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#84 Deeply average
🛫 Fighter jets, vacuum cleaners and more
Design Lobster #84 is not your average issue. We’re interrogating the dangers of designing for “averages” rather than specifics, from the cockpits of fighter jets to a polemical three-person vacuum cleaner. Enjoy!
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Question: Why can designing for the average be dangerous?
In the early 1950’s, after a spate of fatal accidents, an anthropologist called Lt Gilbert Daniels was invited by the US Air Force to carry out an anthropometric study. The US Air Force believed the average size of pilots had changed since the 20’s when the cockpits were first designed, resulting in the increasing number of accidents.
Daniel’s carried out an anthropometric study of 4,000 pilots – measuring them across 10 key dimensions, from their waist size, to the distance between their eyes. Contrary to the military’s expectations, he discovered was that the averages of these measurements described a body shape that almost no individual pilot actually had. Across the 10 key dimensions, there was nobody who was within the average range for all of them. The ‘average pilot’ did not exist. All those accidents stemmed from design choices in the cockpit based on this one wrong assumption.
The solution was to design the cockpit for individual fit rather than an average. By making seats, pedals and and controls adjustable, each pilot could alter the layout so that it suited their body. Individual fit is a simple idea, but a profound one for all of us trying to design for large groups with varying requirements.
Design takeaway: Are you designing for an average that might not exist?
▶️ Here’s a great video of Rory Sutherland talking about averages
Object: Gross Domestic Product
For the 2019 Oslo Design Triennale, design collective Edit* designed this feminist thought experiment - a vacuum cleaner that only works when it is operated by three people at the same time. Called Gross Domestic Product, the object draws attention to the fact that the assumed user of most household appliances is a private individual, and practically always a woman. The designers were inspired by shared public facilities like laundrettes and bath houses which made them wonder what products might look like if more reproductive labour was shared.
I always enjoy provocative pieces of design like this that allow us to see design assumptions that are so normalised as to become invisible. There are lots of good reasons why vacuum cleaners are designed to be operated by just one person, but one lamentable consequence of this is to hide a great deal of the work that women do alone every day in the home.
*Edit is made up of designers Alberte Lauridsen, Alice Meyer, Hannah Rozenberg, Marianna Janowicz, Saijel Taank and Sophie Williams.
Design takeaway: How could your design question who its average user is?
🤝 We explored Patty Moore’s concept of Universal Design in a previous Design Lobster
Quote: “... design as a problem-solving activity can never, by definition, yield the one right answer: it will always produce an infinite number of answers, some ‘righter’ and some ‘wronger.’”
– Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World
I thought this quote would be a good accompaniment to this week’s theme. Just as averages can provide an illusory subject for design work, so can the design process itself provide the illusion of a single solution to a problem. Keep questioning!
Hope you have an above-average week 😉
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