Poor Design: A Series of Small Crimes Against Humanity

Well Put

Suppose the fault really lies in the device, so that lots of people have the same problems. Because everyone perceives the fault to be his or her own, nobody wants to admit having trouble. This creates a conspiracy of silence, maintain the feelings of guilt and helplessness among users.”

~ Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Norman is a cognitive scientist who has applied his skills to the usability of objects big and small. The Design of Everyday Things, which I just started this weekend, spends a lot of time defending humans against shitty shoddy design. A key observation from his work is that humans spend a lot of time assigning blame to ourselves for an environment largely designed against our natural ways of interaction.

There must be one object in your house or office that is designed pleasing to the eye, but that trips you up every time you use it. For many, it is stove top controls that aren’t intuitive or an office copy machine/printer that seems to always require a technician. For my household, basic food packaging that can never simply be opened is a constant source of aggravation. It is a bag of chips, do I really need a saws-all?

Poor design is a series of small crimes in our everyday lives that add up to societal retreat and helplessness. It must be us; it usually isn’t.

If you follow this blog, you see where I’m going…the design of our public spaces and our streets is helping to create a feeling of helplessness and retreat. We have city parks that are aesthetically pleasing, from the roadway, but that do nothing to draw us in as humans. We might logically conclude from this that we personally aren’t into city parks or people watching, when we all know what happens when we are in a place that works. Who doesn’t stop, if even for a moment, when passing a busy ice rink like you’ll find in the Rosa Parks Circle Ice Rink in Grand Rapids?

Elsewhere in the public realm, we have city streets that are built and maintained for one mode of transportation and thus we find it arduous, if not dangerous, to walk or ride a bicycle as viable options. We might logically conclude from this experience that we don’t like walking or that we don’t have the ability to ride a bicycle to get to work. We shut down that desire and think others are crazy for suggesting such nonsense. We apply the same logic to inadequate public transit.

The problem is that it isn’t you. It’s the design. 

…to be continued 


Where have you seen poor design? Big or small?


  1. Marya
    November 14, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Our Brita water filtration pitcher requires a deft hand, and even then you can count on the top falling off when you pour the water.

    14th and Division, scary situation for pedestrians and bicyclists.

  2. November 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm


    What a great discussion to start….. please continue to push for smart streets. This City needs you!

  3. November 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    True story: just two minutes ago a bamboo steamer burst into flames on my stove top because I turned on the wrong burner. Silly design.

  4. Amy Martin
    November 14, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    What part; the steamer, the stove, your hand…the fire? What is wrong with Gary Howe, anyway?

    Ok really, how about keyboards that were actually designed to help the mechanical typewriters of history avoid jams? Functional at a certain point, but ultimately designed for machine, not people.

  5. T. Werner
    November 15, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Damn! Did you get it on film? – maybe stage a recreation for next Tuesday’s video.

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