I keep, on my phone, a list of books I want to write. There’s something wrong with it; somehow, every time I finish a book, I discover the list has grown longer, not shorter. (Side note: You can tell someone’s an amateur whaen they say “I don’t want to show my book to an editor or publisher because I’m afraid someone will steal my idea.” Nah bruh, ideas are worthless, and we all have too many ideas of our own to be interested in yours. The bitter truth of writing is it’s almost impossible to get anyone interested in your book in the first place!)
One of the books on the to-be-written list is a nonfiction work titled A World of Sh*t: Normalizing bad design and lazy craftsmanship. Because man, there’s a ton of it out there.
The way I imagine the book’s title
As I sit here in my parents’ house in Florida, I find myself particularly annoyed by the bad, lazy, incompetent, “we didn’t think this through” design around me.
There’s a term that describes a lot of this crap: “psychic litter.” The expression was coined by David Joiner in the 1990s, to describe small acts of immorality that fall beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.
Take, for example, the Windows installer. It takes a while to install Windows, especially older versions. A lot of that time is spent building the Registry. The Windows installer designers could have pre-built a Registry in the installer itself, which would save almost half an hour on each install, but chose not to because it would mean taking an extra half an hour of their time to build the installer. So rather than spending the half an hour on their end, they chose to waste thousands of man-hours of other people’s time.
This kind of selfishness and lack of care is the essential beating heart of a lot of sh*t design.
Take my parents’ kitchen faucet (please!).
It’s pretty. It’s sleek.
It doesn’t move.
You literally cannot rotate it between the two sinks, which is, you know, one of the most basic of all faucet functions. It doesn’t turn. At all. They have two sinks, but you can only use the faucet with one of them.
Worse, it’s also a sprayer; the entire faucet removes. Clever, except that it does not, and has never, docked correctly. It has a plastic ring on the faucet that fits a plastic sleeve on the base, but the ring is too large; it doesn’t fit. (I imagine the fact that it’s a sprayer is the reason it can’t rotate, and that would be absolutely perfect for a three-armed user.)
And then there’s this marvel of engineering:
This is the steering-wheel-mounted remote for the car stereo in my parents’ truck, a Toyota Tacoma.
Steering-wheel-mounted remotes for a car stereo are a brilliant idea. And they’re really not that complex. They move the most often-used functions to a place where you need not look away from the road or take your hands off the steering wheel to use them.
This control has four primary buttons: left, right, up, down. Now, thinking about what it’s supposed to do (work a CD player/Bluetooth combo), you might reasonably expect that left and right go to previous and next track, and up and down raise and lower the volume.
And you’d be 100% wrong.
Left skips back 10 seconds in the current track. (Yes, seriously.) Right skips forward 10 seconds. Up goes to the next track, down goes to the previous track.
What about volume? How do you adjust the volume?
You don’t. There are no volume controls on the steering wheel. To change the volume, you have to take your hands off the steering wheel.
Yes, you read that right. They literally believed that forward 10 seconds/back 10 seconds was so important it should be on the steering wheel, but volume? Eh. Who uses the volume controls, anyway?
Every single digital music player I’ve ever used, from the Radio Shack Compact Disc Player CD-1000 my parents got in 1984 to my iPhone today, uses left and right arrows for previous and next tracks. But whatever Toyota intern who designed the car stereo controls, having apparently never used or indeed seen an entertainment sound system before, had his own ideas, and somehow, somehow it passed all the design review steps. Somehow, someone signed off on manufacture.
Skip ahead ten seconds yes, volume control no.
And here’s the thing:
The world we live in today, our world of marvels and miracles, is filled with examples like this.
It’s hard not to believe that the vast majority of industrial designers are anything but lazy and barely competent, unwilling or unable to put any effort into their job (and it certainly feels like they never use the things they design). From consumer electronics to furniture to software to clothing, we live in a universe of shit.
My jacket has a zipper edged by a hem that is exactly the right width to catch the slider as it moves. It is not possible to zip or unzil the jacket without the hem catching the slider at least three times.
Someone designed that. It went through several review steps before it was released to manufacture. And yet, neither the designer nor any of the peple resonsible for reviewing the design ever put the jacket on. (I’m serious when I say you cannot zip or unzip it without catching the slider. Even one test would’ve been enough.)
We live, we exist in a world of sh*t. We don’t pay attention to the way design impacts our lives, and as a result, trivial design failures—failures that can easily be corrected in minutes during the design stage—waste countless person-years of time. In some cases, like car stereos with cluttered or counterintuitive layouts, they kill people.
And we as a society are remarkably okay with that.
I’m not sure what changed, but in the last five years or so, I’ve found it increasingly difficult not to notice shitty design all around me. And once you’ve started to see it, it snowballs. You can’t un-see it.
I would like to live in a world where perhaps people cared about design more. But the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.