“We ought to talk more about bad design,” said design critic Alice Rawsthorn. At Brainstorm Design 2018, she defined bad design into six categories while naming names and pulling no punches.
16 March, 2018
Who doesn’t like to talk about good and great design? But we shouldn’t only talk about those. “I believe we ought to talk about bad design too,” said British design critic Alice Rawsthorn at the Brainstorm Design Conference 2018 at the Mandarin Oriental Singapore hotel during Singapore Design Week last week. She posited that bad design can even have a greater impact in our lives, particularly in terms of the time, effort, and other resources required to deal with the damage that it can cause, so the more we know about bad design, the better.
But defining what is good and bad design is tricky, she said, because the definition changes at different times and different context. So in her 15-minute segment in the conference, titled Design In Focus: Bad Design, Rawsthorn shared six common categories of bad design. And she named names and pulled no punches. And the six categories are:
“These are design projects that break the cardinal rule of good design because they just don’t work, or they don’t work properly,” said Rawsthorn. There are too many projects that fall into this category. But on the top spot of Rawsthorn’s list is the one product that every rage rooms (commercial establishments where you pay to destroy things you particularly dislike) in North America have – a digital printer. We’re all familiar with that rage-inducing printer malfunctions.
Rawsthorn explained, “These are design projects that fulfil their function efficiently but that function is so pointless, why bother design in the first place?” She cut straight to name an example: Google Glass, which she called one of the most heavily hyped products that “cannot do much more than an ordinary smartphone, looks ridiculous and in the worst case, could make its user liable to lawsuits for invasions of privacy”.
“On the ground of doing something that nobody really wants or needs, Google Glass was so commercially disastrous, that a new nickname was coined for the people who wore it. It’s too rude to say it together but it’s two words: glass and hole,” she quipped.
This category comprises design projects that have not properly thought of the consequences they cause. She cited Predpol, an artificial intelligence program designed for the US police department to predict where crime is the likeliest to occur. Shared Rawsthorn, “Predpol is very swiftly revealed to have a racial bias and almost always identifies black neighbourhood as the likeliest place where crime will be committed. As the result, police resources will be sent to safeguard respectable black neighbourhood in anticipation of a crime that didn’t actually happen there, leaving other areas horribly exposed.”
Rawsthorn defined this ominous design as a design project that fills us with dread. And the example? Uber. She explained that while Uber’s business model has been brilliantly designed to fulfil a specific need and that it is potentially profitable, it has put so much pressure on the company that it has been left vulnerable to accusations of labour exploitation, endangering the safety of its drivers and causing congestions that it has been mired in lawsuits and political crackdowns.
“This one is more of a sub-category of bad design because it makes us question our trust,” said Rawsthorn of the fifth category. And a brand that has unfortunately slipped into this category according to her? Apple. She cited the recent exposé by sub-contractors that revealed that Apple has designed its upgrading software to ensure that the older model of its iPhone and iPad will become progressively less efficient. “A seemingly minor design decision I think caused a lot of people to question their trust of the brand. This causes a serious breach of trust in a company that is very difficult to recover from,” she said.
This is a category of design that actually uses bad design to achieve a certain purpose, which can either be positive or negative. “Strategic is entirely subjective,” she said. Rawsthorn named the Australian cigarette packaging as a brilliant example of this category, sharing how the Australian government has mandated cigarette companies to use the least appealing Pantone colour (“yucky brown”) and pair it with the most repulsive photographs depicting the various health consequences of smoking, which resulted in 800,000 Australians giving up smoking within two years of the design’s introduction.
An example of the subjective case is the “anti-homeless spikes” installed on “expensive office and apartment buildings in London, New York and possibly even here in Singapore”. She shared, “From the functional perspective, it’s brilliant and successful. But for someone like me, it’s appaling for its moral subtext of persecuting the most vulnerable members of the society.”
Even the best intention in this category can go awry, she continued, sharing the layout of the ballot of US presidential election in Florida in 2000. Aiming to present larger typeface to make its 10 candidates’ names easier to read, the layout of the ballot paper instead confused voters, many of whom convinced that they voted the wrong candidate. “To this day, Democrats are convinced that Al Gore lost many votes there,” says Rawsthorn. “That was a sobering indication of what bad design can do, and another one on why we should get a good grip on the phenomenon that is bad design.”
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