Anti-ease-of-use design to stop misbehaviour
Form Follows Function — the outdated mantra designers use in an unreflected way to express, well, whatever. After all, all alliterations are awesome.
I chuckled and looked up from my screen. I was standing at a Zurich bus stop and next to me there was one of my hometown’s typical trashcans. I looked at it and realised that its form is the perfect negation of the “Form Follows Function” maxim. Its slanted signature top has nothing to do with its function of allowing people to throw away things. It has much more to do with hindering people to just put the garbage on top of the can.
In this case, if anything, Form Follows Dysfunction.
These trashcans can be found all over Switzerland and are called Litter-Sharks.
The thought stuck with me and I started to notice how the design of public spaces has integrated the prevention of bad behaviour and its consequences. Many of the examples have to do with traffic, with speeding in particular.
Residential areas are made safer and less noisy with speed bumps and alternating parking slots. These patterns force drivers to slow down unless they want to damage their car or, even worse, someone else’s.
Design here exploits the dysfunction that somehow cars seem more valuable than human lives: The risk of hurting someone is not enough to pressure drivers into driving slowly, only the risk of material and financial damage does.
There are examples where city planners (or maybe traffic activists, who knows) recurred to optical illusions to force drivers to slow down.
While not in public, this perfectly flat floor designed to stop people from running through the hallway.
A much more questionable example of form following dysfunction is the design for pavement lights the city planners of the dutch city Bodegraven devised to help smartphone users cross the road safely. This rewards bad behaviour instead of preventing it. The experiment has rightfully earned criticism from the Dutch Traffic Safety Association
The examples above all have to do with designing spaces, yet the principle is not limited to urbanism. It can be applied to any field of design.
This goes from power plugs to fuel nozzles that can only be inserted the correct way, from urinals that flush themselves to bathroom taps that switch on and off through proximity sensors making it easier to save water.
The principle is not limited to form. It can also be applied with great effect when designing behaviour. The drawer in the video below for example slows down smoothly when it is closed preventing a noisy bang. This also prevents little kids from getting their fingers squashed when reaching into the drawer while it’s being closed.
The care that goes into designing a public space, a product or a service is reflected by the intention of the design to anticipate flawed behaviour. Good design takes into account that people may not be paying attention, may be too lazy, or too busy or may simply have something that stands in the way of correctly performing an interaction.
All it takes to get started is the right research. Observing how users behave to design solutions that anticipate different kinds of user behaviour and without dismissing misusage as freak occurrences. Making the right choices is the difficult part. Good design is lead by the ethical imperative that design decisions not only should enable people to do things but also prevent them from doing harm to themselves, others and their surroundings.