This Is Not Good Design

Much has been written about what makes for good design. All of it is fiercely debated by designers, who would rather find ways to exclude one another than celebrate commonality.

Rather than write yet another forgettable entry into the insufferable oeuvre of This-Not-That, I thought I’d just cut to the chase and focus on the Not-That.

Here are seven kinds of bad design. There are certainly more.

Design made in ignorance of the damage it does is not good design.

In 2021 we have enough information readily available to exhaustively vet ideas, measure costs, run scenarios, and project outcomes. We frequently choose to skip over most of these activities because they take time and cost money. But I suspect that the more salient reason we skip them is because testing an idea is too risky to the ideologue.

Entire systems of business are constructed to protect the idea-havers from the idea-deliverers — to insulate them from the questions and concerns that those most acquainted with how things work and how people use them have as soon as they receive their orders.

Insulation is the enemy of empathy. If you can’t access the impact of your ideas, then you will never understand the damage they can do. But that makes you no less responsible. There is no plausible deniability in good design.

Design that takes inequalities for granted is not good design.

Many of the products being made now that are the most nutritious, least processed, least harmful to the environment, least reliant upon the exploitation of others, and offer the most self-sufficiency to consumers are also the most expensive. The wealthy can afford them, and they live healthier and more comfortable lives as a result. They stay wealthy.

The products that are the most mass-produceable, widely available, and least expensive are those that are made from materials of lower quality, by workers with fewer rights, under poorer conditions, and for less pay. The poor can afford them, but they pay the difference in infirmity. They stay poor.

In a capitalist system, leading-edge products always start out more expensive. As they become more accepted and integrated in society, they can be produced at a lower price and be made available to more people. We want to believe that through this system, a certain standard of living can eventually be reached by all. One must wonder why that hasn’t happened yet.

Also in a capitalist system, what first succeeds is what the wealthy want. And yet, one evergreen desire of the wealthy is to remain wealthy. Wealth itself is a slippery concept; it means abundance and prosperity. While that could be interpreted to mean having more than one needs, it’s often taken as a comparison — to have more than someone else.

If you make something that widens the gap between those who already have a lot and those that never had much, you have not done good design.

Design with short-term goals that can only exist by ignoring long-term effects is not good design.

Planned obsolescence robs from the future to pay for the present. Why do we accept that modern devices are made with such lopsided priorities — thinness over battery life, beauty over resilience — which ensure our experience of them is one of rapidly diminishing returns? Why do buy the next thing sooner than our current one was promised to last? How many times must we do that before we realize the con?

Our own use cases are both hardly the problem and also the cause of everything. We pay too much and too often for things that could last longer. It’s wasteful and yet very on-brand for America. But how long must the acres of e-waste in Africa burn before we insist that our technology last a just little longer? Not just for our sake, but for those who barely eke out a living scavenging the toxic ash for resealable scrap. With growing evidence of the catastrophic environmental and human costs of digital devices — more on ecology in a moment — making temporary objects for perpetual users is deeply cruel.

If you make something to last only as long as the development phase for the next thing, you have not done good design.

Design that ignores available data is not good design.

Data show that cigarettes are addictive and eventually kill. Cigarette makers knew this decades before most everyone else and hid the data so that it would remain easy for them to sell their poison. Thus, there is no such thing as good design of a cigarette, its packaging, or any other accoutrement of its brand. Anything that makes it easier or more likely that anyone purchase or smoke a cigarette is bad. It may be good that one is free to smoke, but that doesn’t make smoking good for anyone.

Cigarettes, of course, are too easy a target. Many other things with much more sterling reputations are presently harmful to people. The data are persuasive of that yet, somehow, not persuasive enough to stop people from making or using these things. Some of them aren’t things at all, nor are they as easily avoided as a cigarette. Some of them are services that are so enmeshed in our social fabric that to avoid them can cost a person valuable relationships and opportunities. But when it is shown that these things manipulate people, make them less happy, distort the truth, spread lies, disrupt democracy, increase hate speech and violence, and generally make people less safe — when data has been gathered and disseminated to clearly show each of these effects — there is no good design of such a thing.

And if you make something that worsens available data, you have not done good design. You’ve participated in destruction.

Design that produces something easily thrown away but not easily salvaged is not good design.

It may be cheaper to make things out of older, established materials using older, established production processes and facilities than it is to use something new. But if that old stuff and those old ways aren’t as good for the world, how much longer does that calculation favor anyone?

How many more years do we have to churn out styrofoam? How many more years do we have to pretend to recycle plastic? How many more one-time use containers will we make? How strange it is that we willingly make things to be used for mere moments and then to rot exponentially longer in the same soil from which we draw food. That plastic cup you drank from for 15 minutes will take 450 years to break down. And when it does, it’s actually still there. It just doesn’t look like a cup anymore. But every single chemical molecule remains, in the soil, in the water, in the plants, in the animals that ate them, in us.

There are better materials out there that are less harmful to produce and easier to re-use, but getting them to the same scale of production we’ve been used to will require investment and patience. A short-term cost of transitioning to better materials will lead to a long-term gain in a habitable world. And in working to make living here last longer, we might also train ourselves to expect things to last longer, too. Imagine that.

Design that treats grifted information as proprietary material is not good design.

It has often been said that if something is free, then you are the product. It turns out the situation is much more complicated because you are complicated.

“You,” to the data-grifter, are a multitude of facts. Some of them you willingly share. Some are gathered when you think no one is watching. And some are inferred by who you know and what the grifters know about them. Consent in this situation is cloudy. What, exactly, are you agreeing to share about yourself when you use a service? Few know.

Though the majority of Americans encounter privacy notices multiple times each week, only 22% say they read them all. Even fewer claim to understand what they’re reading. That’s a pretty bad state of affairs. One would think that given such poor readership and comprehension of this incredibly important material, these friendly services would make a better effort to communicate it and gain true consent. But the companies that stand to gain the most by gathering information about you stand to lose the most if you actually know what the hell they’re up to. Why? Because whatever you get from them is just the worm they dangle into the pond. You’re the fish; their customers are the fish-eaters.

Beyond privacy, disclosure, and consent is ownership. Who owns your information? The question seems to provide the answer: you! It’s your information. But, virtually every service you use claims ownership over the information you provide. That, too, is buried within the virtually impenetrable wall of legal jargon that so many of us never read. That such agreements are written to repel exactly those for whom it is most consequential but designed to be so easily dismissible is what makes the grift a grift.

The value of just my name, age, height, weight, education, profession, ethnicity, affiliations, purchases, browsing history, sexual preferences, relationships, thoughts, feelings, and fears is hardly much. Few would buy such information; I would never even think to sell it. But the value of such a data profile for millions is astronomical. The power of being the one to sell it, even more staggering.

When you signed up for a place to post your thoughts and pictures, were you consenting to the consignment of your information and the creation of a Machiavellian, rat-king of an information machine against which almost no individual has leverage? When put that way, who on Earth would say “yes”?

Design without philosophy and ethics is not good design.

No idea exists alone. Every idea is the product of other, more foundational ideas. And those ideas, of course, were birthed by ideas that came before them. It’s ideas all the way down.

That, in a nutshell, is a theory of knowledge. Or, as the philosophers call it, epistemology. Everything we know is the result of beliefs about the nature of perception, reason, memory, and testimony. In fact, those four things are the ways by which we come by knowledge. We perceive things to be, we process those perceptions with our brains, we store them in our memory, and then we talk and write about them. Others hear and read those things — perception, again — and then follow the same process. Knowledge is an epistemological cycle. So what? Well, that’s the basic philosophy of an idea.

That means that anything we think might be a good idea has to account for how it got in our heads in the first place, and then has to get out of our heads and into the heads of others so that they might bring to it a perspective we don’t have on our own. That is the basic ethics of an idea. Is an idea good? Why? For whom? What does a world with that idea look like? What about a world without it?

Not everything that can be imagined should come into being. Some ideas are simply not good. But if there is no one to dissect an idea from a variety of philosophical angles and take ethical responsibility for its interpretation and execution, then we should expect most ideas to have consequences that are unappealing to most people. It’s not that most ideas are malicious. To the contrary, I think most ideas come from a place of relatively good intent. But as they say, the road to dystopia is paved with good intent.

— Christopher Butler, Feb 12, 2021, Durham, NC

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