by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Alice Rawsthorn, the internationally acclaimed design critic and author who was a speaker at this year’s Design Indaba, shares her thoughts on bad design — and integrity as a possible remedy.

Q5: Why do you think there is so much bad design in the world?
Alice Rawsthorn:
Greed. Ignorance. Laziness. Impatience. Clumsiness. Sloppiness. Insecurity. Financial pressure. Dysfunctional corporate cultures. Designing by committee. That’s just for starters. I’ve yet to meet a designer who begins work on a new project with the intention of designing it badly, but that’s what so many of them end up doing.

Q5: How does bad design affect the daily lives of the majority of us?
Bad design affects every aspect of our lives. Design is a ubiquitous force that determines the quality of our surroundings: from tables and chairs, to transportation systems and biometric identification software. It’s impossible for us to avoid design, however much we may wish to. All we can do is to try to ensure that our design choices are as intelligent, sensitive and responsible as possible in the hope of avoiding bad design.

Q5: Untrustworthy design seems to be something technology firms do particularly well. They are pivoting their business models around data, and lots of it — is there a realistic way we can persuade them to adjust these models?
Public pressure can help enormously. The tech industry has been embroiled in a succession of damaging controversies triggered by bad design. Having learnt the hard way how costly they can be in terms of money, time, energy and reputation, it should be keen to prevent repetitions. Tech activists are already raising the alarm about data bias and other design flaws in the artificial intelligence-powered systems that are controlling more and more aspects of our lives. The sooner the miscreants are named, shamed and put under political or regulatory pressure to ensure that those technologies are intelligently designed, the better.

Q5: Lots of designers speaking at Design Indaba talked about using good design to improve life. What is good design for you?
Good design is as elusive a concept as design itself, and our perceptions of it change constantly. Good design can have many qualities, but I believe there are two essential ones. One is that it must fulfil its function efficiently and responsibly. The other is that it must have integrity, leaving us with no reason to feel alarmed or compromised about any aspect of its design. Whatever other merits a design exercise has, whether it is dazzlingly innovative or visually seductive, it can’t be considered to have been well-designed if it doesn’t check those boxes.

Q5: If you could challenge designers to keep one thing foremost in their minds while designing, what would it be?
Integrity. This is an extraordinary time for design when it has many opportunities to fulfil its potential as an agent of change by addressing new social, political, cultural and environmental challenges. That’s the key theme of my new book, “Design as an Attitude”. We face tumultuous and perilous changes on so many fronts that we urgently need to make the most of design, not as a panacea to our problems but as a powerful tool that can help us to forge a better future. But design needs to prove that it is capable of doing so. Otherwise it will lose the confidence of the politicians, investors and NGOs that are currently eager to experiment with it, making it more important than ever that we eliminate bad design.

Image credits: Michael Leckie.


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to, her new regular column “Q5” aims to hone in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with experts in media, marketing and design.

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