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When design goes bad

Planes crash. Buildings leak. Bush gets elected. Look what happens when designers fail to do their job. By Simon Young

'When design goes bad' feature

Idealog September/October 2006, page 74. Illustration by Dean Proudfoot

Planes crash. Buildings leak. George W Bush gets elected. Look what happens when designers fail to do their job

I am not a designer. I am, like almost everyone else on this planet, affected every day by design. Sometimes a beneficiary, other times a victim.

We notice bad design. Stuff that irritates, interrupts and foils our plans. Hidden street signage in an unfamiliar part of town. Cryptic error messages on computers. Remote controls with so many buttons that you have to study them before use.

But this is all very subjective—and trivial. The truth is, really bad design has cost companies and people billions of dollars. Worse, some have paid for bad design with their lives.

We often hear about the benefits of good design—premium branding, customer loyalty, reduced support costs, better sales, etcetera— but here’s another argument for design: the impact of design gone wrong.

We’ve all heard the sorry tale of the leaky homes. The problem has destroyed many careers, shattered the lives and investments of hundreds of homeowners, and could cost the nation up to $10 billion to repair.

The headlines pointed out the obvious—in retrospect—facts: that eaves and raised structures are vital in New Zealand’s soggy climate. That the smooth Mediterranean look should have stayed in the Mediterranean. There were many expressions of shock and horror and no doubt a bit of schadenfreude for some—after all, many of these houses were supposed to be the pinnacle of luxury dwelling. They certainly looked well- constructed, and that’s part of the problem.

It’s true that inappropriate design played a part in the leaky building debacle. But designer Leanne Beard points out that bad design was one of many factors that came together to cause designer houses to rot from the inside. Beard, who has helped design many leakless buildings, says most designers probably couldn’t understand the Building Code. “It was probably written by a lot of academic people—very practical people, but they probably forgot the general user,” she says.

She also sees problems with the way architects and designers have been taught. “A lot of the technicians’ education programmes have been phased out, shifted or diluted,” she says. “They’ve lost focus on the building science and technology aspects, so we don’t have the technicians that we used to have.”

Philip O’Sullivan backs her up. With his brother Greg, he’s director of building consultancy Prendos, and has seen his fair share of leaky buildings. Part of Prendos’ job is trying to fix the damage caused. He says training for architects emphasised form over function from the mid-80s onwards, fuelled by consumer demand. Heady times for designers. Creative freedom, and clients’ money to explore with. “You weren’t constrained by bricks or weatherboards,” says O’Sullivan. “You could build virtually any shape you wanted.” Or at least, that’s what everyone thought. “The recognised architects were the artistic ones,” says O’Sullivan. “The technical ones were spurned.”

Beard says client pressure didn’t make life any easier for designers. “There was a period where it was very hard to be heard by our clients,” she says. “They had a certain expectation for a certain price, and a certain timeframe, and if you said we can’t achieve this in this timeframe they didn’t want to hear it.”

She says the mistake designers made was succumbing to pressure from clients instead of standing up for good design.

Which rather begs the question: what is good design?

It’s not as easily defined as you might think. Dave Clark, a former president of the Design Institute of New Zealand, is bemused at the multiple uses of the terms ‘design’ and ‘designer’. “Many people are called designers,” he says, “quite rightly because it’s such a hugely amorphous and all-embracing term, but it’s kind of lost its meaning nowadays.”

The modern, connected world demands that we have as broad as possible a definition of design. Homes, products, stationery, even customer experiences, are all ‘designed’. But Clark argues that the last designer—by our 21st century definition—died over 500 years ago.

“In Rome I visited his tomb as a sort of homage,” says Clark about his hero, Michelangelo. “The last time you could really think of someone as a designer, someone who was able to sculpt, draw and be a wonderful architect, was during the Renaissance.”

Many people are called designers quite rightly because it’s such a hugely amorphous and all-embracing term, but it’s kind of lost its meaning nowadays.

Is the problem simply that we’re clean out of Renaissance blokes in New Zealand in 2006? No, says Clark, it’s just that these days we need to specialise, which means important skills and knowledge may be missing. “Design and architecture are so complicated now that I don’t think anyone really has the capacity or the time to go into a range of specialties and be knowledgeable about them,” he says. “If you tried, the so-called professionals would laugh you out of town, because they’d see you as being a dilettante.”

Beard disagrees that design has become too complex to handle. “Design has always been design,” she counters. It’s just that the basic principles of design aren’t taught any more, and emerging young designers struggle to grab the knowledge they need. Not helping is the exodus of experienced designers to management roles, remote from the coalface.

She does admit that the amount of information a designer must deal with has increased immensely. Because of this, the skill of communication has become even more important than before. “It always was [vital] but it’s just so much more crucial now,” she says. “The only way to cut-through is to really get to your source and communicate effectively.”

So while a modern ‘designer’ may create in one of many specialist disciplines, communication is—or should be—a stock standard part of her repertoire. It’s all part of the growing, evolving role of a designer: a role that’s much more significant than simply making things look good.

Professor Turkka Keinonen says design is all about relationships. Keinonen, Professor of Industrial Design at Helsinki’s University of Art and Design, visited New Zealand recently to share his experience and knowledge of design research partnerships between the private and education sectors.

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

According to Keinonen, design is not something that stands alone. It depends entirely on the context. “If something is used in a completely different context from what it was originally designed for, it doesn’t work,” he says. “It becomes bad even though it would be good somewhere else.”

This awareness of context is the missing piece of the puzzle. Design failures such as leaky homes occur not because they’re ugly (although some certainly were) but because they’re not designed for the local context.

The same goes for Auckland’s motorway system. As a stand-alone motorway system there’s much that’s good about it; it’s just that there’s no such thing as a stand-alone motorway system. Auckland’s motorways are not the best fit for the Auckland isthmus.

“Auckland began as a city that was oriented towards the water,” says Auckland City Councillor Richard Simpson, who’s campaigning for a workable public transport system. He says that while Auckland in its early days of settlement was seaward-looking, in the 20th century it became land-focused, with later settlement built around rail and then roads.

His argument, presented to a largely unsympathetic council, is that Auckland’s transport system should cooperate with the natural geography of the city, rather than building more lanes and overbridges to solve a problem.

Unlike leaky buildings, Auckland’s roads are not a case of design gone bad so much as good design potential unfulfilled. Simpson is not the first to suggest an inner-city light rail network: as long ago as the 1920s voices were calling for underground rail to ease traffic congestion in the inner city.

Those calls were repeated in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s under mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson. His plan, ‘Robbie’s Rapid Rail’, came tantalisingly close to fruition before a change of government put a stop to it.

“Robbie had a very clear vision of the way he wanted the city to work,” says Clark. “Since Dove-Myer Robinson, there’s been no-one with that sort of vision and ability to impact other people and surround himself with other like-minded people.”

Nobody wants to be seen as the safe reliable designer. That’s death to your reputation.

There’s that communication thing again. Not only do designers need to come up with the idea that looks good and takes context into account, but they also need good sales skills. Sometimes those sales skills are to persuade—such as the mammoth task ahead of Councillor Simpson. At other times those sales skills are needed to dissuade clients from heading down the wrong path.

Beard tells of the heady days of the 1990s, before buildings began rotting, when clients didn’t want to know what couldn’t be done. “A lot of focus was around getting a building consent,” she says. But clients didn’t know there was a gaping void between building consent requirements and the actual requirements to construct a building. “Often a client would only take the designer through to the building consent application stage, and they would expect the builders to carry on from there,” she says.

Designers can play a vital role as watchdogs, looking out for the interests of the end-user of the product, whatever it may be. Keinonen believes this is where many designers fail. One of the biggest mistakes designers make, he says, is designing for themselves. “Real users are different from designers,” he says. “So many objects are designed based only on the technological opportunity. You can have as many features as you like in devices without much extra cost.” Unfortunately those extra features simply make life more frustrating for the end-user, while adding little or no value.

The software industry has learnt this lesson the hard way. Earlier this year a Dutch scientist found that half of all returned electronics products actually work perfectly well, but customers can’t figure out how to use them. Most will wrestle with a gadget for 20 minutes before giving up, Elke den Ouden says. She proved her point by asking top executives at Philips to take a device home for the weekend; most failed to get it working.

Blake Lough works with Optimal Usability, a service firm that helps companies centre their products on real user behaviour. Much of his work is in IT, but his mother doesn’t use a computer. He says she can’t get over the illogic behind what most of us do every day: turning off the computer. “If you want the machine to stop, you hit start,” he says.

Most of us wouldn’t bat an eyelid at such a contradiction, because we’re used to it. That, Lough says, is part of the problem. Bad design ends up being accepted after a while, which lulls businesses into a false sense of security. His co-worker Shailesh Manga says there are always competitors willing to provide customers with a better user experience.

So where does IT user design fall down? The story has a familiar ring to it: lack of context. “A lot of time web or software developers aren’t that close to their users,” says Lough. “They develop for who they perceive to be their users.”

A target audience of teenagers, for instance, might paint a picture for one developer of a 17-year-old game-playing computer guru, while for another developer the picture is of a 14-year-old girl who listens to lots of music. Lough has found that the key is understanding users’ goals and deeper behaviours.

A problem arises when designers or developers see themselves as the archetypal user. “They’re typically not representative of the market,” says Manga. “They’re what we would call a power user, and tend to take shortcuts that don’t make sense to normal users.”

In one user testing session, a woman clicked a link on a website that opened up a new browser window. The woman tried to press the ‘back’ button, but couldn’t, because the new browser window had no history. “We asked her what she would do,” says Lough, “and she said she would ask her son.” What if her son wasn’t there? “She sheepishly admitted she would unplug the computer at the wall,” says Lough. Pretty extreme behaviour, and a real eye-opener for the developers of the website. “They won’t use a pop-up window again!” says Lough.

Sometimes bad design is accidental; the result of oversight or ignorance. At other times there are deeper cultural reasons. In the aviation industry, complexity is cool, says Bruce Tognazzini. He’s a usability expert who also likes to go flying sometimes. On his website AskTog.com, he’s critical of the aviation industry’s attitude towards interface design: “The more confounding everything is, the ‘better’ it is, because it helps separate the men from the boys,” he writes. “Until that changes, general aviation will continue to experience both a high fatality rate and a continuing drop in new pilots.”

He tells the story of how bad design can kill, using the example of country singer John Denver in 1997. Denver’s aircraft was an experimental kit designed by leading aerospace designer Burt Rutan, but modified by its builder. Rutan’s original design called for the fuel selection valve, used to switch between tanks, to be in front of the pilot. However, Denver’s plane had been modified so the fuel selection valve was behind the pilot’s left shoulder.

“The only way to switch tanks was to let go of the controls, twist your head to the left to look behind you, reach over your left shoulder with your right hand, find the valve, and turn it,” writes Tognazzini. “As the National Transportation Safety Board discovered, it was difficult to do this without bracing yourself with your right foot —by pressing the right rudder pedal all the way to the floor.”

That seems to be exactly what Denver did. The last people to see his plane said it tilted suddenly before plummeting into the ocean.

Okay, so maybe high-stakes stuff such as aircraft design needs a designer who treads carefully. But something as minor as graphic design never killed anyone. Right?

Jonathan Hales argues that a single act of bad graphic design has led to the deaths of thousands. The Clemenger Design general manager and passionate design advocate thinks misleading voting papers in the US elections led to George W Bush’s election in 2000 and the ensuing war with Iraq. The Palm Beach, Florida ballot in particular has been widely criticised for its confusing design which featured punch-holes that didn’t align with candidates’ names—except for the Republican candidate, who was first on the list. Bush eventually carried Florida by 537 votes.

It’s obvious when lives—or even just dollars—are at stake that designers need to manage risk more effectively. Yet design in all its forms is better known for innovation and creativity than safe, sensible risk aversion. Surely there is need for some balance.

Clark says it’s a matter of image. “Nobody wants to be seen as the safe reliable designer,” he says. “That’s death to your reputation.” Instead, designers seek to be leading-edge, contemporary, groundbreaking.

“Usually you get the shooting star who has wonderfully innovative, creative ideas,” says Clark. “If that designer’s smart they’ll create behind them a team of support people who’ve got to know them and will follow up and make sure the idea’s actually able to be put into practice.” This also helps avoid liability lawsuits down the track, he adds with a smile.

So great designers work in a team. They also know the difference between art and design. Hales says artists solve their own problems, while a designer solves a client’s problem.

But as we see from roading to houses to software, design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Often factors beyond designers’ control cause bad design, so the whole organisation needs to take responsibility. How does an organisation get on board to create good design?

Keinonen compares two Finnish companies that took two approaches to instilling a design culture. Metso Paper took a ‘bottom- up’ approach to design, where “the organisation starts very carefully, having one designer working with certain processes little by little,” says Keinonen. Success meets with gradual adaptation throughout the organisation and, 30 years later, design is recognised as a very important part of the business at a corporate level.

Nokia, on the other hand, experienced its first real success in 1992 as a result of user-centred design and, based on that success, made design a central part of their business.

Everyone’s heard of Nokia. Have you heard of Metso Paper?

I’m not a designer. But I am a potential client and, every day, an end-user. Is your company involved in design? You can bet it is. So when you design your next experience, think of the person who’s going to use it. Are they going to be a beneficiary or a victim?

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