallest degree. Without spending too much more time extrapolating meaning, here is our quote:

If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.” – Ralf Speth

Question 1: What is the original context?

Despite the recency and wide-spread use of this quote, and the fact that its orator is still alive, there seems to be no definitive origin story for this phrase. However, since Dr. Speth has done nothing to distance himself from these words, we’ll operate under the assumption that he, at minimum, endorses the sentiment. 

Uniquely, Ralf Speth is not a widely-quoted individual, adding to the oddness of such a ubiquitous quote. Digressing, this is not a quote where the origin story is as rich as the content.

Question 2: Is this quote meant to be taken literally?

Yes and no. This is not a quote whose meaning is shrouded by an overwrought metaphor. It’s clear and concise. However, the two key words of this quote are intentionally vague – design and cost.

Design is not specific to any particular discipline, and cost can mean a litany of different things. Beyond this, it’s a largely literal piece of literature.

Question 3: What is really being said, and do I agree?

The meaning here is fairly simple. Good design can certainly be expensive, but the costs related to design are more than just monetary. The attributes that drive up the cost of design include time, expertise, ideation, revision, and iteration, to name a few. By cutting monetary costs, you cost yourself across these many areas.

Let’s discuss what we mean by “more than just monetary.” While finances are often the greatest cost concern to those paying for design, bad (cheap) design can cost more than they realize. Making a bad impression on consumers, hiding your key brand promises, being uninspiring, or actually tarnishing your brand’s reputation can all be done with the errant placement of a pixel. And more often than not, bad (cheap) design gets replaced quickly. By compressing the lifecycle of design and suffering the ill effects of poor design on a brand, you’ll be out much more than the cost of good design.

As far as our agreement, it is unequivocal. This is a conversation we’ve had dozens of times and a hill we’re willing to die on. We’ll find ways to reduce the cost to the greatest extent possible, we’ll avoid letting great be the enemy of good, but we’ll fight tooth and nail for good design.

Question 4: How does this quote apply to the advertising/creative industry?

The application to the advertising/creative industry is overt because we live in the world of messaging and design. From a single piece of collateral to a robust brand identity system and website, good design costs money. Sometimes lots of it. But design with significant sacrifices costs more, and it costs in intangible ways that can’t be easily rectified with more cash.

If we could wave a magic wand, we’d urge organizations in need of creative services to be forthright with their budget. This allows an agency like General Public to figure out how to execute the best possible design within the given constraints, rather than just guessing until a proper budget is no longer possible.

Question 5: Has anyone said it better?

While we can’t say any one person has ever expressed this idea better, many have certainly done it with more specificity. That requires a much greater word count, though, and as fans of brevity, we’ll stick with Dr. Speth.

However, we do think the idea has been expressed better through a popular visually-oriented concept of unknown origin. It goes as follows:

You have a triangle with ideas at each point. They are cost, quality, and time. A single straight line, representing the project, can only connect two of these attributes. You can have design of high quality in a brief timeline, but the cost will be great. You can have design of modest cost in a brief timeline, but quality will be sacrificed. You can have design that’s of high quality at a modest cost, but the timeline will be stretched to accommodate more immediate or more lucrative work.

You can’t have the entire triangle; you can only have 2/3rds of it. This better articulates why good design costs what it does, but Ralf Speth’s quote does a far better job of articulating the downside of cheap, poor design, so we’ll hold onto it until something better comes along.

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