I need examples of bad design.
February 15, 2007 11:51 AM   Subscribe

I need examples of bad design.

I mean "bad design" in he objective sense, not the subjective "I don't like that style" sense. Good examples would be the butterfly ballots or a poorly engineered bridge.

As a bonus, instances where people overcame bad design are welcomed.
posted by quadog to Grab Bag (62 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
The Ford Pinto.

Any of those 1980's VCR's with recessed inputs on the back, making it nigh-impossible to use a standard "screw-in" style cable input.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 11:55 AM on February 15, 2007

Bad Designs
posted by bitdamaged at 11:57 AM on February 15, 2007

Those round iMac mice from years ago. The elongated design of the typical mouse lets you keep it oriented correctly. Man, I hated those things.

Also, IMO, USB ports, power plug-ins, ethernet ports, etc. in the back of laptops. Accessing them on the sides is a bit more convenient when things are being plugged in/removed more frequently than desktops.
posted by puritycontrol at 12:04 PM on February 15, 2007

The Teapot for Masocists - The book from which this was taken, The Design of Everyday Things is chalk full of bad design and the things people do to circumvent the bad design. You'll never look at the world the same way again once you read this.
posted by mmascolino at 12:05 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

arrrgghh, chock full I mean.
posted by mmascolino at 12:06 PM on February 15, 2007

To turn the heat on in my office we have to get on a ladder and turn a knob on the ceiling.
posted by thirteenkiller at 12:07 PM on February 15, 2007

This Is Broken is a weblog that focuses on things (products, signs, processes, ...) that are broken by design.
posted by lodev at 12:10 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Those round iMac mice from years ago. The elongated design of the typical mouse lets you keep it oriented correctly. Man, I hated those things.

And to add insult to injury 99.9999% of the product's target user base has hands that are elongated as opposed to being round. Their design on that mouse struck me as one of the ultimates in function losing out to form.
posted by mmascolino at 12:20 PM on February 15, 2007

Interface Hall of Shame
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:25 PM on February 15, 2007

Another pet peeve of mine: Large plastic jugs (e.g., my Costco bottle of Crest Pro Health Rinse) and large-capacity storage containers that have a "grip" area for your fingers rather than proper handles for your hands. When the containers are full, your fingers don't provide enough strength to be able to hold the items comfortably.
posted by puritycontrol at 12:31 PM on February 15, 2007

The blog Architectures of Control in Design might interest you.
posted by loiseau at 12:32 PM on February 15, 2007

Austin Allegro. Originally a great designed 2 door hatchback with sporty coupe looks. They made the bonnet higher for an engine it never got; they made the roof higher when no-one wanted it; they made it four doors and then put the B pillar in such a place that you couldn't get out of the back seats; they made it from crap metal that wasn't strong enough for a hatch so they made it a saloon/sedan (and if you jacked it, the rear window still popped out); and the greatest bit ever, the steering wheel was so badly positioned, the first models had a flat bottomed wheel so you could get your legs under it. It went from this to this.
posted by twine42 at 12:35 PM on February 15, 2007

There are lots of bottles which are terribly bad designs. My favorite are the bottles for "dry gas" that they (used to?) sell in cold climates in the winter. Most brands have little pry-off plastic tops. Try opening one of them with heavy gloves on sometime (remember: you only need to use dry gas when it's really cold outside) and it won't be long before you realize that the designer never bothered to try and use their own product.

To wit: the plastic becomes stiff and it's tough to bend the cap off, and that's assuming you can keep your hands nimble enough in the cold to try and remove it with your fingernail anyway; when you do get it open, you have to be careful not to splash cold methanol on yourself.

I think it's an interesting example, because it a warehouse in a warm climate, it seems like a perfectly fine design. It's not until you try to use it under actual use conditions, that you discover that it wasn't well thought out.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:44 PM on February 15, 2007

Phillips HE592 Surround Earbuds. Can only be used if wedged into the folds of your ears, causing intense pain after maybe 5 minutes.

The Amazon reviews make it sound like some of the problems may have been addressed, but the original ones were god-fucking-awful... here's a writeup I did of them back in the day:

Harsh Toke: Phillips HE592 Surround Sound Earbuds

It's not that the HE592s are total failures; they sound really good, actually, far better than the stock iPod earbuds they were bought to replace (this coming after the strain of two month's use proved to be enough to burn the iPod buds out completely-- that's some quality hardware). They undeniably look awesome: each earpiece is shaped a bit like a little sonic hair-dryer, blasting hot rock straight up my ear canal. They come with a futuristic soft-rubber carrying case which prevents the massive tangles that the old iPod earbuds were prone to and looks pretty techno-stylish to boot.

But even acknowledging these good points, the HE952s fundamentally suck. All the great sound in the world is useless if you can't get it into your head, and doing so is a chore with these little bastards. The earpieces are designed so that, rather than being cradled in the contours of your ear like the iPod buds, they have to be sort of wedged in between two cartilage protrusions. Since this will leave the end (the "nozzle" of the hair-dryer, so to speak) at an angle to your ear canal, you have to attach a little rubber sleeve to the end and then jam the sleeve into your ear canal. This is uncomfortable, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the previously-mentioned wedging. It's also unstable, which means that the buds will fall out of your ear frequently, and you'll have sore ears and will eventually start building calluses in spots that you really never, ever would have expected them.

No es bueno.

posted by COBRA! at 12:46 PM on February 15, 2007

The Tay Bridge? I can recommend Davis Swinfen's book The Fall of the Tay Bridge if you can get hold of it. Also, McGonagall's poem The Tay Bridge Disaster, ending

I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

posted by paduasoy at 12:46 PM on February 15, 2007

There was a competition for spotting bad design on the University of Michigan campus, sponsored by the Human Factors in Engineering Society. Although this web page is itself an example of bad design, if you scroll waaay down to the bottom you can see the submissions to the contest.
posted by Eringatang at 12:46 PM on February 15, 2007

Phillips HE592 Surround Earbuds. Can only be used if wedged into the folds of your ears, causing intense pain after maybe 5 minutes.

I am a tiny-eared person who actually found these to be the best-sounding and best-fitting earbuds out there, but YMMV.

My ears are tiny, like a hoot owl's.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:52 PM on February 15, 2007

Here's an oldie but goody for bad site design:


He knows what sucks, for sure, but is a little fuzzier on what constitutes good design (his own site is an example of something that could stand some aesthetic improvement).
posted by frosty_hut at 12:55 PM on February 15, 2007

The AMC Gremlin & Pacer
posted by Good Brain at 12:56 PM on February 15, 2007

I should expand on that. Both were originally designed for a wankel engine, but when the engine development program didn't pan out, they were fitted with a conventional piston engine that was much longer and forced the transmission back into the area intended for passengers.
posted by Good Brain at 12:58 PM on February 15, 2007

Here's a discussion on the blue.
posted by hydrophonic at 1:04 PM on February 15, 2007

A road where traffic streams towards you on both sides. Sadly, I can't pinpoint it exactly here, but it's frightening and counterintuitive to drive off a normal road and then in between two lanes of traffic coming at you, I guess unless you are used to driving in India. Maybe it's good training for those people who end up causing accidents driving on the wrong side of the highway. In this case it occurs when you are driving northeast on one of the yellow-marked roads. Or at least it used to. I haven't been there in a few years.
posted by Listener at 1:08 PM on February 15, 2007

Since my first office lacked an actual central heating system, my boss brought in a little space heater that was an electronic resistance-coil type thing. Stupid thing had a thermostat right on the heater, meaning that as soon as the area within one foot of the heater was sufficiently heated the heater would shut off. And that's not even counting conduction through the heating unit itself. We had to take the counter-intuitive measure of turning the heat on low to more efficiently heat the space.
posted by LionIndex at 1:30 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Holland High School.

They had this great idea of being kind of progressive-like and having a "campus-style" school with several seperate buildings.

They forgot that, oh yeah, we're along Lake Michigan and for several months of the year, "going outside" is not something anyone wants to do any more than is absolutely necessary.

So they eventually connected these buildings with very long hallways which solve the "going outside" problem but also make it one of the most horribly confusing buildings ever.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:38 PM on February 15, 2007

Ask Tog is the website of Bruce Tognazzini, one of the original Mac designers and is full of information on bad design, particularly interface design. He is also a member of the Nielsen Norman group; the Norman in the name is the same Donald Norman that wrote The Psychology (later Design) of Everyday Things that was mentioned above. I agree that it is a book that changes the way one sees the world. I didn't like his new book as much, though.
posted by TedW at 1:39 PM on February 15, 2007

Kansas Skywalk- collapsed due to bad design.
Hartford Civic Center- collapsed due to bad design.
Boston's molasses storage tank- collapsed due to bad design.. I sense a trend here.
posted by Gungho at 1:41 PM on February 15, 2007

Gungho: I do not think this hypertext thing means what you think it means.
posted by null terminated at 1:50 PM on February 15, 2007

This may often cross the line between "bad design" and "pure crackheadedness"...but it's sure funny...also some of them are very deceptive, it took (longer then it should) for my physics teacher and I to see the VERY obvious failure point in this one. There is also one specific section on that site that is probably most useful to you, but seriously check the rest of the site out, too!
posted by anaelith at 1:52 PM on February 15, 2007

A lot of good links already posted here. A couple of books for you: Why Buildings Fall Down, World's Worst Aircraft

Our own eriko made an amazing comment about the compromises in the design of the space shuttle.

And as long as I'm here, I'll add Ebay and Myspace.
posted by adamrice at 1:57 PM on February 15, 2007

This is a pretty specific example, but one that leaps to mind when pondering "bad design."

In the other-wise incredibly well-designed 2002, BMW engineers mounted the brake master cylinder in such a way that, should it ever leak fluid (which it invariably will), said fluid will drip straight down into the open driver's side frame rail, rotting it out and seriously compromising the structural integrity of the car.
posted by saladin at 2:03 PM on February 15, 2007

You should check out Jakob Neilsen's www.use.it.com. It's very well known. I'm surprised it wasn't mentioned above.
posted by xammerboy at 2:12 PM on February 15, 2007

re: Kadin2048 Most brands have little pry-off plastic tops

I assume the primary goal there is to let you actually be able to poor the contents into your gas tank. A normal wide mouth bottle wouldn't work for that. Off the top of my head, I'm not sure what a better approach would be. Maybe a two piece bottle where the top was a funnel shape and the bottle had a wide mount for easy opening?
posted by alikins at 2:16 PM on February 15, 2007

Damn near any cellphone interface.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2007

bad design is everywhere. I think you're going to have to be more specific.

i find that if you look for homemade signs taped to something, that is usually a good indicator that something doesn't work correctly for it's environment.

you see this often on vending machines or coffee machines (e.g. PUT CUP HERE ---> BEFORE PUSHING BUTTON.) etc.

A favorite of mine was in a library bathroom. the sign said something like, "Do not turn the handle to test if the door is locked, since that will unlock the door." The designer thought it would be neat to not have to unlock the door to leave (save a step), but of course, the tradeoff is that there is no way to test that the door is locked. you just gotta have faith. (and a little homemade sign.)
posted by kamelhoecker at 2:18 PM on February 15, 2007

The Swedish ship Vasa is an historical example of bad design. It was built to the King's specifications, which overloaded it with heavy cannons. The Vasa flunked its stability test, but was launched anyway. It capsized and sank within the first mile of its maiden voyage, in 1628.
posted by Snerd at 2:28 PM on February 15, 2007

Windows 3.1. Awful, and overcame it through sheer marketing force.
posted by chairface at 2:39 PM on February 15, 2007

Oh, you can't mention BMW without mentioning iDrive. IIRC, when BMW introduced that on the 753, they instructed dealers to keep new buyers on the lot for 2 hours so they could get acquainted with the iDrive before hitting the road.
posted by adamrice at 2:47 PM on February 15, 2007

The Pentax Optio S4 camera. The power button and the shutter button are right next to each other, and the power button is illuminated. So every time I give the camera to someone to take a picture (particularly when it's dark), the person ends up turning the power off instead of taking the picture. So frustrating!
posted by coondognd at 3:00 PM on February 15, 2007

The Gobbler
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 3:03 PM on February 15, 2007

Oh, you can't mention BMW without mentioning iDrive...
Boy howdy...
And, in that same vein...Touchscreen controls in autos.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:04 PM on February 15, 2007

Overcoming bad design: Citigroup Center.

From the link: "In 1978, prompted by a question from a student, LeMessurier discovered a potentially fatal flaw in the building's construction: the skyscraper's bolted joints were too weak to withstand 70-mile-per-hour (113 km/h) wind gusts at specific angles."
posted by peep at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2007

I heard a CBC radio documentary on bad design a couple of years ago. An example they used was an airplane instrument panel that had two identical side-by-side switches for flaps and wheels. They were labelled, but in a busy situation the pilot could inadvertently flip the wheels up when landing. This resulted in many accidents before the reason was discovered. The solution: a wheel-like knob on the wheels switch, and a flap-like knob on the flaps switch. Someone more familiar with CBC archives might point you to the program.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:11 PM on February 15, 2007

It's a spoof, but you'd swear somebody was sitting in on brainstorming sessions in Redmond:
What if Microsoft Made the iPod?
posted by rob511 at 3:26 PM on February 15, 2007

rob511: Not a spoof. It was produced by Microsoft's packaging team as an in-house instructional video for marketers. So you could say it's deliberately bad.
posted by ardgedee at 3:52 PM on February 15, 2007

How about every airport restroom I have ever been in? The stalls are tiny and are not designed for people with luggage that must remain under their control. Ugh!

I second the opinion on ebay and myspace. Those are truly horrible, both in visual design and ease of use.
posted by Lockjaw at 4:22 PM on February 15, 2007

flashlights! almost all of them are cylindrical, so they roll off the damn counter. should be faceted, like pencils.
posted by aquanaut at 4:30 PM on February 15, 2007

The ipod spoof is hysterical, and it is a spoof.

But you know: the box is a lot more *useful* than the ipod box. I can actually pick one up and know what the specs of the thing in the box are. The early ipod boxes just tell me that the thing inside is white, lacks obvious control features, and will cost me half my month's rent.

Don't assume minimalist=good design any more than maximalism=bad.
posted by mrbugsentry at 6:14 PM on February 15, 2007

http://www.thisisbroken.com/. Many things listed there aren't truly broken... just badly designed.
posted by IndigoRain at 6:23 PM on February 15, 2007

How about Swindon's Magic Roundabout?
posted by Vervain at 8:35 PM on February 15, 2007

COBRA!, it is hard to tell for certain from the picture, but it seems like those are just canalphones. Calling them "surround" is ridiculous, but then marketing in audio is that way - does that qualify as bad design..

As for the CBC documentary, it was an ideas two parter called By Design: The Politics of Everyday Objects. Since it isn't easy to make a direct link to the shows description, here you go:
We tend to take the objects around us, from paper clips to bridges, for granted, remarking only when they're either annoying to use, or impossibly elegant. Why do everyday objects look the way they do, and why are we so often saddled with clunky, ugly things? Writer-broadcaster Nora Young looks at the hidden politics and unintended consequences behind the design of everyday stuff. Part Two airs Friday, October 6.
If it has ever been podcast, there is a hope of pulling it off the web, but I couldn't. If anyone is interested, I might be able to search harder..

While looking for that, I learned that there is a Radio Australia show called By Design.

I have to say, I find some of this Human Factors Design stuff a little too cute. More because of the way it is marketed and covered in the media, than for the actual substance, but you know..
posted by Chuckles at 11:12 PM on February 15, 2007

Dyson vacuum cleaners. Here in the UK everyone raves about them because some British dude invented them, but they are outrageously heavy, not particularly effective, and near impossible for vacuuming stairs (which just about every British household has). Oh and they're expensive. Ugh.
posted by 8k at 4:33 AM on February 16, 2007

Oh and re the iMac mouse thing: I agree, but ALL mice are pretty unergonomic, except for the few specifically ergonomically designed ones such as the Evoluent.
posted by 8k at 4:34 AM on February 16, 2007

It's been suggested that the light fixture that's bedeviling me in another thread is an example of bad design... it's put together in such a way that it's a total mystery as to how to open it up and change a bulb.
posted by COBRA! at 7:45 AM on February 16, 2007

The carafe of my husband's coffee maker is awful. It drips and splashes and splooshes horribly unless you pour very slowly.
posted by deborah at 10:26 AM on February 16, 2007

Those toilets that flush automatically. This seems like a good idea, but they're generally set up so that the sensor is triggered if you lean forward just a little bit--say, to get toilet paper. You end up having to sit perfectly still to not have it flush while you're sitting on it. They also have a tendancy to flush as soon as you start to get up, which is disconcerting.

Also, they don't always go off--and the mechanism for triggering it manually is not always the same, and is not always obvious--so you still have the problem of unflushed toilets.

On a similar topic, those toilet paper dispensers (which you usually only get in schools, I think) that are rectangular and don't allow the roll to actually turn. I assume they're there to keep people from wasting paper, but it means that to get more than two squares at a time you have to unwind the end, pushing it around the core of the roll. It always made me want to waste the paper just to spite them.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 2:40 PM on February 16, 2007

Oh and re the iMac mouse thing: I agree, but ALL mice are pretty unergonomic, except for the few specifically ergonomically designed ones such as the Evoluent.

Yeah, but I've found most normal mice to be pretty comfortable to use anyway, even if they aren't perfect. Even though they're not terribly ergonomic, they still fit my hand vaguely, and are just heavy enough not to be dragged around by the tension of their own cords.

The Mac round mouse, on the other hand, would have to be covered in sharp spikes to be any more horrifying to use.

On that subject, I would like to mention the current Mac mice, which still, still do not possess a right-click or a scroll wheel. Your options for scrolling on a Mac are 1)switch to the keyboard and use the arrow keys or 2)actually click on the sidebar arrows or click and drag the scroll bar.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 2:53 PM on February 16, 2007

Oh, I thought of another one! The Library of Congress filing system. I remember doing a report in college and having to do research at the library. I had to go all over the stacks to find books on the subject I was researching; they weren't shelved together by subject as they are in the Dewey Decimal system, and there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it (I'm sure there's SOME, since there has to be a method to determine something's number, but I sure couldn't find it). My search also turned up pitifully few books. I eventually asked a librarian if there were any shelves that used Dewey Decimal, and she directed me to the special space-saving shelves in the basement, where all the books I needed were in the same place (or... two places, possibly?) and I could browse freely.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 4:52 PM on February 16, 2007

The electric kettle in my lab has the light on when it is off. To make it boil, you push a button that turns the light off. That's how you know it is doing something -- no light. Incredibly counter-intuitive.
posted by Rumple at 1:51 PM on February 17, 2007

sleeplessunderwater -- the Library of Congress system certainly does have a system. You may be used to the Dewey system but that does not mean LOC is not shelved by subject - it most assuredly is. The problem with any filing system is a book can only physically be in one place, so if your mental map doesn't match the system, it may appear random.
posted by Rumple at 1:57 PM on February 17, 2007

Rumple -- Well, they were all linguistics books, so they should have all been in the same place, since according to your link it has its own subclass. :/
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 2:43 PM on February 17, 2007

...current Mac mice, which still, still do not possess a right-click or a scroll wheel...

My relatively new Mac came with a Mighty Mouse that not only right and left clicks but has a scroll wheel that works in both the horizontal and vertical directions.
posted by TedW at 6:03 PM on February 18, 2007

Oh, now I'm jealous. The campus Mac labs' computers all have the one-button mice. (I think they're newer than that article.) I thought they were still clinging to that.
posted by sleeplessunderwater at 7:05 PM on February 18, 2007

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