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Oh, the Inhumanity…of Bad Design

The day after a late night of salsa dancing I put the finishing touches on a website’s documentation. I confess my late night because, as I edited some notes about usability, I couldn’t help but think about the bar I had been in the night before.

Like drinking and driving, drinking and dancing do not mix, at least where I am concerned. One’s balance is already compromised; I don’t need a vodka tonic’s help. Even if I were able to combine a drink with turns on the dance floor, ordering a drink here is fraught with obstacles. The bar itself—not the establishment—is not sized for the normal human being. I dread the occasions that I have to belly up—chest up in my case—to the bar for water. The height of the bar is just below my clavicle, then add a depth of about four feet, stir in some loud music loud music and one must scream to place an order.

Incidentally, the average female in the U.S. is about 5′ 4″, my height; the average male about 5′ 9″, according to Wikipedia, a bit of data easily had by the designer of the space.

It is almost as if the bar were designed expressly to discourage drink ordering. This can’t have been a business goal. Approaching the bar is like approaching a person wearing a scowl and whose arms are folded across their chest. The hurdle is too great and not worth the effort. The bathroom has equally odd proportions, which is irresponsible given the “need” function.

Sharp-cornered, coffee table structures edge the dance floor, making for an unwelcome collision if a dancing couple should misstep. Sadly, design decisions like this are made daily without any thought to the user. The establishment is lucky that a dance instructor/DJ duo asked to use the space. It might be the only reason for the bar’s survival.

There’s something more important. Had the designers considered something as simple as the average human height and the use of the establishment (drinking and dancing), there would have been no added cost! In fact, fewer materials might have been used.

In most cases we don’t notice when something is well designed. A good design experience should elicit a certain comfort. Some design is meant to inspire or humor, but a design should function well. And if it functions well, no one should notice. This is one reason why selling good design can be difficult. If it works, it’s easy to think that it didn’t involve much effort.

The book The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman of the Nielsen/Norman Group—gurus of human-centered design—is a wonderful treatise on the psychology of use of every objects and how they are designed, or should be.

In print design, the results of good or bad design seem less tangible than interacting with a physical object that has an obvious intended function.

What if your project isn’t a banner ad or a direct mail returned postcard, where you can count the number of clicks or responses? How do you know your piece is successful? This is why it’s imperative to have specific goals and work with a designer who can produce solutions that speak to those goals. Even if you exceed the number of people you hoped would sign up for your conference, you don’t know if the design was responsible. But without clear goals and an understanding of your audience, a good result is a shot in the dark.

Despite my best efforts, I have been resisted many times attempting to make a piece useful. There might be grumblings about cost but little effort to define who the target audiences are, for example. There are too many reasons why this is the case (fodder for another post)—the client contact lacks empowerment in their position, planning was poor, no one really knows what constituents want, to name a few. A boss says “do a brochure” but no one knows why, or if a brochure is what is needed, or what the budget is.

In this economy, it’s more important than ever to make what you produce useful. Big companies that value design already get it. They know that design isn’t about surface. All the Italian marble and reclaimed wood in the world wouldn’t make for a successful design if that bar had the same proportions it does now.

Not only is it irresponsible to print more brochures than are needed (clean up your mailing lists) but readers are bombarded with too much information as it is. If you’re going to produce something, be willing to do it well, have respect the reader and say only what needs to be said. These are not new ideas but they may be for some organizations who continue to do business as usual.

Most designers want to produce smart solutions. They also like a challenge. Clients should expect, not resist, good design and its value. It may turn out to save them money in the long run if they aim for value in the first place.

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