Bad Design: Freespirit treadmill interface

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Freespirit Treadmill: Torture for graphic designers

This Freespirit treadmill is a Sears product, and inhabits a remote corner of Elbowroom’s headquarters. When workers need a refreshing running break, the treadmill awaits with open arms. The problem is, the treadmill interface is such a depressing product of graphic design that for any designer running on it, it’s less like exercise and more like torture. There is nowhere to look except directly at this interface, and nothing to think about except how awful the design is. If this review seems a little personal, it’s because it is.

First of all, let’s talk about geometry. In graphic design, a thoughtful designer will restrict him or herself to shapes that fit the project’s theme. It builds continuity (the product feels unified), it demonstrates intentionality (it looks like it was designed with purpose), and the result is easy to look at. The iPhone, for example, uses almost exclusively rounded rectangles.

Let’s take a quick inventory on the number of shapes employed by this treadmill interface. From the bottom to the top, we have a circle, two ovals, a row of rounded squares, then some slanted rounded squares, a whole grid of small squares, one big rounded rectangle (the main display), two columns of straight rectangles, all contained within the physical panel itself, which is…some kind of curvy rectangle.

This isn’t to say that the use of multiple shapes should be avoided: many times, differing shapes are used as visual cues about the item’s function. In this case, however, the abuse of shapes result in a disjointed, unpleasant jumble of purposelessness.

Secondly, we should discuss fonts and style. You can look at products like Nike+ , Gatorade’s Fluid Loss Calculator or Reebok Hockey and see the same trends: sport typography in 2007 is scientific, sophisticated and intense. The fonts used on the Freespirit treadmill, contrarily, are dated, primitive and boring. The font used, does not suggest advanced technology or intense exercise, it suggests sitting in a cubicle filling out TPS reports. The treadmill achieves a very run-of-the-mill look, rather than striving for a cutting-edge image that would resonate with sports culture.

Sports typography in 2007

Thirdly, let’s talk about functionality. This is stepping on the toes of industrial designers, but it needs to be said. If you’re going to design things to look like buttons, let them act as buttons. Those red and blue panels to the left and right of the central display? They let you see what pre-programmed runs are available. The thing is, you can’t actually press them to select the program. You have to use the up and down arrows under the “program / program” area.

If you’ll notice, the up arrow is on the left, and the down arrow is on the right. This is not only counter-intuitive (look at your volume controls, if you have buttons: down is on the left, up is on the right), it introduces a system that gets broken on the same interface. With the “slow / fast” options on the far right, the placement of the up/down arrows are reversed. If faucet manufacturers displayed this kind of carelessness, we’d all end up with scalded hands.

Fourthly (and lastly), let’s address potential. Maybe we’re asking too much from our humble exercise machine, but if you take a look at the control panels, information interfaces and dashboards around you, in things like cars, computers or telephones, you’ll likely be met with some remarkably beautiful industrial design. Dashboards in general give designers the opportunity to create seamless, symmetrical, smart design; design that is so intuitive to use that its users don’t even notice the design work. Take a look at this image from the inside of a VW Golf: it features clean, simple, cohesive circles, in an easy-to-understand layout.

Dashboard of a VW Golf: practical and beautiful.

It’s good to expend some energy on a treadmill, but you shouldn’t have to sweat to figure out the control panel. This Freespirit exercise machine is an example of awkward, non-intuitive interface design. And don’t get us started on the logo.

  • Amy Browne

    If this treadmill had a mouth, I think the only thing it could yell is “low budget!!” and maybe some slang phrase from the 80′s like “that’s bogus!”. Its almost as if the company didn’t invest any money or time in consumer response to their product vs others, or in comparison to their competition. If they did, I don’t think it would look like this. Even at a low budget, they can drop the cheesy graph paper background and simplify the buttons/fonts as mentioned. The “function over design” attitude will get companies nowhere fast in a time where most consumers seem to care more if stuff looks cool rather than works well (there are exceptions of course, like my dad for example, whose biking shorts are a fashion monstrosity, however they “work well” and therefore he doesn’t care if he is seen in public wearing them). However, I think people like him are few and far between, and fading fast as our consumer products look fancier every year. If I was a treadmill designer, first and foremost I would want people to look at my machine, and want to exercise.

    A visit to my local YMCA this summer found me in awe and excited as I ran on a treadmill that was entirely touch screen equipped with different running backgrounds and cable TV. Now that is how you keep up with the active citizens of 2007. A YMCA filled with Freespirit’s would likely send many people looking for a new gym. One day I will visit ERD headquarters with my walkman, adidas shorts, sweatband and leg warmers to match the era that this treadmill seems to be designed for.

    Let me also add that I am quite impressed that you could write 662 words simply on the design of a treadmill. Well done.

  • http://www.elbowroomdesign.com/musings Neil

    Thanks for the comment Amy. Kevan would like to write a post on your dad’s biking shorts.

  • http://sanuja.com Sam

    I was about to buy this treadmill and then I came across this article. Thank you so much.