Designing for Awful

One of the most profound, fun, and engaging techniques for creating an attractive service or product design is oddly focused on the exact opposite: Designing for Awful.

How to use this

This strategy is as simple as it is effective. When workshopping ideas allot some time to have participants develop ideas and designs for the worst possible version of the thing they are designing.

This is a flip of a traditional ideation session where people try to develop suggestions for what to focus on, whom, and what the best use of resources might be. In Designing for Awful, we do the opposite. It is used usually in tandem with ideation sessions that are focused on surfacing ideas in general.

This can be used to frame a service, product or describe the experience of doing something like a survey or participating in an event. It’s a simple, fun, and sometimes counter-intuitive way to surface assumptions, biases, and qualities in what we want, need and don’t want in our design.

Like any ideation-focused exercise, it must be managed appropriately. Individuals need to feel safe in surfacing ideas, free to discuss them, and preferably, offer an opportunity to share at least some of them anonymously. People generally have a lot of fun with this simple exercise.


The benefits of this are many.

Firstly, it focuses on the things we tend to avoid — unpleasant feelings, experiences, or sensation — and thus, might be missed in consideration of our design.

It also overcomes an optimism bias. Design is largely a positive-oriented practice where we look to solve problems, not make them. Designing for Awful helps us to move around this bias by looking at what is not addressed.

This approach is also excellent for helping surface values in practice and in specific terms. To illustrate, it’s one thing to speak in a positive or affirmative tone such as a statement like “we value inclusivity.” Designing for Awful could lead us to be specific “Our service is inaccessible to someone with a mobility disability” or “it is sexist” or “our product can only be used by people who are right-handed.” By surfacing what makes something not work we are better able to see what will.

This approach is also excellent in helping, paradoxically, surface what we want by framing things in terms we don’t want. How often have you met someone who first tells you what they don’t want in something before they get to describing what they want?

This allows people to have a little fun and we find that some people are more bold and assertive with their creativity in the negative, than the positive and this technique lets that come out.

Lastly, the exercise can be a useful way to surface who needs to be at the table moving forward. We find that the need for having the voices of certain individuals, groups, roles, or departments in the discussion is better clarified when we consider how bad things would be without them.

Try this out at your next design session or team meeting as part of a check-in and you might find some laughs and some deep insight along with it.

If you want to inspire new thinking and better design in your organization for engagement and impact, reach out and contact us. This is what we do.

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