Design: don’t put clever before usable

I’ve been thinking about design lately. I suppose I should; for near two years, the word design has been in my job title. And while I still will reject any kind of expert title, I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. Like, do not put your clever design before that item’s usability. I’d like to share an example of this principle in action.

I’m going to pick on the hotel I was staying in Brisbane for the 2019 National VET Conference; the South Bank Mantra. Now, I want to point out that this hotel is part of a chain so the people in South Bank have no say over this. And I’ve stayed in a Mantra hotel in Canberra as well, and both were fine. This is not a criticism of their actual hotel, just their branding choices.

And again, to be fair, I am sure Mantra hired a very expensive designer who attended design school for a long time and has produced some terrific design. But this ain’t it.

What’s wrong with Mantra?

They’ve based their design on their name, reinforcing their brand, by writing “mantras” on everything. This is kind of clever, and just that concept I like. I will relax more. I will sleep in this weekend. Clever, I like it. So the concept is good.

The execution is terrible. I could pick on the fonts and colour schemes, which I find somewhat unappealing. It doesn’t convey eastern-mysticism-mantra at all. But this is just personal taste. Whatever, I can live with it.

Exhibit A – Room Key

Just as an aside: Forgive the terrible photography. It’s from my iPhone in a room that I could not seem to illuminate adequately because hotel rooms occasionally suck.

The room key for the Mantra hotel. It says "I will unlock my potential".

“I will unlock my potential”

Okay, okay, I get it. This is my mantra. Sure. I’m going to unlock my potential and unlock my door. Cool. This one is fine.


Exhibit B – Minibar Menu

The mini bar menu for Mantra. It says "I will nourish my senses".

“I will nourish my senses”

This one I had to infer what this was from context; it was above the minibar. Clever, although when I think I will nourish my senses, I usually don’t think of a $10 bag of peanuts. Still, it’s ambiguity I can live with.


Exhibit C – Housekeeping Door Hanger

The Mantra Housekeeping Door Hanger. It says "I will leave the house work to others for a change."

“I will leave the housework to others for a change”

Let’s just step over the fact that you have switched from a sans-serif to a handwriting font for this mantra.

Why are you making me read an essay?

I get that you have Please Make Up My Room very clearly written on the card. But my eyes are making me read the cursive mantra first. It’s more prominent, it’s wordy. It’s just annoying.


Exhibit D – Do Not Disturb Door Hanger

“I will open the door (just not now)”

This is a total fail.

I know it says “Please do not disturb” on the card.

But every single time I looked at this card, my eyes are drawn to I will open the door. Why wouldn’t they? It’s large, it’s first, and it’s bold.

And every single time, the first thought in my head was This isn’t the card I’m looking for.

Every damn time. Maybe just for a fraction of a second. But when do you need this card? When you’re tired and you don’t want to think. And every damn time I need to read and interpret this card.

I’m not a stupid person and I was able to figure it out. But the whole point of good design it feels natural. Good design doesn’t need additional instructions written in smaller text below to clarify this is the card you’re looking for. Sure, Mantra was clever in their design, using their name as a concept, but it just resulted in a confusing solution.

Don’t put clever before usable.

Scott

Kenneth “Scott” Huntley is a Learning Designer with TAFE NSW (Technical and Further Education, in New South Wales in Australia) and WordPress instructor with The Parramatta College.

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