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Bad Design: What good is it?

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People usually viscerally want to distance themselves from bad design, condemn it, and put it in the rearview mirror without so much as waving goodbye. After all, we’re all charged with creating good design–even great design, right? But there are some merits to bad design.

What’s good about bad design?

First, it helps you question assumptions. Taking a closer look at bad design should make us ask what makes it bad? What led it astray? Is it based on some inaccurate assumptions? Or is it somewhat correct but needs elaboration? This discussion is productive if we can start assessing to what degree a design is right or wrong–which can reveal that we may fundamentally have a misunderstanding about the design challenge we’re trying to solve or may be misaligned on how we value the project priorities.

For example: We worked with a client who gave us ample requirements for a new website they wanted us to design from scratch. The project seemed great–they wrote down all the expectations, gave us some design references, and pointed us to heaps of data we had to wade through for what seemed to be a very functional website experience. However, once we started sketching things out and shared some early ideas, the client started talking about the emotional impact the site needed to have on visitors and started throwing out design references that seemed like they were 180 degrees from the function-driven examples they shared earlier. This led to a healthy working session where we helped them explore and separate the site’s emotional and functional requirements and align us on the priority level of each. So even though the preliminary sketches were “bad designs,” they uncovered the complete set of project goals and priorities that were otherwise hidden from us.

Second, bad design also helps you explore the solution space–i.e.,the territory where all the design ideas would be considered possibilities. If a bad design shows something out of bounds–like needing a lot of engineering effort or an entire content team to pull off–you’ll hear about it. There are many guidelines and constraints that are never revealed until a client actually sees something that starts to cross the line. So being able to identify those boundaries helps you know where to focus your creative efforts.

Relatedly, bad design can help your client explore beyond the narrow path to success. Sometimes, clients have an exact idea of the design solution they think will work perfectly, and they narrowly define success in those terms–maybe they share a folder of research or tech specs so you can build precisely their envisioned solution. But if you’ve ever designed anything new, you know the path to success isn’t narrow, but wide. Identifying the right solution requires questioning, exploring, and trying various approaches along a wide path. And in the end, you end up delivering a design that may be a little or a lot better than the client’s original vision.

The third thing bad design does is it helps unify the team’s thinking. When you look at bad design, you can’t help but be vocal about what is wrong with it and engage in a discussion. But when the designs are just ok or good, clients tend to reserve their judgment and opinions until there’s a reason to share them. And often those questions or opinions can accumulate and come out at inconvenient times–like when you’re ready to launch. It’s almost like bad design is a pressure-release valve to get people to start sharing their thoughts.

So what do you do when that path to success looks suspiciously narrow? We do something called “malicious design” whereby we purposely explore “bad designs” in order to find the good. We create outrageous sketches to help question our understanding of the project boundaries and the goals/values of our clients. Even though this is purposeful, it has all the benefits of bad design, as we just outlined:

  1. Question assumptions–did you or the client miss anything when originally outlining the project?
  2. Understand the solution space–are you pursuing a narrow path or a wide one?
  3. Unify the team–the team is more willing to share candid feedback when everyone’s starting from the same spot: the design isn’t great.

 

Critically, malicious design can be a means by which you salvage a tough review session with a client. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to plan to utilize malicious design–you can turn a review session with a client into a working session in which you probe what makes the design bad, whether there’s any good in it, etc.

Or if you have a client who is suspiciously quiet and you fear things may erupt later, maybe you call your malicious design session a “brainstorm” and get the client to clarify or reinforce project assumptions and constraints.

However you utilize it, bad design can be a highly productive way to ensure you deliver the best designs for your client. Getting your team comfortable with the idea of working with “bad design” can give you another tool for finding the right path to good–even great–design.