Discover more from Design Lobster
#18 Nuclear meltdown, torn clothes and the astonishingly ordinary
It’s Design Lobster #18! Today: how bad design nearly caused nuclear catastrophe and how good design can rescue the (smaller) catastrophe of torn clothes. Get your thimble. 👚
Question: Was the 3-Mile Island Accident caused by bad UX?
On March 28th 1979 the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor was overheating. In the control room, technicians were faced with walls of flashing lights but no matter what they tried they couldn’t bring the situation under control. Hours went by and the risk of nuclear meltdown increased. The neighbouring town was evacuated. Finally, somebody noticed that a crucial relief valve was stuck open despite its indicator light being on.
In the enquiry that followed it was discovered that this light had not actually been measuring the open/closed state of the valve but instead the on/off status of one of its electrical components. An assumption had been made that these two things would always correlate but when the valve failed mechanically they did not. This poorly designed interface had sent the technicians into spiralling confusion about where the problem actually lied, and had nearly caused a disaster.
This story, and a few others of a similar kind are explored in a 2018 podcast by Khoi Vinh, a VP of Design at Adobe. The podcast makes the important point that when accidents happen we tend to look for individuals to blame, rather than the design of the systems they had to use to make their decisions. This approach tends to make a better story and might give some people closure, but it doesn’t prevent the same issue from happening again. In a world that is ever more designed, the question of personal responsibility has become blurry, and designers ever more responsible.
Design takeaway: Are you helping or hindering a user from making the right decision? And how do you help them out when they make a mistake?
Listen to the podcast episode here.
Object: Sashiko patches
Sashiko (刺し子 – literally little pierce) is a Japanese sewing repair technique that frames a tear in a regular grid of running stitches that both look lovely and work to strengthen the surrounding fabric. It is most commonly associated with white thread on indigo dyed fabric but in principle can be used to repair or embroider any kind of fabric or clothing.
Sashiko recalls kintsugi – the art of repairing ceramics with gold lacquer (Design Lobster #2) and they both share a philosophy of celebrating life knocks and scrapes. But in my view sashiko manages to do so with a greater economy of means. Unlike kintsugi, which needs the preciousness of gold to bring something back to life, sashiko just uses a different coloured thread and a geometric pattern. Neat.
Design takeaway: How can you frame flaws so that they add to the overall design?
More sashiko porn on instagram.
Quote: “…the resources of astonishing design are found in the context of the very ordinary and casual.”
– Kenya Hara, Design Director at MUJI
We’ve heard from Kenya before in Design Lobster #5, and I wanted to share another quote from him since it builds on one of my favourite themes of ordinariness. If we can just see with the right eyes, with the right imagination, then the most commonplace observations can be transfigured into extraordinary new design ideas.
Keep it ordinary. 🦞
…and do let me know what you think of today’s issue in the comments below.
Has this email been forwarded? Sign up below to get the weekly emails delivered to you. ✏️