Why Bad Design Is Important
“We tend to ignore bad design at events like this, and focus on successes,” said Alice Rawsthorn after taking the stage at the Fortune and Wallpaper Brainstorm Design conference for the second year in a row.
The design critic and author of Design as an Attitude returned “to talk about the flops and failures, which are unfortunately abundant in our lives.” Bad design, she pointed out, “has just as much, if not more importance than the good variety, and it is expensive in terms of time, emotion, effort and energy to remedy.”
In Rawsthorn’s analysis, there are seven kinds of bad design, which should serve as cautionary warnings. She begins with an image of a broken down “Boris bus” being trawled off a London street—her example of a useless design. Launched with great aplomb in 2012, the bus was intended as a fuel-efficient reinvention of the post-war era Routemaster, but has since been beset with problems.
“It looks rather good, thanks to Heatherwick Studio who designed the interior and bodywork,” she remarked, “but the engineering was lousy. It broke down frequently. The batteries would fail so it had to run on diesel. And it was prone to overheating, so much so that passengers have nicknamed it the ‘Roastmaster.'”
Moving on to the category of pointless design, Rawsthorn brought up the new Nokia 9 smartphone, which boasts five cameras—an unnecessary number, even if the phone can fulfill its function efficiently.
Irresponsible design, meanwhile, is the result of designers not thinking rigorously enough about consequences. “There are places like Agbogbloshie dump, outside Accra, Ghana, where thousands of computers, phones and tablets fail to decompose, and poison the ground for decades to come.” Black rubber-coated cables are a particularly damaging design choice, she said: ‘Black is invisible to the optical sensors that control recycling plants, so it gets automatically sent to landfill. Designers need to take more time and trouble to ensure products can be disposed of and recycled responsibly.”
Rawsthorn proceeded to call out a series of large corporations for their design blunders. She cited Adidas, whose Jabulani football likely skewed the results of the 2010 World Cup because its behavior fluctuated with altitude (“unreliable design”). She brought up IBM, who used the condescending slogan “hack a hair dryer” for its social media campaign to address the dearth of women in technology. She mentioned Mattel, which launched a Frida Kahlo Barbie doll for International Women’s Day that failed to capture disabilities the artist overcame, the unibrow that she wore in defiance of mainstream beauty standards, and the Tehuana dresses she proudly donned (all examples of good intentions gone wrong). She also expressed ire at two recent fashion abominations—a sweater that seemed to reinforce the stereotype of blackface, and a hoodie featuring a noose around the neck and calling to mind racist lynchings.
“These go in the ‘What were they thinking?’ category,” she quipped.
Rawsthorn called her final, most important category “dangerous design.” Crash test dummies, for instance, are modeled on a typical male body—and therefore are primarily responsible for women being 40% likelier to be injured in road accidents.
“But of course, the kind of danger that bad design creates is changing all the time, and now escalating,” she continued. “One of the principal catalysts is A.I. technology, whose design flaws can be catastrophic. The Algorithmic Justice League has sounded alarm about surveillance software that is more accurate at identifying white males. Not women or people of color, who as a result are more likely to be deemed potential criminals or terrorists, or have our immigration status brought into question. It can cause massive pain, damage and disruption.”
“And so I believe it’s absolutely urgent that we get to grips with bad design,” Rawsthorn concluded. “And the more thoroughly and the sooner, the better.”
For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.