Designers have a tricky job to perform. On the one hand, the products they create have to be efficient and ergonomic. They have to allow the consumer easy access to all of its functions and make use as intuitive as possible. On the other hand, they also have to make the object look as attractive, as cool and as desirable as possible. Get it right and you might just end up with an iPod, a whole new genre of gadgets, a megajob with Apple and all the free iPhones you can eat. Get it wrong, and… well, you could find yourself included on a list of the worst design disasters.
The Wobbly Bridge
It cost £18.2m, was £2.2m over budget and when it opened on June 10, 2000, the Millennium Bridge over the Thames in London was two months behind schedule. That happens. Big construction projects often run late and cost more than expected, and the footbridge, with its low profile and unimpeded view of St. Paul’s Cathedral was pretty enough for people to overlook the cost. Created by architectural firm Arup, Foster and Partners and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, the bridge was dubbed the “blade of light.”
Within two days of its opening though, the bridge had acquired a new name: The Wobbly Bridge.
On its first day, more than 90,000 people crossed the river, including many taking part in a charity walk. With as many as 2,000 people walking across at any one time, the suspension bridge began to sway. As it swayed, the walkers adjusted their steps, increasing the movement even more until it felt like walking along a rope. Two days later, the bridge was shut down.
Engineers later fixed the problem by retrofitting 89 dampers at an additional cost of £5m. The bridge re-opened in February 2002 — and was destroyed by Death Eaters in the opening sequence of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Microsoft Gets No Help from Clippit
Back in 1995, Microsoft had a killer idea. The company would create an interface that, for once, owed nothing to anything that Apple had done. The “social interface” program for Windows 3.1 would allow anyone to use a computer, even people who didn’t know how to use computers. By double-clicking on “Bob,” the interface would be changed to a picture of a living room. To find the program you wanted, you had to click a household item such as a sheet of paper for the word processor and a pile of envelopes to access email. If you got stuck, Rover the dog was on hand with helpful advice. The project was overseen by Melinda French, now better known as half of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was killed before the release of Windows 98. Steve Ballmers described it as a time when Microsoft “decided that we have not succeeded and let’s stop.” PC World Magazine gave it seventh place on its list of the 25 worst products of all time.
You’d think that that would have been enough of a warning, but no. Still convinced that its customers were too daft to figure out how to use its products by themselves, Microsoft included the Office Assistant in its Office programs from 1997 to 2003. Whenever you started doing anything, a paperclip called Clippit would pop up and ask if you needed help. So annoying was Clippit and his friends, Merlin the Magician, F1 the robot, Links the cat and Rocky the dog that even Microsoft’s developers were said to have renamed Office Assistant TFC – “The Fucking Clown.” Sometimes it’s possible to overdesign a product.
Stick a Cell Phone to Your Head
And sometimes it’s possible to underdesign a product.
The Cell-Mate, which was actually shown at CES in 2009, calls itself a hands-free cell phone holder. It’s a headband. It looks like a headband. It acts like a headband. And it appears about as cool and sexy as a headband. A metal headband with black disks.
Usually, simple is good, and there is something to be said for not looking like the kind of constantly connected android that walks around with a Bluetooth earpiece. But actually for the kind of problems that the Cell-Mate (and really, the person who came up with that name deserves a cellmate) solves, Bluetooth is fine. No one can see you looking silly when you’re doing the dishes or sitting in traffic – at least no one you care about. With so many cool and sexy ways to talk with your hands free, sticking a black disk on a couple of metal rods just isn’t going to cut it.
The Sinclair C5 — A Cold-Weather Convertible for the Suicidal
Fresh from his success at creating the first popular home computers, the ZX81 and the Spectrum, Sir Clive Sinclair looked to make another massive technological leap with the launch in 1985 of the C5. A battery-operated tricycle, the C5 followed at least some design rules. It looked cool, space-agey and sleek.
Unfortunately, that neat look hid a small problem. It was almost completely useless. The low ride led to worries that drivers wouldn’t be able to see it until they were driving over it. The motor was too puny to climb even the gentlest of hills. And January in England probably weren’t the best time and place to launch an open-top vehicle. Altogether fewer than 17,000 C5s were sold, making it about half as popular as the Segway.
Apple Newton Proves that Bad Ideas Can Only Go Down
Jonathan Ive might now be regarded as the master of all things design but even the best designers can make mistakes, especially when they’re just starting out. The Apple Newton was a good idea, a little ahead of its time. Launched in 1993 as an early personal organizer, the Newton showed the road ahead by ditching the buttons and using the screen as the main interface. Its handwriting recognition software was supposed to make keyboards a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, the software wasn’t quite ready for primetime and repeated attempts at writing the same word made using the Newton felt a little like teaching a two-year old to read. Still, Ive did come on a bit… once Apple’s software developers had caught up.