#116 Sh*t design
This week’s Design Lobster comes to you from, well, the bathroom. We’re admiring an unusual toilet roll and asking why some crappy design sticks around for so long. Hold your nose and dive in 💩
Are you looking for your next Product Design role?
This week’s issue is sponsored by Packfleet. They’re looking for their first full-time designer to help them in their mission to offer the best deliveries on Earth. It’s the kind of role that doesn’t come along very often, designing a great product with lots of ownership, and supported by a 🔥 team.
Plus you’ll get to work alongside my former colleague Hugo Cornejo, a legendary designer and wonderful human being ☺️
Question: Why does some crappy design stick around so long?
To be a modern human is, unfortunately, to often find yourself confronted by objects and systems whose design is just a bit crap. Some examples of this, as documented in endless online listicles, are mercifully one-off, but alas some persist for centuries.
One such example of enduringly mediocre design has to be the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard. Developed by Christopher Latham Sholes, the inventor of the typewriter, the design reportedly was derived from the need to separate common letter pairs so keys were less likely to hit each other and jam. Historians Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka have also suggested that this layout was more convenient for sending telegraphs and also allowed Sholes to evade patents 🕵️♂️
In any case, the QWERTY keyboard quickly became ubiquitous after being adopted by major typing schools and has persisted across technology transitions. One of the great achievements of the original iPhone for example was its ability to successfully bring this keyboard layout to a tiny sheet of glass.
And this hegemony has come despite its well known flaws. Other layouts such as DVORAK or COLEMAK are designed to ensure your hands move much less and can many report faster typing speed and less pain with them. But switching to one of these means entirely re-learning muscle memory built up over decades so few people make the jump.
In economics and social science this phenomenon is known as path dependency, where historical choices limit what comes after. Path dependency shows us how important initial design choices can be, as these will end up constraining those who come after us. So if you’re working on a design that might set constraints for years to come, it’s worth taking a little extra time!
Design takeaway: Are you making design choices that will constrain others in the future?
Object: Square toilet roll
In 2000, designer Kenya Hara held an exhibition in which he challenged other designers and artists to redesign everyday objects like juice cartons, matches and passport stamps. The exhibition was not intended to necessarily present improved versions but rather to reveal the hidden thinking behind seemingly ordinary things and refresh each visitor’s sense of possibility.
The task of redesigning the humble roll of toilet paper he gave to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who responded with this square-cored design. This more regular geometry not only allows for more efficient transport, but it also encourages more sparing use. Unlike a round toilet roll which unspools continuously, this square roll turns in segments, making it easy for people to just take the sheets they really need.
Design like this, that deploys a disarmingly simple change to produce a clever outcome, always piques my interest!
Design takeaway: What other everyday objects deserve a redesign?
Quote: “A good designer finds an elegant way to put everything you need on a page. A great designer convinces you half that sh*t is unnecessary.”
– Mike Monteiro
A delightfully fruity quote from the designer and author of Ruined by Design. Here he reminds us that the ability to question a brief is a crucial part of our toolkit as designers.
Question the brief this week,
PS. In case you missed it, reader Sean O was inspired by the previous issue of Design Lobster to build a Cyma Curve Generator in code 🤯
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