So Bad It’s Good

May 28, 2019 by Peyton Beard | Social Media Specialist
Image Credit: Katerina Kamprani

Let’s face it: there’s a lot more bad design in the world than good. Designers and non-designers alike LOVE to point out, praise, and analyze good design when they see it, but understanding bad design will not only improve one’s personal skillset, but will have a greater impact on the world itself. Bad design goes beyond the use of Papyrus or the overuse of Helvetica. Bad design goes beyond a color palette. It goes beyond a pull door being labeled “PUSH.” Sure, bad design can be humorous at first, but the ramifications can be incredibly costly in terms of time, energy, money, reputation, and other resources. By knowing different forms of bad design, designers of all disciplines can consider how to ensure their projects and campaigns can fit into the ever-obscure category of “good.”

Here’s what to look for when considering bad design:

Useless design

Breaking the cardinal rule of design, useless design ultimately fails to fulfill their proposed functions and don’t work properly. As something that can change over time as consumer needs evolve, and the inability for some objects to adjust to consumer demands become useless and invalid in the day-to-day.

Pointless design

Pointless design is another sub-category of bad design where the object or campaign fulfills its’ purpose, but the initial function itself is so pointless there’s no use in designing for it anyway. My favorite example of this in the real world would be Google Glass. Marketed as something to lead the charge in new age technology, users quickly came to learn that it

  1. Looked ridiculous when worn
  2. Was about as equipped as a smartphone
  3. Left the user liable to lawsuits for invasions of personal privacy

Two years after its launch, Google Glass came off the market, causing more problems than it could ever set out to resolve. If nobody wants it, and nobody needs it, then why bother solving a problem that isn’t a problem in the first place?

Irresponsible design

Irresponsible design exists when the design team hasn’t thought through the consequences of a project properly. This ranges across disciplines from fashion brands putting “blackface turtlenecks”, hoodies adorned with nooses, and t-shirts with racially insensitive slang on the runways to artificial intelligence systems created to aid police forces garnering racial bias and thus counteracting the intended purpose.

Strategic design

All design is entirely subjective, and strategic design is no exception. However, strategic design isn’t always bad! (That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?) The efforts in Australia to deter its population from smoking have been widely successful due to the widespread ban of branding logos, colors, and promotional text on cigarette pack designs. In 2012, the packs that look like those in American convenience stores were replaced with dingy and drab dark brown (Pantone 448C) packets and large, graphic images of smoking-related images. Since the initiation of the new packaging, over 800,000 Australians have kicked the habit. As of December 2018, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Hungary, Thailand, Turkey, Norway, and the United Kingdom have enacted plain packaging laws for cigarettes and tobacco products.

On the other side of the coin, strategic design can have immensely negative impact on people and their environment. Hostile architecture, from a functional perspective, is incredibly successful in executing its purpose; protecting the property value and reputation of offices and high-rise apartments by deterring the homeless population from resting or sleeping outside its doors. These forms of architecture, seen commonly as anti-homeless spikes, slanted benches and barred corners, have an appalling moral subtext of persecuting society’s most vulnerable individuals.

Strategic design often has the best of intentions, but those good intentions can go awry. One of the most well-known examples of well-intended design are the 2000 election ballots in Palm Beach County, Florida. Ten candidates needed to fit on one ballot, to which election officials realized the typeface would need to be so small, elderly voters and those with sight problems would have difficulty reading it. Thus, they decided on using a “butterfly ballot” (two pieces of paper with the names spread in larger type across.) Great solution, right? Well, the positioning of the holes in which voters had to punch in order to indicate their candidate choice was so confusing, many Democrats came out of the booths thinking they had accidentally voted for Right-Wing Pat Buchanan, and not Al Gore. The national vote ran so close, that the election came to rely on the outcome of the state of Florida. Florida’s vote also ran so close, that it internally depended on a manual recount of the Palm Beach County ballots. To this day, Democrats are convinced that Al Gore lost so many votes, in part from the butterfly ballots, that he was the rightful winner.

These examples are by no means the end all be all of bad design, but they are great to keep in mind as a designer, consumer of design, and as a global citizen. Talking about the good and bad of design is the best way to learn and move forward with your idea.

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