Unpleasant design: Where do you draw the line?

An introduction to the design discipline that makes objects uncomfortable on purpose.

Design is everywhere: In your home, outside your home, on your way to work, at work. Some design you are the curator of, but mostly you don’t have a say - like in public urban environments. Here’s some unpleasant design.

“Design is about creating the right relationships between people, environments, and goals. If design succeeds in mediating those things – the goals, the people, the context – then it works.”

That’s what Turkka Keinonen has to say on the topic. He’s the professor of design and head of department at Aalto University, school of arts, design, and architecture.

Cities have been increasingly engaging a design strategy aptly named hostile architecture (see the excellent 99% Invisible podcast on the topic here). The idea is to create an area that exerts a degree of social control on the people most likely to interact with it.

So, a park bench, bus stop, or building ledge: all great spots to sit and wait or simply relax for a while. However, they’re equally great at accommodating a homeless person for a night and that’s where things get hostile. Spikes, bars, slopes, and tiny seats are all employed, very effectively, to deter the homeless.

It’s the efficacy of these public assets that actually make them – from a purely design perspective – quite brilliant. Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić, co-editors of the book Unpleasant Design, point out that these so-called ‘unpleasant designs’ are in fact successful rather than being failures. Simply because they deter certain activities ‘by design.’

Here are some examples of ‘good’ design that in reality (if empathy is your thing) is ‘unpleasant’ design – it pays to imagine going to sleep on them.

Photo: The Wub

The Camden bench: a very considered bench indeed. Unbreakable, covered in a graffiti resistant layer, impossible to sleep on, cut-outs for bags to prevent theft, and no gaps for drug dealers to hide narcotics.

Photo: Kent Williams

Anti-sleeping spikes: a little barbaric perhaps? You shall not sleep!

Photo: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

A leaning bench at an airport bus stop: less barbaric than spikes, but still – you shall not sleep OR sit!

The function of these spaces are undeniably successful – they prevent people from sleeping on them. But it’s a somewhat backwards approach, when the symptoms of a problem are addressed, rather than the cause of the problem itself.

These design solutions that are interestingly considered both great design and unpleasant design have been out-designed by another piece of rather ambiguous design. Meet Archisuit by Sarah Ross – a wearable solution to navigate the many sleep-stoppers and rest-wreckers around Los Angeles.

And finally, here’s a strange – but very interesting – video on the various ‘anti-homeless furniture’ in Paris.