Wednesday, September 1, 2010

People who design sinks never wash their hands

Yesterday, I watched this movie about design. The movie observed the ways things are designed to interact with us. In actuality, it was a celebration of consumer materialism and the cleverness of designers who are continuously designing things for us to buy.

My first emotion while watching the movie was anger (though not about what you might suspect). Specifically, I was angry about the way most bathroom sinks in public spaces (and everywhere in England) are designed. During my childhood, I became obsessed with hand-washing (no doubt a symptom of our bacillophobic society). This obsession led me to observe that in order to get my hands absolutely clean in a public restroom, I had to be very careful. Many sinks are designed in such a way that if I want to get water on my hands (kind of the point), I have to touch the back of the sink bowl. The problem is that the spout does not reach far enough into the sink bowl to be easily accessible.

I took this picture today at the local McDonald's (don't worry, I wasn't eating there--I just walked in, took this picture, and left):

Am I missing something, or is this design totally absurd (comical maybe, like some really funny practical joke)? While I can't think of a reason someone would design a sink this way (unless they never washed their hands--hmmm, this reminds me of a guy I knew who worked in the aerospace industry, but refused to ride on airplanes... though... that's actually scary), I can think a few reasons why it shouldn't be designed this way--namely, I don't want to have to smear my hands on the sink bowl just to get water on them.

After a few minutes of fuming about sinks, I realized that there are much bigger issues at stake here.

One interviewee said:
Designers spend most of their time designing products and services for the 10% of the world's population that already own too much when 90% don't have even basic products and services just to lead a subsistent life.
The significance of that statement needs no interpretation--we're addicted to stuff beyond any logical need.

I liked where she was going, but when she started talking about sustainability, I was disappointed. She said that since designing in a sustainable way is such a "mammoth task,... it's no wonder designers and manufactures are finding it so difficult." The only reason that designing in a sustainable way is a "mammoth task" is because companies would rather expand profit margins than save the planet. One might point out that making money has to be the ultimate goal of a corporate entity because without profit a company cannot exist. But, I propose that any company that destroys our world as a byproduct of it's business should not exist.

But the problems with profit margins don't stop at cutting corners to make a buck. Products often serve the purpose of merely being bought. One interviewee said this:
Often the way that a product comes into being isn't because a bunch of expert designers sat down and said 'what are the 10 most important problems that we could solve?' There is a company that's writing a check and what the company wants is new SKUs they want more stuff and they want more people to buy it and that's the name of the game.
I don't know why companies don't have designers sit down and solve our problems, but if they did, maybe they wouldn't have to spend all that money on advertising (read: brainwashing) to convince us we  should buy products that don't really solve any of our problems.

Some of the designers that were interviewed showed signs of "being too immersed in their field" (read: insanity). One particular designer (who I will remember for the distinct care he took while forming his sentences) seemed to value good design quite highly:
People need to, like, demand that [a designed product] performs for them and that is special in their lives, these objects that they buy. You can't make your GPS thing work in your car? There should be like a riot because they're so poorly designed. 
He's saying that if a product is not designed well, we should riot (sinks anyone?). But you know what? I think we ought to riot about the fact that 20,000 children die of hunger each day (that's the low estimate), rather than that my GPS could have been more logically designed. But that's just me.


  1. I like your energy consistently. I met a girl in Istanbul who was there as part of a international youth convention (young twenties and late teens youth) who were brought together to solve the worlds problems but I'm not sure if any of them were designers. Aparantly everything but thier plane ticket was paid for; I don't know by who, but somebody with money cares. Unfortunatley, of the issues she mentioned that they were discussing sinks didn't come up.

  2. Oh man, I HATE those sinks! We have them in the bathroom at HVA and they never fail to irritate me! I'm so glad someone has finally brought the issue to a public forum. :) Also, nice tie-in to materialism. Genius.

  3. Agreed. Companies are getting angry because they can't make as much money being concientious as they can being harmful, and people are getting angry because stuff isn't working conveniently and not because children are dying. Keep posting...issues always need more exploration, and reminders that may knock us out of lazy, self-indulgent, 21st century thinking are always helpful.