Why Bad Design is Good

Posted inDesign Culture

For years, I had an uncomfortable desk chair. My body knew exactly how long I sat in it every day. It was too short and too hard, the back was too low, and it rolled away from my desk on an uneven floor. It was badly designed. I noticed everything about that chair. All the time. As Bruce Mau proclaimed in Massive Change, “Design is invisible until it fails.” But when it does fail, paradoxically, ‘bad’ design can be profoundly good. I’ve thought about that chair more than any other chair I’ve ever sat in. It stood as a testament to the idea that we pay more attention to those experiences that challenge and discomfort us than our seamless, frictionless experiences, like sitting in good chairs. When something fails, i.e., a door flies off an airplane, or when we push a handle on a pull door, we’re forced to see the world as something we’ve designed.

I regularly think of the late Enzo Mari, a wholehearted and iconoclastic advocate for the power of DIY (design-it-yourself). Allesandro Mendini called him “design’s conscience.” He famously encouraged workers to engage their creativity and independent thought through antagonistic means. Instead of a flat-pack furniture manual, he gave you a drawing and some 2x4s to make a chair. By making things harder to use or more difficult to understand, Mari wasn’t just being contrarian; he was railing against passive consumption. Good design quietly exists, but bad design demands our attention, engagement, and introspection. His legacy is that of dissent against ‘good’ design—visible only in rebellion against the norm.

Good design is invisible.
Bad design is unignorable.

This rebellion is not new. Throughout history, a lot of good art has been bad design. The Dadaists and Brutalists both rejected the dominant aesthetic of their time. Instead of tradition, they embraced ugliness and absurdity. Through bad design, they pushed us out of our comfort zone, emphasizing engagement over ease.

Rei Kawakubo made us notice and interrogate our understanding of beauty and form. She used clothing to distort the body itself—a powerful statement against the maxims and assumptions of mainstream fashion. In film, the Dogme 95 movement created strict, absurd rules to frustrate and rethink mainstream cinema’s polished, formulaic productions. Their medium became the message.

Perhaps most poetically, the architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins took this a step further with their Bioscleave House—a literal embodiment of challenging norms through discomfort. The house, designed to disorient and provoke, refused to be invisible, demanding instead to be continually, consciously navigated and questioned. Athens-based architect Katerina Kamprani is another purveyor of discomfort-based design.

Bioscleave House, Arakawa and Madeline Gins

Mother Design, too, embraces the ‘bad’ as a strategy to disrupt and engage. The brand we created for Eyebeam, a not-for-profit art and technology center in New York City, exemplifies this approach. It’s uncomfortable—vibrating color combinations, graphic patterns that challenge prolonged viewing, and a font that disrupts the flow of text with unconventional and awkward letterforms. It never sits still, fidgeting in a constant state of flux. Overall, the brand forces the viewer to engage with a message’s medium before its meaning, turning the “crystal goblet” on its head.

In each of these cases—from art to fashion to architecture—it’s only the “failure” of design that made them successful. It’s only in the breakdown of convention that new ideas emerge. In other words, we must embrace ‘bad’ design to uncover ‘good.’ In a frictionless world, bad design is sandpaper. It challenges complacency. It makes us uncomfortable. People don’t like it. It forces them to engage, to question, and to think.

The Bauhaus, Marcel Duchamp, Kool Herc, the Sex Pistols, and the Memphis Group thrived on principles initially seen as flawed or ‘bad.’ Yet, each profoundly reshaped our cultural and aesthetic landscapes.

Bad design is not something to avoid; it’s a critical component not just of the creative process but of living. Like Mari taught, it’s about learning rather than following. It’s about entering a building and walking into a “purposeful guess.” It’s about watching a bad movie. It’s about wearing a funny hat. It’s about being weird. In embracing the ‘bad,’ we uncover the potential for transformation—both in design and in ourselves.

In a world where we laud good design for its invisibility, perhaps it’s time to celebrate the unignorable—the bad chairs, the frustrating UIs, the push handles on pull doors—designs that fail beautifully, teaching us more about our world and ourselves than perfection ever could.

This is a guest post written by Elliot Vredenburg, Associate Creative Director at Mother Design.

In 2014, Elliot was mistakenly sent an MFA instead of an MA by the California Institute of the Arts, so he decided to continue working in graphic design. For the past decade, he’s worked as a multidisciplinary designer with various organizations and individuals, creating powerful, concept-driven work.

He’s led and contributed to collaborative projects with notable artists, cultural institutions, and global companies, including Netflix, the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games, MGM Studios, Alex Israel, and Universal Music Group. Sometimes, he’s a copywriter, too.