Designers Need to Stop Praising Good Design and Start Talking About the Bad Design

March 7, 2018, 5:33 AM UTC
Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018
017 Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018 Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 Singapore 10:30 - 10:45 DESIGN IN FOCUS: BAD DESIGN When we talk or read about design, it is usually about the positive qualities of “good design,” but bad design has just as much, if not more influence on our lives. Alice Rawsthorn explores different forms of bad design, and assesses the impact of design projects that – intentionally or otherwise – affect us negatively, rather than positively, and why we need to understand them. Presenter: Alice Rawsthorn, Author, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life Photograph by Stefen Chow/Fortune
Stefen Chow/Fortune

Alice Rawsthorn isn’t afraid to name names. If your designs are bad, useless or untrustworthy they could have serious consequences. Think of traditional prescription pill bottles that look so similar that they can lead to people taking the wrong medicines by mistake.

It’s therefore essential that, as designers increasingly try to solve the more complex problems confronting the world, that we understand what constitutes bad design.

“When designers or the media talk about design, they almost always talk about good or great design. We all love to hear about products that are faster, better, more efficient, or ethically responsible. Or about designers grappling with climate change and social justice,’’ said Rawsthorn, a syndicated columnist, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Design, and the author of the book Hello World. She was speaking on the second day of the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore.

“There is much more bad design than good,’’ she continued. “Only a small fraction of computer design is good. Much more is mediocre or bad. They can have a lot of impact on our lives and so a lot of time is spent trying to mitigate their consequences.”

As a prime example she cites many digital printers. Many are overly complicated, don’t do what they say, jam up, or break down. They are the number one product that people smash in “Rage Rooms,” places in North America where consumers take out their anger and destroy products they hate.

Even some companies known for brilliant design have fallen victim to some of bad design decisions. Apple, for instance, has suffered a loss of trust even among its fans because of the recent revelation that it had designed it iPads and iPhones with aging batteries to slow down. Apple said it was done to prolong device life, but it wasn’t upfront with consumers.

“It is very difficult and take a long time to overcome the loss of trust, the consequence of that bad design decision,’’ she said.

Bad design can have positive consequences. One of the most successful examples is the design of cigarette packaging using the ugliest pantone color possible and photos of the medical consequences of smoking. “The result was that in Australia over 800,000 people gave up smoking within the first few years the packaging was adopted,’’ said Rawsthorn.

But that’s a rare positive instance. Generally, Rawsthorn said, “If you look at the enthusiasm with which designers are moving into new and more important areas, you can also see the many mistakes and their consequences. So it is absolutely essential that we get a grip on the phenomenon of bad design.’’

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