“Automated environment out of order”, The Australian, 27-28 Nov, 1993.


I can’t stop the clock in my video player from flashing at midnight. Nor can anybody else I know. It’s not a ghost in the machine. This is one of the most serious design problems of our age. No joke.

The machine works perfectly. I can switch it on OK, play a tape, and record some of my favourite television. The moment I try to program the VTR to record something off-air when I’m not around, I’m in trouble. There must be something wrong with me. My fingers must be too stumpy for the braile-like buttons on the pop-out control panel. Maybe I just can’t follow the precise sequence of the program. Whatever it is, it makes me feel stupid.

I take little comfort in the fact I’m not alone in such frustration. It seems all of my neighbours on Elm Street are also stuck in the same nightmare. Even the most rational use of materials, form and visual codification doesn’t ensure the thing’s functionality. In fact, the more rational the design, the more likely the dysfunction. Our automated environment is typically, out-of-order.

The local train station has spent the last six months installing new stainless steel ticket machines to speed the flow of commuter traffic through entry and exit bottlenecks. No such luck. None of the automatic turnstiles function properly, their hungry mouths gaffed shut with ugly silver tape. A tag team of not very happy looking railway workers (it should have been more, but the others lost their jobs when the turnstiles were installed) grab the magnetic striped ticket from a slow single file column instead.

Talk about irrational design. The Sydney monorail takes the cake. From the out-of-order change machine at the top of the stairs to the proportion of the carriages, the monorail is useless. The helpful staff swipe your five or ten dollar notes and feed them to the operational machines. Out spurt acouple of silver tokens, and a bit of change to get you through the next metalic hurdle (with the assistance of more staff of course). How else could passengers negotiate such an automated steeplechase?

My library has also gotten more automated. Now I can join a shorter cue and observe the puzzled faces ahead of me figuring out the new self-serve system. The barcode card slots in first, followed by the striped spine of the book. Two simple actions, that’s all. I’m amazed at how quickly the cues at the staffed counter disappear. I’m all for automation. I just don’t believe enough thought is put into designing the spaces, visual communication and interfaces untrained people need to get things to work properly.

Domestic life is plagued by a similar annoyances. The toothpaste cap may no longer go missing, but the dispenser still cloggs itself shut, along with the Jiff, the moisturiser and a dozen other plastic containers designed to spurt out kilos of ooze regardless of how gently they’re squeezed. The answering machine cuts off the first two callers messages, and the car alarms in the back lane are set off at the slightest change in temperature. Along with a growing sense of conspiracy, I’ve gained a lot of sympathy with Cary Grant in Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House. Gremlins II, in which rampaging mugwops trash an “intelligent building” into a dumb shell, now plays in my mind as something of a documentary.

It’s not just that things break down. Many of these things have never worked in the first place. This is not quite the same as built-in-obsolescence, that make’n'destroy ideology of global war culture carried through to peacetime. The biggest problem we face today is that self-destruct mechanisms no longer wait a few years to kick in.

Perhaps this is simply further evidence that a certain chapter in the history of design is coming to an end. Much has changed since the nineteenth century American architect Louis Sullivan came up with the memorable maxim “form follows function”. Our present consumer landscape is ruled by considerably more chaos. We could say form now follows dysfunction. In the present system of objects that make up our design environment, it seems the more useless the better. Dissatisfaction guaranteed.