The Broken Windows Theory What Our Aesthetic Environment Says About Our Messages and Ourselves

When asked to write this blog, my first thought was “What can I write about social or on-line media that will be interesting yet relevant?”

Then it hit me. Literally. When driving home a rock hit my windshield. Fortunately it made a huge noise and not a huge hole. That’s when I started thinking …honestly? First about how mad I was at the truck in front of me- then about my car insurance- and finally… about The Broken Windows Theory.

While finishing my master’s thesis on ‘The Branding of Cities’, I read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. In the midst of my research on my case study of New York City, I stumbled upon a reference to “The Broken Windows” theory — the brainchild of economists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling.

Wilson and Kelling were arguing that crime (the reason the population was moving out of New York City back in the early 1980’s) was the inevitable result of disorder. Their theory followed that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and a sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street, sending the signal that ‘anything goes’.

So how is this relevant to on-line media?

  1. Being immersed in the advertising/design field, we appreciate good aesthetics and try not just to make things look better, but attempt to do it strategically, and with a purpose. As marketers, we strive to elevate our clients’ products, brands, and services. We do more than just ‘make things pretty’ – we provide solutions for our clients, seeking to create eye-catching design, solid and concise writing, and quality work.
  2. In this new age, everything we learned in previous years about marketing and advertising has been turned upside down. We have far less control over messages we put out there. Anyone can post any comment or critique on-line at any time about any site. Our clients and our work is being judged the second a consumer’s smart phone finds our site. Any blogger can reach us- (which you will find ironic if you’re reading this blog).

What is now happening on-line is much like the broken window’s theory. We need to ask ourselves these questions…

  1. When a site’s physical appearance is bad, do aesthetics affect what’s written about the site’s comments or people?
  2. Do bloggers have more of an aggressive or critical commentary on sites that seem more unprofessional vs. sites that are aesthetically pleasing?
  3. Does poorly designed advertising or too many ads thrown up on a site result in readers feeling less likely to participate?
  4. Once a mistake has been made, (or one “window is broken”) might people often feel the need to continue ‘breaking the rest of the windows’?
  5. Could this make the entire site more of a joke than an actual serious marketing vehicle?


  • Don’t leave any ‘broken windows’ (bad design, spelling, grammar, bad coding, incomplete or inaccurate information) on your website.
  • Fix each problem as soon as it is discovered, regardless of how small it might be.
  • Take immediate action to prevent further damage and show that you not only care, but that you’re on top of the situation.
  • Even very small mistakes (one unrepaired ‘broken window’) is a signal that no one cares, and left ‘untended’, the result is a very slippery slope.
  • This brings the risks of site abandonment and one that may take consumers a while to tune in and trust again.

The bottom line is quality – which leads to increased awareness and sales – the goal of any client’s website. As noted above, we are in the business of creating pleasing aesthetics to showcase our message.

Face it. You can’t shine a broken window.

Julia Pfefferkorn, Creative Services Supervisor