The Best Worst Design: The Power of Absurd Ideas in the design process

Rosie Sycks
IBM Design
Published in
8 min readOct 25, 2023

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By Cristina McComic and Rosie Sycks

Event organizers & volunteers (📸: Jorge Vega)

As designers at IBM, our job is to create delightful and innovative solutions that meet our users’ needs. This requires both empathy and creativity.

However, after one too many times facing rejection (i.e. creating designs that fail to ship or solutions that get voted down due to feasibility constraints), it is easy for a designer to get discouraged and start limiting their own creativity in favor of ideas that are safe, feasible, and practical. Designers may even get scared to take risks or let their creativity truly run free because they have forgotten the value that daring yet imperfect ideas bring to the design process.

Enterprise Design Thinking Loop from IBM Design

While designers may fall into the trap of self-limiting their creativity, IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking framework encourages curiosity and audacity in the design process: “Summon the curiosity to try out unexplored ideas. Have the audacity to put your ideas into the world. You might be wrong — and there’s nothing wrong with that” (IBM EDT, “The Loop”).

At IBM’s external-facing event for 2023 San Francisco Design Week, we sought to counteract our “risk-averse design reflexes” by flipping the design process on its head: instead of trying to create “the best” design, we set out to create “the worst”, while welcoming all the wild, risky, and unconventional ideas that we could muster. In return, we experienced first-hand the innovation, cleverness, and fun that can happen when we lay down our workplace pretenses, welcome the “absurd”, and allow for unbridled creative expression.

How it started

It all started with a few bored programmers on Reddit: in 2017, a group of Redditors competed to design the most un-user-friendly, volume-changing apparatus. Examples included using a ping pong game to aim for the desired volume or physically moving your screen up and down until it reached the right volume, to the detriment of your computer screen view of the — really the worst of designs! In early 2023, the article resurfaced and had members of the San Francisco IBM office chuckling on their lunch breaks. Then, what was a funny link floating around our SF Designer community Slack channel turned into an idea: what if we hosted a “Worst Design” Challenge for the San Francisco Design Week?

BMJ/Reddit via TheVerge.com

San Francisco Design Week opened the studios of participating companies to outside designers and design-interested people for presentations and design-thinking workshops. This year’s theme was “Plot Twist”, a change from the ordinary or the expected. Our “Best Worst Challenge” would fall neatly under that umbrella and allow for networking and bolstering IBM’s presence within the San Francisco design community. Why not? What was there to lose?

The Planning

After gathering the support of our colleagues — from fellow designers to content and marketing professionals — we set the planning of “SF’s Best Worst Design Challenge” into motion. Over the following weeks, we gathered interested volunteers, got the necessary funding and materials, and assigned tasks and roles to get all of the necessary prep work done. Our team not only included designers from all around IBM, but also marketers, sales specialists, and developers from nearly all of IBM’s different business units. We brought people from all different backgrounds together and pooled our collective resources, ideas, and energy in the production of this event — a truly cross-collaborative effort.

(📸: Jorge Vega)

The Event

On the day of the event, we welcomed attendees and gave a presentation that introduced IBM as a company, our Enterprise Design Thinking methodologies, and the challenge rules. Finally, we unveiled the challenge prompt:

“Design the worst way for someone to buy groceries. The user must be able to reach the goal of purchasing groceries, however, it must be in the most frustrating way possible”.

Promotional graphic by Dipali Aphale

Teams were given access to art materials and told to prototype their design, whether it be a product, experience, or other types of (anti)solution to their users’ grocery purchasing needs. They were tasked with using IBM EDT methodologies to think through who they intended to design for, what their users’ pain points and needs were, and how best NOT to fulfill those needs. The prototypes were encouraged to be as absurd and wild as possible, while still following business conduct guidelines.

Challenge supplies (📸: Jorge Vega)

At the end of the design challenge, participants, volunteers, and organizers gathered together while each team took a turn pitching their horrible design. The presentations were nothing short of hilarious and thought-provoking. One team created an MC Escher-style maze of a grocery store where all necessary items were on different floors and shoppers should have to take the stairs all the way to the top each time they needed to get to another level. Another team thought through the life and situation of a specific user “Brenda”, who as a stressed-out middle management tech worker and mom of three, only had a certain amount of time to shop and couldn’t see the prices of anything until checkout. They found ways to stress poor Brenda out even more in her mission to purchase her family’s favorite food items.

“Escher Mart” store design (📸: Jorge Vega)

The judges analyzed each presentation on the following criteria:

  1. Design Process — Understanding of user needs & problem space; collaboration of the team
  2. Design Concept — Originality, Creativity, Cleverness; Frustrating-ness or “dread in use”
  3. Presentation — “Storytelling” & explanation of concept to judges; Explanation of user needs (and why your design deliberately does the opposite of meeting those needs)

While only one team won the award of “Best Worst Design”, everyone — from event volunteers to challenge participants — had a great time.

“Welcome to the Inconvenience Store” (📸: Jorge Vega)

What we learned

Our San Francisco Design Week event starkly contrasted with traditional, industry events. Instead of operating under the framework of “right” and “wrong”, we made space for “absurd” ideas. Instead of boring and commonplace, our event was off the wall and dare we say, FUN. Our theme of “Best Worst Design Challenge” allowed for loose creativity that may not have surfaced if it was the reverse, ”Best Design” challenge. Through hosting this challenge, we were reminded that creating space for bad ideas, playfulness, and failure can actually help create good, and even brilliant, ideas.

(📸: Jorge Vega)

The challenge forced participants to thoroughly think through their users’ needs, motivations, and obstacles. When a challenge team identified “Brenda”, the tech worker and mom of three growing teenagers with no time or extra money, they had to hone in on exactly what Brenda’s needs were in order to design an anti-solution that left each of those needs further exposed:

Example:

Brenda needs a quick, simple, shopping experience where she could identify deals and stick to her budget.

What Brenda doesn’t need is a confusing, lengthy shopping experience with hidden costs and fees.

While this experience sounds wild and absurd, it is not that far off from real-life shopping experiences where hidden costs and fees are tacked on just before purchase. Thinking through user needs and pain points and asking “what would be even worse” allowed participants to grow deeper empathy for their users and the obstacles they face.

“Vending machine grocery store” (📸: Jorge Vega

Overall, our Worst Design Challenge was successful at teaching others about IBM Enterprise Design Thinking and encouraging designers to step out of their comfort zones when innovating. 83% of participants surveyed after the event (n=18) agreed that participating in the IBM Design Week Challenge helped improve their understanding of design thinking. One participant, an experience designer, expressed that the challenge inspired her “to think about ideas and how to innovate beyond the expected.” Another participant, a brand designer, commented that “absurdity is the best fuel for innovation.”

Where do we go from here?

Bad ideas often precede creating good ones. Once you have an idea (no matter how bad it is), you have your first draft. After which, you can revise, improve, and prototype on top of it to create an even better idea, and so forth and so on until it blossoms into a great idea. Perhaps bad ideas, and the open, welcoming environment that allows for them, are the secret sauce to innovation. In a recent podcast interview with Katrina Alcorn, former General Manager of IBM Design, she highlights the importance of allowing for failure and vulnerability in our design process in order to truly get to the core of user needs and find the best solutions for them.

“In order to innovate, we must be willing to take risks, make mistakes, and learn quickly from those mistakes. This requires humility and vulnerability.” — Katrina Alcorn

IBM’s San Francisco Design Week event was not only a clear demonstration of how an open and playful environment can breed innovation, it was also a showcase of the creative culture and people that exist within IBM Design. IBM is truly an innovative company full of employees, ourselves included, that have learned to grow from their mistakes, take risks, and turn the learnings from bad ideas into good ones.

Authors

Cristina McComic is a Content Designer and Developer for IBM Z, with a specific focus on the graphic user interface products, z/OS Management Facility. With a background in journalism and marketing, Cristina brings a creative, storytelling approach to content for an overall better user experience.

Rosie Sycks is a UX Designer and Researcher for the IBM Power Platform. She loves good storytelling, making lists for everything, writing restaurant reviews, and connecting with others in the San Francisco and design communities!

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Rosie Sycks
IBM Design

Rosie Sycks is a UX designer & researcher at IBM. All thoughts here are her own.