Poor Design – Christmas Lights

Illustration Week 2

An example of a visual object that is fairly common but is not designed well is the traditional strand of Christmas lights. The problem with Christmas lights comes when one of the bulbs burns out and the user needs to figure out which one it is.

The issue in the design comes from how the light bulbs are wired. All of the bulbs are connected in series, one after another. If any of the bulbs goes out, which is to be expected after a certain amount of use, the path of electricity is interrupted and the rest of the bulbs also turn off. Since all of the lights have gone out, there is no way for the user to know which bulb is actually broken in order to replace it. They then have to infuriatingly replace bulbs one by one until they have found the broken one. Although newer varieties of lights have improved this issue in their design, many people still have old strands and have the same major problem.

The Christmas lights design issue is similar to many of the issues described in the Norman reading. Foremost, it is similar to many of Norman’s issues because of the feelings of frustration that can be caused for the user (Norman 2). Additionally, Norman pointed out several essentials that need to be present in a design to make it easy to use, and some of these are absent in this particular case. One of these features was visibility, meaning the user must be able to look at the object and visually receive the message about what needs to be done (Norman 4). Christmas lights do not have any visual cue for the user to determine which bulb to change. Similarly, Norman mentions that objects should have natural signals that can be easily interpreted by the user (Norman 4). The darkness of the bulb should be this natural signal, but the rest of the bulbs also have gone dark, so there is no way to tell. Norman also pointed out a reason for why many design issues occur, which is that the designer has to face numerous competing influences when they design their product (Norman 28). The reason why the Christmas lights are designed this way is most likely because the designer decided to value cheap production over usability.

I would argue that Christmas lights provide enargeia, or vividness, to their user. The purpose of the lights isn’t to provide anything that actually impacts a person’s wellbeing, but rather for entertainment. The lights are there to give pleasure to the person seeing them, give them a sense of wonder, and to convey the significance of the holiday season through what is being seen visually, which are all components of enargeia.


3 thoughts on “Poor Design – Christmas Lights

  1. I feel like everyone can relate to the poor design of Christmas lights. I know I have spent many an hour checking bulbs to see which one is causing an entire strand to go black. Here, I feel like the poor quality of design has more consequences than just a common annoyance. During the Christmas season, most people are pretty swamped with to-do lists a mile long (that they have to check twice!), and needing to set aside time to de-bug or even detangle a strand of lights just shouldn’t be a priority. It instead cuts into valuable baking, shopping, wrapping, or decorating time or even time that should be spent with family and friends. If you give up on the lights and want to just buy a new strand, then you’re throwing away money that could be spent on something else as well.

    It’s interesting to me how something as simple as a strand of Christmas lights can help us realize how inefficient and consequential bad design can really be: wasting time and wasting money that could be spent doing something more valuable than battling with the same poorly designed household objects. You (and Norman) are spot on in saying bad design is frustrating — especially when really good, effective design makes our lives so much easier.

  2. I think the design of christmas lights was an interesting choice. It’s funny how something so difficult to set up, fix, store, and untangle has survived tradition year after year. I think that the poor design of christmas lights is almost profitable, whether it was the intentions of the designers or not. Whenever a bulb goes out, the string of lights is almost useless. Most people wouldn’t spend the time chafing a dead bulb when it is cheap to buy a new string. By buying a faulty product, that is sort of a necessary luxury year after year, the consumer will in the end pay more constantly replacing a broken thing, than to buy a slightly more expensive version where the issue is solved.

  3. Okay, Christmas lights are seriously SO annoying. When the bulbs blow out forget it you have to buy a new set, kind of wondering if this is a marketing idea( spending more money) but seriously they tangle up and then you spend forever try to in do it instead of spending time with your family. They really need to find something that keeps the lights untangled because it’s so bad. It’s such a simple easy design but, one bulb goes out forget it you are dropping another 20$. I really think they could they could come up with an easy design to fix the hassle.

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