design gaffes

Kinda like turning the air conditioner up and down at the same time, isn't it?

This graphic is cut from a bag of potting soil. The partially-torn out word is "exclusive." What I'm wondering is: How do you improve both "drainage" and "moisture retention" at the same time?

This sign appears on the northwest corner of Lamar and 45th, facing south. This sign appears on the main building.

Why Paying Attention to Typography is Important, Lesson 1: These signs are on the grounds of what used to be the "Texas School for the Blind" in Austin. The institution's name, and signage, were amended in later years for the sake of political correctness. Looks like they weren't able to match the original typeface exactly, however, and the letters "AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED" ended up being noticeably bolder. Maybe they thought people were having trouble seeing them clearly?

Bomba is available in four colors/flavours: Blue, Black, Gold, and Red. No, it's not a dildo--it's a beverage can designed to look like a bullet.

Move over "bazooka" bubble-gum--here are two bright new contenders in the race to the bottom: War sells tasty snack treats. On the left is "Bomba," a generic energy drink containing ginseng, ephedra, caffeine, and sugar which is sold in a bottle shaped like a fragmentation grenade. The cap has a cheap wire "pin" welded to it, to complete the visual image and the metaphor--when you pop the top on a bottle of Bomba, you are pulling the pin on an energy bomb, which will go off, presumably, in your stomach. Only in America would this sell drinks, but apparently, it does (I bought one, after all.) My friend Matt thinks Bomba should be sold by the dozen case, packed in a cheap pine crate with bad stenciling on the side and padded with hay.

To the right is another generic energy drink, the "Extreme Energy Shot," which takes its visual cues (supposedly) from a bullet. Most people think it looks more like a phallus. Coors, "The Silver Bullet," deserves the dubious honor of first making us think of beverage cans as projectiles, but the Extreme Energy Shot clearly wins the award for the most ham-handed. It looks like the bastard child of a Red Bull can and a Leggs Pantyhose container.

The early 20th-century facade of Austin's University Baptist Church defiled by the late addition of steel-and-plate-glass doors.

This is not so much a "gaffe" as just a sad irony. The glass doors blocking access to the alcoves of this church--University Baptist in Austin, Texas--were recently installed to keep bums from finding shelter there. The inscription above the door dates the building to 1921. Besides being grossly out-of-place on the art nouveau facade, the doors themselves speak volumes about the real committment of the congregation to its principles:

I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. Matthew 25:43-45

You can't beat that price! Call now!

This one, I think, pretty much speaks for itself.

Note the fly guy with the earring gnoshing down on the LEGO brick. Must be pretty cool to eat LEGOS, eh kids? Inscrutable CHOKING HAZARD to lower right alleviates moral responsibility.
At least they're low in fat.

Edible LEGOs. Why not? I'll tell you why not: Because, as ad copy at Candy Warehouse explains, this item "Looks and plays just like LEGO blocks..." Which seems like fun, until some kid who sees his older brother munching down Candy Blox tries to do the same thing with a real LEGO brick and breaks a tooth, chokes to death, and/or poisons himself. Concord Confections, of Canada, also markets Bubble Blox.

Perfect for stalking paperwork through the underbrush.

Maybe I'm an old fogey to insist that form should bear some logical relationship to function. In an outdoor setting, the pretension of camoflauge textiles to natural materials is excusable because it serves the function of concealment. But in a cubicle? It's not as if the fabric, divorced from its functional context, has any appreciable aesthetic value. As interior decor, camo is in even poorer taste than artificial plants.

This symbol is only about a half-inch tall.  The print is too small to be resolved by a digital camera; I had to use a flatbed scanner to get this image. Judging by the diagram, this looks like the correct orientation to insert the card.

The icon on this flash memory card reader by Antek is possibly the worst visual explanation I've ever seen. The most visible parts of the icon are the arrow and the silhouette of the card itself which, taken by themselves, seem clearly to indicate that the card should be inserted with the gold side up and the clipped corner on the upper right. Only the tiny arrow and the inscrutable words "Turn Over" (see detail above) indicate the symbol's true meaning, viz.: "If you are inserting the card like this, you are doing it incorrectly and need to turn it over." Would "This way up" be too much to ask? Both my father and I wasted the better part of an hour trying to make the card reader work before we realized this perversity.

This 'FREE POSTER depicting the Starship in flight' is included. Cool-looking knife, eh? Never mind that, by actually opening it, you endanger yourself and others. Buck Rogers on the way to buy his pocket knife.

This pocketknife design, called the "CAS IBERIA STARSHIP FOLDER," caught my attention in the Smoky Mountain Knife Works print catalog because of its sleek and sexy appearance. That, of course, is what it's supposed to do. This is a knife that has been designed for no other reason than to look cool. What knives and spaceships have to do with each other--besides in the 2001 bone-hurling sense--is beyond me. This may well be the most pretentious form a knife can take; here, after all, is humanity's simplest tool masquerading as its most sophisticated.

Above and beyond the simple bad taste of the object, however, consider the following line of text from the acccompanying ad copy:

Smooth operation requires some practice--please use caution!
Now, these Smoky Mountain people are in the business of selling knives. I've been receiving their 100-odd page catalog for years, and not once before have I noticed such a warning attached to any other knife. This means that
  1. they have received complaints from purchasers of this knife who have cut themselves trying to open it, and/or
  2. they have examined the knife themselves and are worried it might be dangerous to purchasers.
The implication is that the form of this knife has been chosen not merely without heed to its function, but actually at the expense thereof. It's bad enough to design, manufacture, and market a knife intended to look like a rocket ship; could we at least go so far as to make it safe to use?

Doesn't the Tao say something about the utility of a bowl being the empty space it contains?
The bowl's design does provide some functional insulating qualities, but where is that mentioned in the ad copy? The focus is only on the aesthetic.

This bowl from the MoMA catalog, while admittedly pretty, is an affront to the spirit of modern design which the museum ostensibly promulgates: that form and function are one. Accompanying copy explains the construction: Two pieces of concave stainless steel, one for the interior and one for the exterior, are fused along their perimeters (presumably by a relatively expensive inert-gas welding process), and the resultant form polished to a mirror finish. Because the curvatures of the interior and exterior pieces are different, the bowl includes a sizeable hollow space between its interior and exterior surfaces. This space, while it may have certain insulative benefits, serves only to reduce the functional volume of the bowl: The bowl would hold more stuff if the interior layer, and the expensive manufacturing it entails, were omitted altogther. This, presumably, is the function of a bowl in the first place.

300 apartment numbers are listed here, each with its corresponding gate-phone-dial-code, for a total of 600 numbers.

Speaking generally, gated apartment communities are a bad idea. Besides the gentrification that such "conveniences" facilitate, there is the naked fact that gate codes--for residents and/or emergency services--are difficult if not impossible to keep secret, besides which it is straightforward enough to tailgate a resident into the complex. It is, in other words, childishly simple to circumvent such "security" measures, and the only function they serve is as a come-on to potential residents who don't really think about what a pain in the butt that gate is going to be to them further down the line. Gates are point-of-sale packaging for apartment complexes, and that's all.

Putting aside the noxiousness of gates in general, however, this particular gate, which admits to The Hampton apartments on Wells Branch road in north Austin, TX, stands out as especially offensive. On driving up to the console, one is presented with an enormous directory of all 300 apartments on a 4' by 3' poster. To gain admittance, one must look up the 3-digit apartment number in this directory to find a corresponding 4-digit code, which, having been entered on the attached keypad (after pressing #), dials the phone in your host's apartment. They may then "buzz you in" by dialing a code on their telephone keypad which opens the gate.

Would it have been too complicated to program the system to accept the host's apartment number into the keypad directly, without the clumsy, inconvenient, and time-consuming step of looking up an arbitrary "dial-code" manually? To force this menial and arbitrary task on every guest at the apartment complex, when it could easily be done automatically by the electronics themselves, is to add insult to the injury of having to stop at a gate in the first place. Besides which, consider the not-inconsequential effort required to print up and securely and attractively mount a directory large enough to list all 600 necessary numbers (2100 digits) and still be readable to a person sitting in a car some 4' or 5' away. The mediocre job done here is legible enough, but it is also quite ugly and is beginning to succumb to the elements.

The design of these salt and pepper shakers is a triumph of the superficial over the substantial.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I once bought a set of these "screwmorphic" salt and pepper shakers at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as a gift for a friend. She and I shared a taste for "industrial" objects--anything that was shaped like a screw or a spring was liable to find its way into one of our collections of junk. Here was a pretentious object that combined screws and springs in one form, so of course I bought one for her. They sure looked cool on her table, but that's about all they were good for. Like the spaceship knife pictured elsewhere on this page, these shakers are a triumph of the superficial over the substantive.

To begin with, they are scarcely identifiable as salt and pepper shakers to a person uninitiated in their use. Guests have to ask for instructions if they want salt or pepper. Secondly, they hold miniscule amounts of their respective spices. Refilling them requires a small funnel or a weighing paper or some other extra tool to pour into the narrow channel of the spring. Finally, they don't work very well: To dispense salt, for example, one bends the spring to one side, thereby opening gaps between the coils, and shakes some out. This takes some finesse because if you don't bend enough, nothing comes out, and if you bend too much, too much comes out. To add insult to injury, salt and pepper tend to get stuck in between the coils when sideways pressure is released. This prevents the spring from returning completely to its straight "screwmorphic" shape and thoroughly ruins the illusion. So you have to wipe or scrape them off after each use to dislodge the trapped grains of spice.

Is it wrong to buy a set, just because they look cool and make a nice conversation piece? No. Just don't be surprised if your old salt and pepper shakers are back on the table after about a week.

The Titanic salt-and-pepper set by Designgruppe Lorch is a titanic faux pas.

1,522 people died a miserable, salty death when the RMS Titanic sank on April 14th, 1912, in the Atlantic Ocean. It was possibly the worst disaster in maritime history. What better way to show your respect for all that death and suffering than with this nifty salt-and-pepper shaker combination? A matching Twin Towers salt-and-pepper set would be only slightly less offensive. How about a Lockerbie Memorial Meat Grinder? Designgruppe Lorch, whomever they may be, are the perpetrators of this atrocity.

An insidiously-designed power bill from City of Austin utilities.

What we have here is not so much a gaffe as a nominee for "The Design Hall of Shame," because I'm relatively certain that this one was done deliberately. What you're looking at is the power bill that anyone who buys electricity from the City of Austin, Texas, receives in the mail every month. Take a close look at the numbers in the upper-right-hand corner. The top number indicates the amount due, and the bottom number indicates the amount due if you pay a month late. Directly beneath this higher figure is the line where you're supposed to fill in how much you're paying this month. Clearly the idea is that people rushing through the unpleasant business of paying bills will not look closely and will pay the bottom amount, which is more than they actually owe, and COA utilities will benefit from this "voluntary" overpayment. We're so used to the "bottom line" being the important number, i.e. the one we actually owe, that it's an easy mistake to make. I wonder how much money this devious little trick has netted COA over the years?

$338 dollar-a-piece sawhorses from Oriac Design, left.

These are "designer sawhorses" (sawstallions?) sold by Oriac Design. The idea is to create an upscale version of the old two-sawhorses-and-a-door table/desk concept. It seems to me that paying $340 a piece for the sawhorses kind of undermines the conceptual beauty of the original concept, which was that it was cheap, unpretentious, easy to set up, and solid. This is a lot like owning a director's chair made from solid cocobolo and upholstered with snow leopard hide. Unpretentious vernacular designs executed in elitist materials may be the most offensive form of conspicuous consumption imaginable.

Interior passenger door of 2002 Chevrolet 1500 series pickup.  Note arrangement of controls.

This is really not so blunderous as a "gaffe," but it's still worthy of attention. God, after all, is in the details, and by paying attention to details here we find an object lesson in what Donald A. Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) has called "natural mapping" in the layout of controls. The above picture shows the interior passenger door panel of a 2002 Chevrolet 1500-series pickup truck. There are three controls: one mechanical lock switch, one servomechanical lock switch, and one servomechanical window switch. The foremost control, oriented parallel to the armrest, is the window control. Directly behind that, perpendicular to the axis of the armrest, is the servomechanical lock control. Rearmost, attached to the vertical plane of the door panel and with the red indicator exposed, is the mechanical lock control. Redundant lock controls are an essential safety feature: They make it possible to unlock and open the door even if the vehicle's electrical system has failed, as for instance if the car is underwater. At issue here are the orientations of the two servomechanical controls. As pictured, they are exactly backward: The lock control should be oriented parallel to the armrest, which would be a more natural mapping A) because it is parallel to the orientation of the mechanical lock control which is also, I believe, B) parallel to the action of the actual lock bolt which secures the door to the frame. Likewise, the window control maps more naturally perpendicular to the armrest because the direction the window moves, when actuated, is perpendicular to the armrest. The switches have small icons which indicate their functions well enough, but these might not be necessary if a more natural arrangement and orientation of controls could be achieved. Besides rotating it 90 degrees, moving the servomechanical lock switch behind the window switch would further enhance our intuitions of its function by virtue of its proximity to the mechanical switch serving the same function.

'M&Coasters' commodify a vernacular readymade design, which is always a bad idea.

This set of 6 brightly- and variously-colored CDs, all of which are blank, sells for $18.00 (US!) from the Museum of Modern Art. Recycling CDs as coasters is a common vernacular design idea, and commodifying it like this defeats the purpose of the original concept as much as, say, the designer saw-horses described above. Ad copy proclaims, "[w]ith this fun set of six coasters, you will never have to worry about damaging your favorites." Never mind that A) free CDs are to be had (from AOL and others) in the mail, in stores, and in government offices just about anywhere there's human civilization; B) a pack of twenty blank CD-RWs, in five festive colors, is available from Tiger Direct for $4.99; and C) CDs make lousy coasters anyway (see below). Designer (if this product can really be called a "design") Tibor Kalman, who in the past has had some intelligent things to say about CD packaging, seems to have dropped the ball here.

While we're on the subject, a few words are in order about the design of drink coasters. First and foremost, they are necessary at all because of poorly-designed tables: if your coffee table's surface were adequate to its task, no coaster would be necessary. Secondly, coasters should not have smooth surfaces (as CDs do) unless they also have sufficient weight (as CDs do not) to overcome the suction due to the seal which can be formed between a smooth surface and the bottom of a condensation-moistened glass or bottle. If they aren't heavy enough, the coaster sticks to the bottom of the glass and lifts with it, only to fall after a second or two and possibly damage itself or the furniture. I have actually broken coasters made from thin plate glass in this way, and although damage is not so much a problem with CDs, this "lifting" phenomenon is an annoyance no one should have to put up with in an object so simple as a coaster.

The user interface of my new phone, the LG model VX3100, like so many recent cel phone designs, is a triumph of the superficial over the substantive.

When my old reliable NOKIA cel phone finally kicked the bucket, I was eligible for a free replacement phone from Verizon. I chose the LG-VX3100, pictured above, which I have found overall to be a poor replacement for the old phone. It is superior in that it is a flip-open design, and so, unlike my old NOKIA, I can carry it in my pocket and not have to worry about locking the pad to prevent accidental activation of the phone. (RING/"Hello, did you just call me?"/"Um, not that I know of."/etc.)

However, although the physical form of the phone is clearly an improvement, the user interface is simply awful, the phone lacks some of the features I used regularly in my old phone (like a countdown timer), and the phone mates poorly with its charger. This last defect is particularly annoying, since I use my phone in place of an alarm clock: If I don't get the phone set in the charger just right before I go to bed, the batteries will run down during the night and, not only will I be without an operating phone when I wake up the next morning, I'll also probably wake up several hours later than I intended to.

But none of these is as offensive to my sense of rational design as the annoying beeps and whistles the phone makes. I am grateful, at least, that it can be set to make a normal ring tone. Melody's recently-acquired Sprint phone doesn't even include a normal ring tone as an option from the factory: You have to pick one of the songs it comes loaded with ("Ride of the Valkyries" is my personal favorite for all-time irony), or pay to get the computer-connection cable so you can download a normal ring from the web. That my own phone is not thus handicapped is small compensation, however, for the supreme annoyance: The phone plays a jingle when you turn it off, and there is no way to disable this "feature." After interrupting several of my professors with the little deactivation jingle (something very close to the resolution of "The 12 Days of Christmas"), I've finally taken to turning the phone over and removing the battery--which is totally silent--instead of pressing the off switch. Didn't it ever occur to the people who design phones that the biggest reason people turn off their phone in the first place--in school, church, or a movie, for example--is that they don't want it to make any noise?

The problem, it seems, is not limited to my own phone. My classes are frequently interrupted by somebody's ringing cel. This is a fact of modern life; everyone knows you're supposed to turn the phone off before class begins, but everyone also knows it's an easy thing to forget. Usually the professor stops and stares at the offending, and sorely embarassed, party until the ringing is silenced, then goes on with the lecture. However, several times recently the same person has been singled out again when, turning off the phone after the embarassment of having it ring, they interrupt class again with the little deactivation-jingle. Once the professor even snapped, "Can't you make that thing be quiet???"

The answer, stupidly and infuriatingly, seems to be "no."

When you absolutely, positively have to checkmate every motherf*cker in the room, accept no substitutes.

This is a strategy book, apparently, about how to win a chess match using an assault rifle. I shouldn't think that would be too difficult. Get your copy at

I think they should have picked a different color for his 'water cannon.'

What is this? A LEGO Enzyte ad?

Robitussin CoughGels come in this bottle.  They are designed and marketed for those who intend abuse.

Dextromethorphan, known in the recreational drug community as DXM, is the active ingredient in almost all over-the-counter cough suppressants. It is slightly less abusable than codeine, which it has generally replaced. These days you need a prescription almost everywhere in the US to buy products containing codeine, which is a classical narcotic: derived from natural opium, inducing a sleepy-dreamy euphoria, analgesic, and having a relatively strong tendency to cause physiological dependence. It also suppresses coughing. Dextromethorphan (which is the mirror image of the morphine molecule) does not induce euphoria and has little if any habituating effect, but taken in large doses it is a dissociative analogous to ketamine or PCP. Anecdotal reports tend to describe an enhanced appreciation of sound and music. Some people find this experience enjoyable and will repeat it; many more are curious enough to try it once. DXM is more widely abused than it might otherwise be because of its ready availability: All you have to do is go to Wal-Mart and buy a bottle of generic Robitussin, choke it down, and you will trip for the next 6 to 8 hours.

The disincentives to this behavior (long-term health effects aside) are 1) liquid Robitussin tastes awful and 2) OTC cough syrup often contains other active ingredients, such as guafinesin or pseudoephedrine, at sufficient concentrations, if not to actually kill you, then at least to insure that you have a very unpleasant time if you drink a whole bottle. Nonetheless, if you can read a label you can find cough syrup without these "adulterants," and the practice of recreational Robitussin-chugging is surpringly widespread. Doubtless the makers of Robitussin and other DXM-containing cough syrups are aware of this.

The bottle of Robitussin CoughGels shown above was bought at an all-night convenience store. Acccording to the label, each tablet contains 15 mg of the hydrobromide salt of dextromethorphan, a dose equivalent to about a teaspoonful of liquid cough syrup. There are no other active ingredients. The bottle contains 20 pills, and if you eat all of them you will be very high. What's more, because the drug is delivered in a pill, the harsh taste associated with the liquid cough syrups is no longer a problem. I have never seen the CoughGels available for sale at any place other than an all-night convenience store or gas station. I have heard that, years ago, pills containing DXM were commonly available, but were generally withdrawn by manufacturers under pressure from the DEA because of their tendency to encourage abuse.

Now, the question is, are the manufacturers of Robitussin deliberately marketing to potential abusers of DXM? The two common strategies for preventing abuse of an active ingredient--making the product foul-tasting and "cutting" it with objectionable doses of decongestants or expectorants--are here conspicuously absent. That the CoughGels seem to be available only at all-night conveniece stores and similar "lowbrow" emporia adds to the suspicion. Of course, the manufacturers can claim that they are simply responding to market demand: Nobody wants to have to taste nasty cough syrup, anyway, and some consumers may not want the other ingredients which might be mixed in to discourage DXM abuse. So the accusation of pandering to drug abusers is plausibly deniable. But were they aware, when they brought back the CoughGel formulation, that it would make DXM abuse easier, and that they stood to benefit competitively from such abuse?

You better believe they were.

Alarm clocks designed to look like time bombs.

There are not time bombs. They are, rather, alarm clocks that have been designed and manufactured to look like time bombs. Available, as far as I can tell, only through the print edition of the NIC Law Enforcement Supply catalog (and conspicuously absent from their website), the clock comes in both large (7 sticks dynamite) and small (3 sticks dynamite). The ad copy is splattered with disclaimers:

These clocks existed before the late unpleasantness in New York, Baghdad, Kabul, et. al.; I remember seeing one in some kind of "spy store" in the Galleria Mall in Dallas in 1993 or so. Even then it gave me qualms. On the one hand, I have to admit, it's cool. Whoever designed it did a great job making it look real, and having a ticking time bomb beside your bed is pretty sweet in a Spy Kids kind of way. On the other hand, of course, it's the height of irresponsibility: the misidentification of this object at an inopportune moment could cause a very real panic and easily land the bearer in federal prison. High price to pay for a groovy alarm clock.

A fireplace lighter that looks like a giant match gives cues to its function.

Here's another item for my larger-than-life restaurant.

Previously, I have used the term "homomorphic" to describe objects which are designed to resemble other objects, but I'm thinking of stowing that term in favor of "pseudomorphic." Etymologically, "homomorphic" is roughly "having the same shape," whereas "pseudomorphic" is more-or-less "having a false shape." The perjorative connotation of "pseudo" is not necessarily desirable, but I find "pseudomorphic" to be much less awkward than "homomorphic" on the tongue. A dilemma indeed.

Here we have an interesting pseudomorph: It's a fireplace lighter designed to look like a giant matchstick. Most people, I think, take some delight in the playful marriage of form and function in this object. In an analogic sense, a reusable butane lighter is a kind of "supermatch," and making the analogy complete visually is pleasing in an intuitive and child-like way. This is not so irresponsible as, say, a tape dispenser that looks like an elephant, because here there is some functional justification for the pseudomorphism.

Whether this functional rationale is actually useful is another question altogether. Certainly the appearance of a "mega match" makes the object's function clearer, so if you're rummaging through a drawer looking for a fire starter the pseudomorphism here makes it easier to find one. However, I don't think there are a whole lot of adults who have a hard time identifying a fireplace lighter for what it is. In fact, the only person who might come across a fireplace lighter and not recognize its function is a child, and, of course, you don't want to give children any help in recognizing fire-starting devices. To the extent that it appeals to users in a childlike way, the MegaMatch (TM) must also appeal to children, themelves, and may actually attract their attention to a potentially dangerous object which, if it had a more mundane form, might not be noticed.

With only two menu choices, how do you tell which is highlighted?

Here's a problem I've encountered on a couple of DVD menus. The "highlighted" menu item is indicated by a unique color. But there have to be three or more choices for this strategy to be effective, as the highlight color must be recognized as unique. When there are only two choices, both colors are unique and it becomes impossible to tell which is the highlighted item and which the subdued. Tt's a fairly easy trap for the media designer to fall into, since normally color highlighting works fine and using it can easily become reflexive. In the case of only two options, however, it leaves the viewer with an essentially random choice between them. Some kind of shape-change is necessary in this case.