Much of what we speak of when we talk about design, products and space is making things more livable, attractive or delightful. But what happens when we want the exact opposite to happen? That is the concept behind Unpleasant Design. The term comes from work being done by Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić who have been curating examples of the way governments and business alike have sought to discourage behaviour rather than encourage it through design choices.
The team at 99% Invisible recently profiled this work drawing on examples of how design has been used to discourage things like homeless people sleeping on benches, kids loitering around a shop, or ‘unintended uses’ of public washrooms.
The hallmark object to define this way of designing for non- or limited use is the Camden Bench, named after the London-based council that commissioned the original. You might have seen these in places you’ve travelled. They are these weirdly angular, almost always uncomfortable, and barely functional slabs that serve as benches. But unlike the one pictured above, they are pretty much impossible to use as a bed if you don’t have one, which is exactly its point.
Unpleasant design represents an illustration of design’s power for multiple purposes and not always good. While these designs address certain problems that are posed by behaviours that some find undesirable, they speak to a larger role that design can play in social life. Another example of unpleasant design is not about what’s designed into something (such as spikes), but also what’s designed out of something. One example is the presence of ‘leaning benches’ to replace places to sit. Another is the absence of water fountains in public spaces. The latter is less about providing hydration to people, but more about getting them to buy water rather than take it for free.
Design is as much about what is invisible as it is visible, which is why the brilliant podcast 99% Invisible is such an appropriate name for a show dedicated to looking the often un-noticed ways we shape the world and how it shapes us.
Photo credit: Fall by Clive Powell under Creative Commons License and adapted for use.