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Designing for Stupid People

This post may be funny, but it is deadly serious. How do we design for stupid people?

On this blog we have discussed many of the latest ideas and trends in design, but that does not mean they are always appropriate, or understood by those trying to practice them. Design thinking never ends, and must be backed up by common sense and a diverse team, whose members feel safe to speak out when they see a problem.

First, let me be clear that what I mean by “stupid people” is not people of low intelligence, but people who are experiencing cognitive overload*, a very common experience, even for some highly intelligent people, in today’s hectic and hyper-connected world.

Colgate-Palmolive, the makers of Fabuloso, a line of household cleaning solutions, obviously took some of the 21st Century trends to heart and did some design thinking, and considered customer-cetricity.

  • They listened to customers complaints about the unpleasant strong smell of many cleaning fluids, and gave their product fresh fruity smells.

  • They designed packaging that is bright colorful and says “live with me”, more than just buy and use me.

  • They gave the packaging an element of fun and a “fabulous” name.

All great ideas, right? Yes, but here is the big BUT:

But they seemed to have stopped thinking there, and failed to take into consideration that:

  • There are many more foreigners in the United States than there used to be for whom reading English takes extra effort

  • Nor how the highly visual millenial generation often does not take time to read

  • Or that many people are suffering cognitive-overload while shopping, or may simply be extremely thirsty

  • Nor did they take into consideration that intelligence and mindfulness are not necessarily considered prerequisites for becoming a store manager.

Fabuloso household cleaners sold on shelves next to Welch’s fruit drinks (from The Deadly Results of Flawed Design – Pro Publica).

The result was that in Texas alone the Poison Center Network reported 94 cases of people accidentally ingesting the household cleaner.

Granted some of those were foreigners who may have assumed it was a drink, based on the packaging, rather than take the time to read it, however there is also partial blame on store managers who either placed, or allowed, Fabuloso to be placed on shelves next to actual fruity drinks. But the main fault lies with the design of the packaging.

Unfortunately poor produce placement on shelves is not an uncommon occurrence. How might design help solve this problem?

There are other legitimate reasons for packaging that makes the product appear like something else.

  • Perhaps the parent company sought to save money on new machines by repurposing a second hand drink bottle machine?

  • Or perhaps they had the machine sitting idle, and decided to make a new product to put the machine to use to save waste?

Nothing wrong with either of those, but where is the necessary and responsible further thinking?

Was this design for radiator coolant done for similar reasons as the window cleaner above? Or was it an attempt to make the radiator coolant appeal to the energy drink generation?

Perhaps the reason for making this bug killer look nearly identical to cooking spray, was for Black & Gold brand consistency?

For these fuel additives, at least someone was thinking, in this case the store manager.


  • Design thinking does not have an end point, it is an itterative circular process that allows holes in thinking to be discovered and addressed.

  • Cognitive overload is a serious problem, and all packaging designers must take it into consideration. A good place to start looking for ways to cut through it is essentialism.

  • The importance of diversity: These mistakes also show the limits of human thinking, and the importance of diverse teams, where each member feels safe to bring up potential problems and their concerns are listened to and taken seriously.

  • Even Einstein and Steven Hawking made mistakes. No matter how smart of a designer or manager you are, or how smart and capable your team is, you cannot think of everything, and must assume you have missed something and trouble-shoot for blind spots.

  • Don’t just design for people in the middle of the bell curve, design for those at the extreme ends. (For example, for the really smart people and the really dumb people, we can learn the most from them).

  • Don’t just design for consumers, design for managers and shop assistants.

  • Design also for people with disabilities such as deafness or blindness, much can be learned from this process, and many problems can be discovered.

  • Not all people read labels. In fact, these days many do not, especially when they are in a hurry, hungry, thirsty, tired, etc. In fact many may also be reading text messages while shopping. Many may have another first language and find it easier and faster to go by the familiar look of a label.

  • Repurposing machines normally used for another type of product, may gain efficiency and cut down on waste, but may also lead to serious consequences.





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