Wired Magazine – A Lesson in Bad Design

I’ve subscribed to Wired for years. At a buck an issue, it makes for good bathroom reading. If it goes up to a buck and a quarter, though, I’ll let my subscription lapse.

You can study good design by A) studying good design and learning from it and B) studying really bad design and learning from it. B is often more useful than A: you learn what to avoid.

Wired has always been an excellent example of bad design. Each page is packed with garish colors that rarely belong together. Their graphs are designed to be clever rather than informative, and usually obfuscate information rather than clarifying it. When they design their Play List page, which has multiple entires about different media, they evidently choose the font sizes for each item by rolling a 20-sided die. The phrase “crack addled monkeys” frequently comes to mind. In the latest issue (Dec. 2008), they’ve really outdone themselves.

The mess starts on page 90, where they devote ten pages to the ten coolest gadgets of the year. Each gadget shares the picture with a giant brushed chrome number, a cute idea, but the numbers are all very different sizes, giving you no perspective on a gadget’s size. The worst offender is #5, where they zoom in on a tiny number and only show a vague piece of the item (a video projector). But that’s minor compared to their biggest offense, one they commit frequently – white text on a shiny silver background. It’s OK if you’re reading under perfect lighting conditions, but if the light is at the wrong angle you get nothing but unreadable, annoying glare until you change magazine’s orientation.

They follow that with another list of gadgets, also one per page, with a design that’s even worse. Every bit of text is at a 45 degree angle and most of it is in tiny print. Some pages even have some text at a 45 degree angle to the right and other text at a 45 degree angle to the left. It’s both ugly and annoying.

I don’t know the newsstand price – it’s not on my copy – but it’s more than $1.00 so I can’t recommend buying it. But if you’re interested in design, flip through it at the magazine rack. If you’re reading this more than a month after it’s posted, it’s worth a trip to the library. You can learn a lot from bad design, and this issue of Wired is even more educational than most.

5 Comment(s)

  1. Wired isn’t designed for your generation though ;) It’s designed for Gen-X who (like me) love it.

    Tabitha "Tabz" Smith | Nov 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. I’d have to disagree. Wired was designed for geeks like us, from young whippersnappers like you to to geeks like me who are old enough to remember when grandpa used the word “whippersnappers.” I’ve been reading it since it first came out, and I still agree with their primary premise: “Hey, isn’t tech stuff cool?” But from the beginning they’ve had the attitude of “we’re way cooler than you,” and they’ve always confused novelty with good design.

    Their content is usually entertaining (though, ultimately, not very useful). But I wasn’t addressing their content, just their (lack of) design sense.

    Tabz, do you actuality like their design? Especially for this issue?

    Dave Hitt | Nov 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. How did WIRED win 14 Society of Publication Designers Awards (including Magazine of the Year) AND the National Magazine Award for best design in 2008?

    josh | Dec 1, 2008 | Reply

  4. How did Yasser Arafat win the Nobel Peace Prize?
    Hell, I run an award, (The Podcast Peers Award) and I’m occasionally baffled by some of the decisions the judges make.

    Hittman | Dec 3, 2008 | Reply

  5. I was just complaining about Wired’s design and when I googled “Wired bad design” this was the the first on-topic result. I think I let me subscription lapse around 2008 because of it being unreadable, so thanks for the second opinion.

    Michael Schuler | May 23, 2021 | Reply

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