One of the best websites ever made is for a small car-leasing company in Gateshead. Seriously, take a look: LingsCars.com. It breaks every conceivable rule for “good” web design and is borderline painful to look at. It’s a work of art.
Its aesthetic can best be described as late-’90s GeoCities page, designed by a disgraced clown after ingesting a pillowcase full of LSD. The layout is crowded and confusing. There are multiple fonts in bright colours, some of them flashing. GIFs of cats and dogs scurry across the page. A small video auto-plays, featuring random karaoke performances of Chinese pop songs by a few of Ling’s Cars’ 10 employees. There’s a video FAQ section, and one of the answers features a flight attendant swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s as she assures you the site is not a scam.
It’s very much not a scam. Designed by Ling’s Cars owner Ling Valentine—obvious for anyone who spends more than a few seconds on the site, as her name and face are posted all over it—it mostly functions as a publicity stunt for her company. Valentine, who describes herself as the only “ex-Chinese female new car sales tycoon in the UK,” once appeared on an episode of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, only to refuse their investment offer; she also purchased what she calls a “nuclear rocket truck”—a Chinese nuclear decontamination truck with a giant missile attached to the back—and parked it on the side of the highway, to the dismay of local government officials, who ordered her to move it in a crackdown on roadside advertising.
The publicity stunts work: her site has attracted much attention for its retro design, and she has leased tons of cars, by her count $106,192,200 (£86.3m) worth of new cars in the UK in 2015).
Making one of the strangest websites was sort of accidental for Valentine. She grew up in Chengdu, China, and left in 1997 to study wood chemistry at the Helsinki University of Technology. “I failed the MSc,” Valentine says, “on the basis that it was bloody hard to learn Finnish.” Her time there wasn’t a complete loss: she met her future husband, Jon, online and joined him in the UK, where she completed an MSc in environmental management. After she graduated, she said, “I looked around for a job, but saw my husband, Jon, selling cars and thought, I can do better than him. So I did.”
When she started the site it looked like any other early-2000s car leasing site. “I had no web training apart from the crash course in Linux in Finland but I managed to scrape a website together,” she says. “I started to do well leasing new cars, as this was the time of the first real growth in internet sales.” In 2001, with the help of students from Sunderland University, she built a functioning customer relationship management software called Lingo. Then the site started expanding.
Valentine has been working on the site gradually over 15 years (according to the top of the page, it’s currently on version 238.20160215). Rather than occasionally redesigning the entire site, as most companies do every few years with their sites, she adds to it, layering new features upon old. Using the Wayback Machine, one can watch the site grow in complexity over time, like a neon fractal made of GIFs. Currently, the source code for the site is nearly 4,000 lines long. By comparison, the code for Apple.com is about 500 lines.
Its density is intentional, evidenced by the Website Advice section, where the advice is more philosophical than practical. “Don’t let 1 day go by without changing or feeding or petting website, even tiny thing. If you don’t feed website it will die,” she writes. “Website is like an extension of you, person behind business. Are you alive? Then website should be alive.”
Although a few writers have proclaimed it the “ugliest” site on the internet, this seems severely misguided. The site imagines a utopian alternate history of the web, before corporate greed and bandwidth restraints turned it into a sanitised digital mall.
Most companies use a boring Bootstrap template. Go to any start-up’s homepage and you’ll see the same easily parodied design. In addition to generating publicity for her business, Valentine’s site is partially a reaction to this. “The current w.w.web is STILL not very human-friendly. I usually get very angry with other web efforts as they are pretty poor in usability terms, and generally patronising and condescending,” she writes. “If there is any fun, it is boardroom-chic type ‘fun’, which is non-offensive and grating and has been through decision-making process.”
But there’s no need to be pessimistic about the dull state of contemporary web design. Uninspired minimal design isn’t a mandatory requirement, and as Valentine proves, a bizarre site doesn’t decrease sales. Perhaps that alternate history of the web is still attainable, if only people were willing to risk making something original (even if that something is considered hideous by a large portion of the internet). This seems to be the operating logic that gave the early web its kitschy appeal.
Or as Valentine puts it: “People like ‘real’, so I give them real.”
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