When does “making it pretty” become “bad design”?

Within the past week, I came across a couple of examples where designers, in an attempt to make something “aesthetically pleasing” ended up creating a bad design.

Image result for Sloan EBV-304-A SOLIS Water Closet Electronic Single Button
In the dimly-lit stall, I couldn’t see the graphic to flush.

The first example, strangely enough, came from a public toilet (don’t worry, I won’t go TMI on you). The flush mechanism was similar to what you see here. It was dark in the toilet stall, so I couldn’t see the little graphic of the finger pressing the button (that you can see clearly in this picture). It looked like one of those auto-flush mechanisms, so I expected it to flush when I stood up. It didn’t. I tried pressing the top of the mechanism and waving my hand in front of it. No dice. It wasn’t until I found the little button along the front edge that I finally got the thing to work. I don’t know how long it took me to figure that out, but I’ll estimate that it took me somewhere between fifteen and thirty seconds — far longer than it should’ve taken me to figure out how to flush a toilet.

How do I get water out of this thing?

The second example happened recently at a friend’s house. The photo you see here is the ice and water dispenser on his refrigerator. I put my water bottle underneath, and naturally, ice came out of it. I then tried to get water. How do I do that? I looked for a button to toggle between ice and water, but couldn’t find one. My friend told me to press the button above the ice dispenser. I pressed the top panel with my finger, expecting my bottle to fill with water. Much to my surprise (and my chagrin), water came out not from under the button and into my bottle, but rather above the panel I was pressing, splashing water onto my hand. Apparently, what I was supposed to do was press the upper panel with my water bottle so that it would dispense into my bottle.

To the people who designed these things: how was I supposed to know that?!?

These are more examples of what I consider to be bad design. It seems like artisans are making more of an effort to make products visually appealing. But in their efforts to make things “pretty,” they’re ignoring making them functional.

Years ago, I remember seeing signs in a local park — “park here,” “keep off the grass,” etc. (I tried to find pictures of them, but have been unsuccessful.) Whomever made the signs went through great efforts to make them look pretty — the person used wood and tree-themed graphics to dress them up and make them look “rustic.” However, the person concentrated so much on making the signs “pretty” that (s)he completely ignored making them readable! The signs were impossible to read. You could not tell what they said. Thankfully, the signs have long since been replaced, and personally, I think the sign-maker should have been fired.

And if you think bad design isn’t a big deal, let me point out that bad interface design has been a factor in some fatal plane crashes, as well as some other major disasters.

People might argue that, “well, of course they’re functional! You just have to know how they work!” Therein lies the rub: you have to know how they work. Making something functional isn’t just a matter of making something that works; it needs to be obvious as to how it works! This is one of my major pet peeves when it comes to design. As someone once said, good design is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it isn’t any good.

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