Bad Design

After a post on good design, I now want to engage in that perennially popular pastime of pointing fingers at bad design. So please indulge me.

After World War 2, a bombed and cratered Europe looked for rapid reconstruction to re-build its cities. Resources were scarce, empires were breaking apart and economy was paramount. Needs created a new movement that could quickly and cheaply build on a massive scale, a movement that later came to be known as “brutalism”.

Brutalism finds its origins in minimalism. The early proponents of minimalism like the Bauhaus believed that the new materials of concrete, glass and steel could be beautiful in themselves without ornamentation. Beauty and aesthetics could come from little things like clean lines and beautiful shapes.

Brutalist architects took the idea of unadorned construction, brought in cheap industrial construction and mostly (but thankfully not always) forgot about the little details which were supposed to offset the garishness. The result was large imposing walls of unpainted concrete, dimly lit corridors and a bleak dystopian vision.

Brutalist Architecture

As concrete discolored and crumbled with age, these buildings seemed to exemplify the failures of the post-ear era and the disappointment of the dreams that had shaped it.

Old Brutalist Architecture in Estonia and India

There were exceptions like LeCorbusier who built superbly planned and livable cities. But these were few people of exceptional vision. For the most part, brutalism resulted in an unremitting horror of a concrete jungle. Prince Charles once remarked,

You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.

Brutalism was not confined to concrete. Here is an example of red-brick brutalism.


Red Brick Brutalism

It is easy in hindsight to see the cause of failure. Brutalism was born of economic need. But it took no account of the needs of the people it had to serve. A man might appreciate a bold construction in the pages of a magazine, but to come home to it every day would dampen even the most cheerful spirit. Its small wonder that one of the first and most visible acts of the counter culture was to cover up such monstrosities under a barrage of graffiti.

Grafitti on Brutalist walls

My grandfather used to tell me a story, once someone floated the idea of naming a new radio after him. If the product was successful, he would be a household name. He squashed it by asking what would happen if the product failed.

The same thing happened when Ford named its car after its founder’s son, Edsel B. Ford. The Ford Edsel is a business legend as one of the worst cars ever made. Although most complaints about it were for quality issues, the car was also filled with that perpetual enemy of good design, the gimmick.

To take but one example, consider that the Ford designers chose to replace the still present gearbox with this push button system.

The push button gear change in the Ford Edsel

The good thing about gimmicks is that they die quickly. But until they do, they make life miserable for everyone. The early Samsung and HTC phones with the Android operating system are perfect examples. Eager to shake Apple’s dominance in the booming cell phone market, these companies stuffed unnecessary features like facial and voice recognition instead of focusing on the basics. The technology wasn’t ready. Instead, the phones faced serious quality issues, they hung, crashed and dropped calls. In trying to do everything, they ended up doing nothing. It took years before Android became respectable enough to seriously worry Apple.

Bad design can persist for decades. An example here is from the streets of Delhi. The old cycle rickshaw which looked interesting but was very uncomfortable to sit in. The seats were hard and short and there was no shade from the Indian sun. Fortunately, these were replaced in the last decade with a better American design.

Interestingly when the designer first presented the improved rickshaw, he couldn’t get drivers to try it out. It was initially adopted in smaller, more closed communities. But once commuters realized its comfort, it spread rapidly throughout the city.

Old and new cycle rickshaws

The last design fail is a historical example but if you substitute the term warrior king with star serial CEO, the example is equally relevant to our times. In the 1620s, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was at war with Poland-Lithuania. Militarily, Gustavus was a one of the most successful monarchs in Swedish history. He had been in power for a decade when he decided to commission a flagship that would be the fastest, best armed and most beautifully adorned ship in the world, a symbol of his ambitions. That ship was the Vasa.

Gustavus meddled constantly in his dream project. He ordered 72, 24-pound cannons on the ship. A considerable part of the expense was spent in decorations. At least six sculptors with unknown number of assistants labored for 2 years creating sculptures for the ship glorifying the monarch’s wisdom, authority and prowess.

The Vasa and it’s decorations

But the Vasa had serious problems. It was dangerously unstable and top-heavy especially with the large compliment of guns the king had demanded. The captain held a trial to check the stability of the ship by making it roll with the crew running from one end of the deck to the other and back again. After three runs, he stopped the test because the ship was in danger of capsizing.

Gustavus however, was eager to see his ship. His subordinates lacked the courage to openly discuss the ship’s problems or delay the maiden voyage. On 10 August 1728, the Vasa set sail. The gun ports were opened so the guns could fire a salute as the ship left Stockholm.

Within minutes, a relatively mild wind caused the ship to heel so far that water entered the open gun ports. The Vasa sank 120m from the shore in full sight of the thousands gathered to watch her sail.

When the king was informed, he insisted “imprudence and negligence”  must have been the cause. An inquiry was set up to find a scapegoat. The master shipwright was long since dead and the surviving shipwright stated that the ship was built as per his late colleague’s instructions who in turn had followed the king’s approved specifications.

In the end, the no guilty party was found. King Gustavus himself had approved all measurements and armaments and the ship was built according to his instructions and loaded with the number of guns he had specified.

When Arendt de Groote, the late shipwright’s partner was asked by the court why the ship sank, he replied “Only God knows”.






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