Telltale signs of bad design

March 8, 2007
Most industrial designers have seen a bad design or two in the course of their careers.

Mike Hudspeth

Bad designs are difficult to disguise. They are hard to figure out, do something users don't expect, or can even end up injuring someone. However, it's not always easy to spot a bad design when it's our own. Part of the problem: We often can't see the forest for the trees. A few telltale signs to watch for include

Form without function. Styling can be important, but we are not in the fine-art business. Art for art's sake belongs in a museum, not on a product shelf. Thus, always make sure that a form has function.

Useless features can get included. Of course, a designer might have had a good reason for a particular feature at one time. But when you can't easily figure it out, reexamine the design.

Unidentifiable controls are part of a poorly designed interface. An example comes from a control that handles too many functions. We should think about the end user and create intuitively obvious designs whenever possible. Keep in mind that just because a design looks good doesn't mean it is good.

Knobs, buttons, or switches that are too far away from what they control often make for bad designs. A funny, but all-too-true insurance commercial shows one example. A man flips a switch at his house that doesn't seem to do anything, but three houses down causes a neighbor's garage door to mash her car.

Instruction labels can be helpful when they inform users where to stick plugs or connectors. But a general rule of thumb says when a design requires labels to tell users how to work a device, it makes sense to rethink the design and make it more intuitive.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list. However, asking yourself even these few questions will help you design better products.

Mike Hudspeth, ISDA, is an industrial designer with more than two decades of experience. Got a question about industrial design? You can reach Mike at [email protected].


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