An excellent question surfaced on Twitter:

Is there a difference between bad and boring design? To answer this, first it helps to have a stance on what design is, and what it’s for.

The problem is, design is a lot of things. It’s sometimes a tool to guide behavior or understanding. It’s sometimes a way to delight. It’s oftentimes visual, but sometimes auditory, and not infrequently tactile. It can be complicated in its simplicity and it can be simple in its complexity.

Because it takes so many forms, because it is so universal yet inherently personal, design is as elusive to describe as love.

So let’s leave it amorphously in our understanding for the moment, and try the next layer to this question. What do “bad” and “boring” design mean?

Bad can mean it doesn’t fulfill an expectation (including ease of use and visual delight). Bad can mean it supports values you find offensive. Bad can mean it caused others harm. Bad can mean it was illegal. Bad can mean it was a waste of resources. Turns out it’s just as difficult to pinpoint what “bad design” means.

But defining “boring design” is easy. Something that generates little (or no) intellectual and emotional excitement or interest.

Do we always expect or want to be stimulated? Can minimal excitement be something we seek sometimes, maybe even crave? Can boring design be offensive or cause others harm? Is it ever illegal? Surely sometimes it’s a waste of resources.

Is a square of toilet paper boring? Yes, and its boredom goes on an on in a roll with mathematically reliable perforations. So do the attributes that make it boring make it bad design? On one hand, no. It works well on a roll with regular perforations, the plain whiteness reassures us of its cleanliness, and using it is so straightforward that packages don’t feature instructions. We don’t necessarily expect or want our toilet paper to be exotically scented or tie-dyed (although, come to think of it, I might like a comic strip-illustrated toilet paper roll).

But the things that make it boring also make it “bad.” In order to make it a boring white, the bleach that treated the paper pulp (which is naturally pale brownish with some flecks) is damaging our aquatic systems, with innumerable implications for other animals and plants. In order to put it on a simple roll so that you could use it without thinking, it became a source of endless shredding messes by house cats, dogs, and toddlers around the world (who don’t think toilet paper is boring at all)…and a source of arguments between housemates (flap facing out vs. facing against the wall—agh!). With the squares perforated, we may be tearing off more paper than we need, which is a waste of resources…

To sum: Bad design can be boring. Boring design can be bad. But bad design can be exciting, endearing, fascinating, nostalgic, funny. And boring design can be exactly what we want.

And one more note, only because John Carruther was tweeting in response to John McWade, whose “before and after” design tutorials I’ve studied intensively enough to quote them back at him when we worked together…It’s easy to categorize mentally the “befores” as bad. And some of them are relatively boring. But if boring were bad, then how did they provoke the creation of something valuable? How could hundreds of boring, bad “befores” support a career that earned a tweet starting with, “Your Lynda.com courses are great”?

Just as beauty is in the heart of the beholder, inspiration is everywhere. You just have to be curious enough to seek it.

Dorothy Parker is thought to have said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

And I don’t think that’s necessarily bad.