is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
Last week I tweeted this eye-opening guide to spotting an ATM skimmer published by the invaluable Snopes.com. Like a lot of people, I’d heard of ATM skimmers before — duplicate card readers and wireless cameras surreptitiously attached to cash machines with the intent of stealing your card number and PIN — but I had no idea what form they actually took. The visual evidence was striking; skimmers are uncanny mimics of the visual language of ATMs. The colors, shapes and peculiar plasticity that we’re all familiar with are faithfully reproduced in their ersatz forms. I had no idea they could blend into a cash machine’s hardware so expertly.
An Ugly Face
While I was surprised, scared and dismayed that I could have at some time in the recent past used a skimmer-outfitted ATM without realizing it, it also occurred to me that in many ways this is more than just a security problem. It’s a design problem too. In fact, design is at the heart of the problem: the thieves who install these skimmers are exploiting a profound flaw in the industrial design of ATMs.
Ask yourself: what exactly are all of those oddly proportioned boxes, varying planes, bizarre joins and strange angles that describe nearly every automated teller machine on the planet? Who among us who uses cash machines actually understands the purpose of all those expertly yet randomly fused-together shapes that are somehow intended to constitute a trustworthy money dispensing device?
The fact of the matter is, the superfluously futuristic form of these machines is so nonsensical, so utterly impractical and useless that even a quickly grafted foreign appendage like a skimmer is indistinguishable from the native hardware. The thieves who designed these admittedly ingenious tools had a much easier job of it because, like the ATMs onto which they’re attached, skimmers don’t have to look like they do anything that you would understand. They just need to look like they might do something you don’t understand.
Banking on Their Laurels
There’s no reason for this, no reason that these ATMs need to look like cast-offs from decades-old sci-fi television shows — except perhaps for the fact that the banking industry has left a gaping vacuum of thought where instead there should be a design vision.
Ironically, the ATM itself is perhaps the banking industry’s last great design achievement, at least according to economist Paul Volcker. The introduction of an an unmanned, relatively secure and continuously available cashier was a genuine advancement in commerce and an improvement to modern life.
The problem is that in the intervening decades since its introduction, the industry has spent all of its energies on things far more superficial, complex and useless: derivatives, credit default swaps and making ATMs look like Transformers among them. All of which has been intended to bamboozle customers into believing that the act of banking is so intricate and advanced that most of us shouldn’t bother trying to comprehend it.
That’s a digression though. More to the point is the question of what an ATM should look like if it shouldn’t look like the ATMs we have today? To begin with, ATM designers should abandon their strategy of intimidating customers through technologically imposing yet incomprehensible forms. Instead, they should focus on simple constructions, fewer planes, fewer parts, and a healthy dose of visual logic. New ATMs should be intuitive in the way that appliances and common tools are; the best designed of these forms communicate what they do at first glance and without ambiguity.
Should they be beautiful? It’s perhaps too much to ask banks to strive for aesthetic beauty in this endeavor because nearly everything they’ve ever produced in the past few decades has been blindingly ugly. The bar for success can be somewhat lower though: a new ATM design need only be simple and succinct enough in its form that it becomes difficult for a thief to attach something as flagrantly malicious as an ATM skimmer to it. It’s not much to ask, but it would be enough.+