Alice Rawsthorn gives us the low-down on the seven pillars of bad design


Alice Rawsthorn is one of the design world’s most cherished writers. Her regular column in The New York Times, and books including last year’s Design as an Attitude and 2013’s Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, thrum with invention and ideas, creating a body of work in which the work of designers is demystified.

A former foreign correspondent for the Financial Times, Alice was a director at the Design Museum between 2001 and 2006, has sat on the panel of pretty much every prestigious arts prize on the planet, and was one of the co-founders of Writers at Liberty, a “loose coalition” of scribes who champion the work carried out by human-rights charity Liberty.

In short, she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to dissecting why exactly the world looks and feels the way it does.

At this year’s Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, Alice turned her attention towards bad design. Surrounded by talks and lectures about the kind of design that helps us envision a better, brighter, and more hopeful world – traversing everything from drones which make lifesaving blood deliveries in remote areas of Rwanda to textile coffins which aim to take on the American industrial-burial system – it was refreshing, provocative, and funny.

Asking the audience to join the dots between Frida Kahlo and Barbie dolls, US electoral ballot papers, inkjet printers and London’s unusually warm buses, Alice rattled through seven “pillars” of bad design. Through outlining the different forms of bad design, she hopes that designers of all stripes will consider more closely how they can avoid pitfalls and ensure their projects fall into that elusive “good” category. Here, then, are Alice’s seven principles of bad design.

The first is useless design. These are the projects which, she explains, “fail to fulfil their functions efficiently”, and include the likes of the aforementioned buses, which as any Londoner knows, frequently find themselves broken down and emitting the sorts of fumes which make the city one of the most polluted in the world.

Pointless design comes next. This includes Nokia’s recently released 9 smartphone, a five-camera device that fulfils its function entirely but is still, Alice argues, badly designed, because that function isn’t something the consumer necessarily values.

Projects which haven’t had their consequences considered fully are described by Rawsthorn as examples of irresponsible design. One she cites is Agbogbloshie dump, which sits outside Accra, Ghana. Here you’ll find endless piles of computers, tablets and phones, none of which decompose properly, thus poisoning the ground for decades to come.

Adidas’ Jabulani football finds itself bunged into the back of the unreliable design net. The ball, despite the crowds of engineers and designers who put their minds to the immense task of producing a football worthy of the World Cup, didn’t behave in the manner it should have. Altitudinal differences made a massive impact on the ball’s behaviour, which in a country like South Africa (hosts of the 2010 tournament for which the Jabulani played a starring role) can do goalkeepers like England’s Robert Green dirty.

Projects or objects which were admirably conceived but somehow went awry are described by Alice as examples of design that are best understood as good intentions, but…. Mattel’s Frida Kahlo doll is one such item. The doll was withdrawn from sale after the Kahlo family complained about the hijacking of the artist’s image for commercial gain.

What were they thinking?, Alice asked about a pair of high-profile high-fashion gaffes that we’ll return to shortly.

And her final taxonomic moment of demarcation came in the form of dangerous design, which includes technological advancements such as the increasing implementation of AI in daily life. She points to the racial bias built into American surveillance equipment as one particularly troubling example of design becoming dangerous.

When asked by It’s Nice That what led her to interrogate the topic of bad design, Alice says, “I’ve always found it odd that design is typically discussed in terms of good design when, in reality, most design projects are deeply mediocre and many are downright bad. Also, bad design has just as much, if not more of an impact on our lives than the good variety, and repairing the damage it causes can be incredibly costly in terms of money, time, energy, reputation, and other resources.”

The writer – who was made an honorary senior fellow of the Royal College of Art back in 2002 – suggests that delving deep into what makes bad design so bad is both necessary as a kind of ongoing learning exercise, and also provides “the only way we can
minimise our exposure” to such deviant, damaged or dangerous objects and ideas in the future.

Bad design has been a long-standing concern of Alice’s, and is an area that she has covered extensively in the past. Like football fans who can merrily piss away entire evenings watching own-goal compilations on YouTube, or foodies who gorge themselves on reviews of ready meals, there’s a portion of Alice’s reading audience who seem to revel in the bent and the broken. “Whenever I’ve written about bad design, I’ve had a great response,” she notes.

Probed as to why she thinks this may be the case, she theorises that “much of the pleasure we take in bad design stems from the ‘how the mighty fall’ perspective of seeing rich, powerful multinational brands making fatal design misjudgments.” There’s a rather hefty amount of truth in this. Are we not perpetually amused by and interested in that which can be viewed as an example of that most useful of German words: Schadenfreude?

While she’s happy to admit that there’s an inherent “comedic aspect” to some of the projects that were the focus of her talk at Design Indaba, Alice is equally keen to consider the ramifications that terrible design choices have on the real world – the world beyond newspapers, books, and three-day-long multidisciplinary arts conferences.

It is the remote Afghan province of Uruzgan that she cites as one of the most heinous examples of what bad design is capable of. In the mid-2000s Dutch military forces, acting as part of the NATO-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) scheme, situated themselves in an area long ravaged by conflict.

The Dutch forces funded, designed and constructed new homes, mosques, clinics, roads, schools, and even an airport. The intentions were good; this wave of construction would act as a locus for social and economic rejuvenation in an area still reeling from the effects of decades of military intervention. But the outcome was terrible. “The flawed design of so much of that infrastructure means that half of it is barely functional, often with dire consequences for local people who have already suffered severely,” Alice says.

In Cape Town, however, it was an error made by British clothing brand Burberry that garnered the most visceral negative reaction to any of the examples Alice gave. You’ll likely remember that at the most recent London Fashion Week, Burberry – following hot on the heels of Gucci’s so-called “blackface” sweater – decided that debuting a hoodie that featured a noose around the neck was a good idea. “There were audible gasps,” Alice recalls. “Some people covered their faces in horror when they saw it.”

Whether it engenders laughter or feelings of disquiet and discomfort, one thing is for certain: We’re saturated in bad design. But, as Alice points out, the consequences go deeper than we might realise. It’s not simply that a cityscape might be marred by an ugly addition or that an ill-conceived garment has to be pulled from boutique shelves. In reality, time, money, energy and emotions are often required to repair the damage done. So it might be worth keeping Alice’s seven principles of bad design in the back of your mind when you embark on that next project. Just in case.

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About the Author

Josh Baines

Josh Baines joined It's Nice That from July 2018 to July 2019 as News Editor, covering new high-profile projects, awards announcements, and everything else in between.

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