12 February 2016

Designer disasters

Ever since the first upright ape sharpened a stick to spear another animal, humans have been designing things. You'd think after all these millennia we'd get it right — and the photographs of this beautiful guitar show that we often do — but after encountering some egregious examples of bad design recently, I've begun to wonder how much we've really learned.

Take the flowing soap I'm currently using, for example. One would reasonably assume this had been through a rigorous process of development that included evaluation by testing panels. Surely, someone at some stage would have squeezed a blob of this soap onto the palm of their hand, looked at the colour — somewhere between beige and bleached yellow — and said, 'Ooh, yuk. This looks like pus.'

Apparently not. The soap's still on sale, so I suppose enough people don't mind washing their hands with pus. More probably, like me, they didn't know it looked like pus until they got it home, because the container's opaque: another example of bad — or possibly wilfully devious — design.

Another example: I bought some laundry pegs and, as usual, chose the cheapest. The first time I used one, I squeezed it between thumb and forefinger to pin a sock to the line and it instantly shot like a melon pip from my fingers and rocketed across the verandah into the paddock. The peg was lined with small ridges, but instead of running across the grip, they ran along it. Instead of increasing friction, they reduced it. That's like designing running shoes with a tread comprising longitudinal grooves — try running on a slippery surface in a shoe with a tread like that.

Surely someone must have tried using one of those pegs?

Perhaps the profit on laundry pegs is so low the manufacturer couldn't justify paying a competent designer and certainly couldn't entertain adequate product testing.

  'Just design me something that opens and closes and can hold a sock on a line,' the manufacturer says.

The designer goes away and returns ten minutes later with a CAD diagram that shows two short lengths of plastic joined with a spring. At least he's thought to put a few semi-circular notches in the jaws to hold socks more securely on the line.

But no one produces a prototype — doing that would cost extra. No one tries pegging socks on a line with the first batch of pegs, because the manufacturer doesn't want to know about any problems. That would require costly retooling in addition to the expense of redesigning (although surely ten minutes of trainee designer time can't be that expensive).

So, the stupidly-designed pegs go into production, and by the time the complaints come in — if they ever do, because who would bother complaining about a few cheap laundry pegs? —the production run has finished and the manufacturer's shifted to some other product. Soles for running shoes, perhaps — no doubt patterned with longitudinal grooves?

How do these incompetent designs arise? Perhaps the designer comes from a culture where people dry laundry in some other way than pinning it on a line — tossing it into a dryer, for example, or spreading it on riverbank rocks in the baking sun, or simply draping it over a balcony railing? Perhaps he grew up in a household where pinning wet socks on a line was exclusively work for women, so he'd never in his life had a peg shoot twenty feet from his fingers?

Other reasons abound, but one that seems important is simply that much good design must be learned. It's not innate; it relies heavily on the experience of predecessors, and even if careful thinking can compensate for knowledge that hasn't yet been learned, thinking has two major shortcomings: sometimes you overlook crucially important things, and sometimes you just get it wrong. (Both are possible, even likely, in this blog post.)

That's why relying on a single designer seems risky. That's one reason why a group of ordinary mortals can sometimes provide a better answer than a genius. The genius might come up with a dozen great ideas; the crowd of fifty might only come up with thirteen, but that additional idea might be the one that makes the difference — the one that realises this soap looks like pus, or that positioning the ridges longitudinally on a laundry peg will sooner or later see you sued because someone's retina was detached by one of those speeding pegs.

1, 2. Although this post focuses on bad design, it's easy to find innumerable examples of wonderful design. This gorgeous guitar was handmade by Christchurch (NZ) luthier Nick Oliver. 
3. Update: Added at Dylan's request via Zhoen. The photograph distorts the headstock a bit, but it's the only photograph I have that shows it, and the guitar's in Christchurch — a long way from me.

Photos and original text © 2016 Pete McGregor


Roderick Robinson said...

You familiar with:

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it...

or is old WS considered old hat in Pohangina Valley? Not that it matters. He could have found sermons in pegs as you have done while cheerily revealing your Commonwealth links since the US calls them "pins" and this irritates me.

It amuses me when people admit to having no subject worthy of their literary powers. Pegs prove them wrong but one needn't go even as far as the clothes line. Consider the umbilicus, that seemingly helical cavity so close to hand. A shape very similar appeared in The Guardian to illustrate the recent gravitational wave discovery that confirms Einstein's theory back in (I think) 1905. Thus are astronomy, physiology and physics brought together, from which emerges a topic all set for a smart five-hundred words in anyone's blog.

A person who fails to recognise pegs' potential is surely at the bottom of the food chain. Natural selection suggests that by now all such no-hopers should have been consumed but perhaps they have proved to be inedible. Double cess on them.

May I add my two pennorth to pegs. Inefficient design may be exacerbated by the over-corrupting application of cost engineering, whereby the cost of making things is reduced from pounds to pennies and thence to ha'pennies. A praiseworthy aim but not - as is often the case - if the resultant widget becomes impossible to fit and we the customers find ourselves unable to buy a new door catch for our washing machine and instead must fork out for a complete replacement.

In fact old pegs (made of wood) embodied a naturally higher coefficient of friction than those made from plastic. But they aren't curvy and/or brightly coloured. The subject of engineering in general fascinates me, especially since it's so little understood by the general public. Hence my novel Gorgon Times.

Needless to say I've lots more to say about pegs, design, commercial processes and life's little irritations. Easily to the point of becoming profligate and beyond that. But given the gestation period for Design Disasters I'm convinced there will be time for further bites of the cherry as I return to egg you on into greater productivity.

Did I say that Design Disasters, apart from its effortles choice of subject, is put together with just the right degree of informed crankiness as to make it a good read? No, I see I didn't. Well I am now.

Relatively Retiring said...

In my childhood pegs were made by - dare I say it? - GYPSIES: travelling Romany folk, invariably women. They walked around neighbourhoods, calling door-to-door pedalling pegs and bunches of lucky white heather. These pegs were made from scraps of wood, whittled into shape, They provided excellent, time-tested use of recycled materials designed and made by people who knew what they were doing with damp socks (women), zero carbon footprint, and good customer service (plus guaranteed good luck if you also purchased a spring of heather, and a bit of entertainment if you didn't. I can vividly remember this bit, the increase to my vocabulary and my mother's outraged reactions).

In addition such pegs provided support for a minority ethnic group and an interesting diversion during the working day of many housewives.
The Romany ladies probably didn't know about pus-coloured soap though.
P.S. There is also a urine-coloured 'lemon scented' lavatory cleaner if you're interested?

Zhoen said...

Could you add an image of the headstock? Dylan would like to see it.

The obvious is often the hardest to see. Some people have no imagination, and don't notice the pus-ness. Amazes me how often people put a great deal of effort into doing things the hard way, and will not consider an easier way.

pohanginapete said...

Roderick, 'old WS' is popular anywhere I happen to be, and most of the time that means the Pohangina Valley.
Much to agree with in your comment — so much so I'm worried. I particularly share your irritation with products that can't be fixed when something almost trivial breaks, and I'm reminded of my mechanic complaining about a certain brand of car that now requires a $400 tail-light if the bulb dies. He used to be able to replace the bulb for about a dollar.
I did greatly appreciate the observation of 'just the right degree of crankiness', but I can't guarantee the next post will maintain that standard of irascibility, though.

RR, I remember wooden pegs, although here I assume they were mass-produced somehow. I imagine the original handmade wooden pegs might be collectors' items by now, and I have a vague recollection of seeing some painted and turned into artworks.
I'll pass (ha ha) on the urine-coloured toilet cleaner.

Zhoen — photo added. It's not exactly accurate but it should give Dylan a fairly good idea. It's a lovely guitar. Nick used to have a website but it's no longer working; I've made some enquiries and if I can find a link to his work I'll add it here and let you know.

Avus said...

Whilst reading your post my thoughts returned to my youth and, like Relatively Retiring, I remember those Romany women (REAL Gypsies, not your modern Irish travellers) coming to the doors of our small country village with their self-crafted pegs made from a split length of hedgerow wood (hazel for preference)with a "V" cut to the end and rejoined with a wrap-around metal strip, fixed by a small tack. They worked well and lasted well. The "sprig of heather" an additional bonus of extended luck during the following week for those hard-working country housewives.
I expect they took far longer to make than your modern plastic item, but they would not have taken off across the yard as yours did!

pohanginapete said...

Avus, it's interesting to hear you say those wooden pegs lasted well. The offending plastic pegs I wrote about are just the opposite: they can't handle exposure to sunlight, quickly turning brittle and snapping. (Maybe they're vampire pegs?)

Zhoen said...

Thank you, and Dylan says thanks as well. "Very nice, a bespoke guitar."