Things that don’t work

A lot of them, right?

But here I’m concentrating on how, in multiple areas, we suffer from unnecessary and almost inexplicable “design failures.”

Some minor examples:

1) Linda bought a clutch of “flexible scrapers” to remove duck fat and other delights from the bowls and containers to which they adhere. The damned things are so flexible it’s like trying to use a fly-swatter to reshape the universe.

2) Scrubber sponges. Those things you buy in 2 or 4 packs, more often than not Scotch-Brite brand. When I was growing up, anything made by 3M – Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing – was a guarantee of quality. Scotch was their most solid public brand: think Scotch Tape, etc. Now, Scotch-Brite, their leading brand of sponge, is a surefire pointer to a total piece of shit. The silly scrubber, minimally adhering to the sponge, peels away within a week, at which point the sponge begins to disintegrate like a badly spiced mummy. How the great have fallen.

Larger examples:

3) Highway intersections. Maybe this is something specific to Pennsylvania, though I find that hard to believe. About 10 years back, several perfectly adequate and simply arranged intersections, where one two-way road either dead-ended into another or separated to accommodate right and left turns, were suddenly redesigned with arcane extra lanes and lines of upright narrow posts that face entering traffic like the teeth of a prehistoric beast.

Previously, coming out of Towanda (about 20 miles north us), where the exit road ends at US 220, you simply stopped and waited for the 90-degree opposing traffic to… cease opposing, then you turned left or right. Now you’re presented with an undefined mishmash of tangled absurdity and no directions about how or why you should proceed.

4) Mall layout and parking. Despite the fact that almost all malls have the same agglomeration of nationally recognized companies, interspersed with smaller local outfits that just hope for the best, there is no common design for how traffic moves, how parking is arranged, or any obvious way to exit the miasma of adversarial auto sprawls. After decades of regimented consumerism, how is there not even an accepted range of designs for how you lay out a fucking mall?

5) Phone answering systems. Do I even have to go into this? I called our doctor’s office to cancel an appointment because the roads looked impassible. I went through two levels of “push button #1,” which led me to hold, during which, within under two minutes, I got three different inane, mendacious messages telling me how important my call was. At which point I hung up. 

An hour later, the same doc’s office called to tell me the doc couldn’t make it in either. I told her the voicemail was the worst I’d ever run across. She told me that the parent healthcare outfit, 40 miles up the road, had changed everything to central appointment scheduling – which, as I assume we all know, is always a disaster. 

So. With at least 2/3 of the world dependent on all these material and system designs, some intertwined, many apparently independent, why do none of them work even semi-competently?

Some suggestions:

1) Poor design-course design: Whoever is tutoring the current generation of designers – whether they be digital or physical designers – are flubbing The principles of use and usefulness have gotten lost behind overweening assumptions of how such things should be done in an ideal, isolated universe. Or simply to make immediate profit at the expense of utility.

2) Perhaps a subset of the above: Products, processes and overviews are being designed for designers, not users. Design has become a closed system that only talks to itself, concerned with only how the article is put together, not what it’s good for.

3) Similarly, what’s happened to beta-testing: Once – especially with digital design – you assembled a group of users to test your product while still in design phase; they gave you feedback that improved it from the user standpoint. Today, untested phone systems, websites and entire information tableaux are tossed on the market as finished products; their failures and inadequacies are left to be uncovered by the poor slobs saddled with a malbirthed child.

4) A more specific example: I can’t prove this, but it’s visually obvious that the new traffic intersections are designed from above. In other words, the designers are using a CAD program that presents a 2-D representation of a ground plan, so you’re looking down on the intersection. Theoretically, you can thus observe how traffic merges and meshes so that you can plan the most direct and obvious way for it to come together for everyone’s benefit.

But as a driver moving into an intersection, you aren’t experiencing a detached helicopter perspective, you’re moving into a 3-D tangle of helter-skelter elements that aid or (more often) impede your progress. 

5) The political/economic reality: What grants are available to do what? What benefits will they bring into your area? This is a determining aspect (perhaps the determining aspect) of modern public design: Who will pay for what we might want to accomplish, what will they demand, how will this affect jobs, what are the constraints, what will we not be allowed to do?

We are captives of the moment. As humans, as mammals, as living beings, we are and have always been captives of the moment. But the current moment has become increasingly, confusingly complex. Well – that’s progress! But progress increasingly divorced from lived reality.

I have no answer for this or any of the other miasmic problems of our teeming human society. But we should all do our damnedest to at least uncover what the range of possible answers might look like. 

We are not the victims of life, neither are we enlightened viewers of the universal. We are limited yet entwined viewers of “what’s out there.” We each make our own assumptions of what that might, at core, possibly be. But we should never curtail our inquisitiveness, or lower our guard against insubstantial assumptions. 

These comments may well seem to fall outside the stream of what I was supposedly talking about above. But I don’t think so.

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