My friend Alex pinged me about an article about ‘unpleasant design’. It’s worth a read if you haven’t seen it before. I promised to put some thoughts down about it because I thought I should devote more time to this topic than 140 characters worth. I can’t say that I’ve ever intentionally tried to design things that were unpleasant, and it didn’t occur to me to even try, but apparently there is quite a lot of stuff out there that is designed to be intentionally unpleasant!
First of all, what is it?
Before getting too far, let’s describe ‘unpleasant design’. To put it simply, it is an aspect of design that focuses on intentionally transient experiences — things where the user experience is meant to not last. It achieves this by making things unpleasant for the user. The Camden Bench (above) is one example.
In many urban settings across the globe, you’ll often find benches strategically placed around the environment so that if you like, you can stop and take a rest. The problem that people have identified is that in some of those situations, public benches have become ‘private beds’ for homeless people, or maybe places for junkies to shoot up. The Camden Bench was designed as a solution to that problem.
The way that the seating positions are angled are intentionally unpleasant to use for long periods of time, and relatively uncomfortable to lay down on, preventing people from laying across them and sleeping on them. The user can still sit for some period of time, so if you just need to rest for a bit, the design of the bench allows it. But these products are designed to prevent extended use, just by the nature of being uncomfortable.
There are other examples of ‘unpleasant design’ as well. Some designs are higher up on the scale of ‘unpleasantness’.
For example, spikes and other oddly shaped objects have been installed on ledges and window sills to prevent people from sitting or sleeping on them. Unlike the Camden Bench, these deterrents are intended to prevent any usage, by anyone, and are able to provide this ‘benefit’ by making the sitting experience entirely unpleasant. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to sit there…
Do we need these distinctions?
One question that occurred to me as I read the original article was whether or not we need these kinds of classifications like ‘unpleasant design’. I mean, as a piece of design, it’s trying to solve a problem (we’ll get into the ethics later) and the solutions that are available exist on a broad continuum of how unpleasant they are for the user.
Like this bus shelter seating, it’s only meant to be mildly unpleasant, offering a bit of a rest while you wait for your bus. It’s definitely not something you’d want to spend a lot of time lounging on.
As a piece of design, it’s a very sensible solution. You’re not there at the bus stop for a long time, and the narrow ledge prevents people from doing things at the bus stop that they’re not really “supposed” to do. It’s also probably cheaper to manufacture and maintain than a full-fledged bench.
So, first of all, do we even need this kind of distinction in design? In essence, these are just very well executed designs. It’s perhaps not the kind of work *I* would want to be doing, but I can understand why these sorts of things exist in the world and what purpose they serve.
But in thinking about these ‘unpleasant designs’, I can’t help but be reminded of medieval torture devices, like the Wooden Horse seen above. Obviously, torture devices are far more extreme than bus shelter seating, but what’s truly the difference between these things? As designs, they serve the purpose they were created for, and in a leap of abstraction, these are both just products that fulfill whatever requirements that the clients requested.
So on that level of abstraction, the Wooden Horse, the bus shelter seating, and even the Aeron chair (seen above) really share a lot more in common than maybe we would first imagine. The Aeron chair is another product that is really well designed for its purpose, though I would say it is fairly low (perhaps non-existent) on the scale of unpleasantness. This brings me to my final point.
The Ethics of the Pleasant
So (not to make light of medieval torture devices) what are we to make of these kinds of unpleasant products? The more appropriate question about these things is really about ethics. As designers, do we really need to design things to be intentionally unpleasant? A Camden Bench is not intended to be a device to torture people, but is it ethical to design something intended to cause discomfort?
I suppose it depends on your views of homelessness or drug abuse. I definitely understand that we as a society do not like the sight of homeless people in our modern cities, but at the same time they’re still people, still human, and we need to find real solutions for these kinds of social problems. Products like the Camden Bench or those ledge spikes are really just band aids to some really deep problems with our communities.
From an individual standpoint, of course there’s also some personal responsibility to consider — like people should do what they can to avoid becoming addicted to drugs or becoming homeless. But for those of us that live in the real world, these things happen, and they happen often enough that I hope we as a society would put more energy into looking for real solutions to these things, rather than placing these ‘unpleasant’ objects all over our public spaces.
Furthermore, if we’re willing to cross certain lines and “weaponize” architecture in these ways, why stop at installing these ledge spikes? Why not create architectural devices that can harm or maim us for improperly sitting down? Sounds pretty far out there, but certainly it would teach people not to sit there, wouldn’t it? If I risked losing my legs because a random ledge would lop them off with hidden blades, you can be sure that I would not want to risk sitting just anywhere.
Let’s take this extreme position even further. What if there were other kinds of ‘undesired’ people taking advantage of our public spaces. How might we restrict access then? What sorts of devices could we create to curtail their presence in society? Maybe we could use machine learning to immediately notify SWAT teams of their presence?
The above image is from 1950. It shows how divided our society has been in America, and up till the end of 2016, it seemed we were making great strides to try and correct some of these issues, though we may be dialing things back now for some idiotic reason. But we already tried making things ‘unpleasant’ for certain people, and I thought we already had discussed these problems back during the Civil Rights movement.
We may see things like the Camden Bench as a clever bit of ‘unpleasant design’. We may even want to give the design an award or two for what it has done to “transform our urban landscape”. However, if we value our humanity, we can’t afford to continue treating each other like in the above image from 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
“It’s just a bench”, one might say. “It’s not the same thing. This is just a bit of concrete, and people need to sit. Homeless shouldn’t be allowed to sleep there.”
But just how far are we willing to go with this ideology as a community? If we’re willing to do this to a bench, how far are we willing compromise our values?
In the end, ‘Unpleasant Design’ is a very cute name but this topic concerns me, not because of what it is, and more for what it represents: an erosion of our vision for a better future. So if you’re reading this, you are definitely privileged enough to be able to take a moment out of your day to consider the ethical impact of the work you do. My friend Jon wrote a book on ethics and design. Maybe start there. We are all contributing to a public good through the work we do, even though it may not feel that way in the moment. There are a lot of messy, messy problems out in the world, and it’s not too late for us to work on them, together.