“Bad” Design

It’s not them, it’s you

Okay okay, that’s an inflammatory accusation. But here’s the main thesis:

Sometimes design isn’t meant for your specific priorities.

And we get huffy about that — I do too — we cry and outrage that this object is badly designed, or that game isn’t good or the movie didn’t effect you or that car is junk simply because the aspects they’re aiming for aren’t the aspects you’re aiming for.

That’s okay.

We we need to actually disentangle is what is genuinely objectively bad design (aka, something that was not considered at all or implemented poorly) and what is “bad” design as a result of a prioritization that you don’t agree with (it was considered, but your priority lost for whatever reason).

The truth is, all of design is actually just a priority stack. We as designers make these choices, yes, but almost always (if it’s a good, considered thing) there’s a real reason and a real decision to do X over Y and Z makes its way to the top and W is shuffled left a little and R falls behind even if we did like it.

That’s what design is. We have a jar and we have a a bunch of differently sized and shaped rocks and we’re trying to shove them all in as best as we can nest them. Sometimes there’s too many rocks and too little jar. Usually the jar is sized based on money, and markets dictate which jars fit on which shelves.


Part two is this: for the same jar size, we can replace the rocks for the person.

When we were house hunting the other year for somewhere to live it stuck me that a lot of the houses were poorly designed. Both for lack of consideration (or seemingly outright spite for what should have been done) and also as a function of our priorities.

Like, I’m fairly minimalist — I don’t need a lot of storage space. Lots of people need storage space, so much so that external self-storage units have gone crazy in the last decade. So, I can see how that might be a priority for other people in their houses.

But, what if I wanted a house that was the exact same price and didn’t have storage? Could I instead get more space on my garage for a shop? Because that would be my priority, and I understand how that too is uncommon in general house development needs.

Or like, I don’t generate enough dishes by myself to justify having a dishwasher. If I had to build a custom kitchen just for me, I wouldn’t even bother adding one. Or a microwave, I’ve gone years without one and never really missed it (except for oatmeal: my one microwave food).

So there’s rocks who don’t belong in my particular jar, and if I could rearrange the jar, I could make a better one optimized for my priorities. And, so could you, for whatever yours are. Maybe you really like storage. There’s an infinite number of variables there.


Part three is modern manufacturing allows us to create more custom things. I won’t say 3D printing because that’s more buzz than bite, but you get the idea: manufacturing itself is changing and the need to stamp out a million identical parts to get economies of scale don’t necessarily exist for a lot of goods anymore. So, how do we as designers work in a world where we can help specific people make their specific jars ideal?

That’s a way better question.


Part three dot two is this whole idea of millennials not being interested in things. I’ll come back to housing: we’d love to buy houses if they a) were affordable and b) actually had the stuff we wanted in them.

Because right now they are a) unaffordable (for a myriad of reasons, admittedly) and also a bad purchase for us to stick our necks out for — why would anyone take on crazy debt to buy a house that’s only barely what they actually want, like or need? At least if you’re going to look into the bad financial zone, make it something dreamy and worth fighting for, right?

More on this later. It’s been in my mind lately, and, indeed, for years.

I think I want to Eichler 2.0


Anyway, next time you’re annoyed at some “bad” design, consider how it came to be. It certainly might have been laziness or completely unconsidered design, but maybe it’s perfectly considered and it’s just a decision that isn’t about you.

Stop. Look. Listen.

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