Machine Design

Form should follow function, and more

Good design should be elegant, useful, and as simple as possible. This certainly seems like a possible goal. So why is there so much bad design? My pet peeve: plastic consumer packaging. The process of opening a blister or clamshell often seems to require a hacksaw, welding torch, and jackhammer. The shards produced as a poor consumer rips apart the package are deadly enough to slash into the hand and wrist. And I feel sorry for elderly people needing to open so-called childproof packaging. If the top is not squeezed together right, the bottle won’t open.

Other contenders for the bad-design category include airport terminal chairs intended for passengers. Often, the molded design is hard and uncomfortable and lacks cup holders. Worse yet, the chairs are anchored together in rows, side by side and back to back. When a person sits down, the whole assemblage vibrates, annoying anyone already sitting nearby. The design helps contribute to noise because it forces passengers close together. A person speaking softly behind you can’t help but sound like she is blaring in your ear.

Overly complex design can be equally annoying. One can argue that many new cars are overly mechanized. As editors, we sometimes test-drive new cars and write reviews. On more than one vehicle, I had to study the owner’s manual just to start the car or turn on the headlights. I prefer manual hand cranks to electric windows and a manual transmission to an automatic. The automated stuff is just more to go wrong.

Another pet peeve: dinner plates whose bottoms are too small. Unsuspecting eaters who try to cut their food a little too close to the side of the plate often end up with the whole kit and caboodle in their lap.

And with regards to pets, retractable dog leashes are inconvenient and can actually be dangerous. You are forced to hold on to a handle with a poor ergonomic design as you walk your pooch. I would like to see a leash that lets you have your hands free because it would let users more easily scramble through bushes and hold on to hill sides when hiking off-trail. A leash might connect to a strap on one’s upper arm, for example. Or the handle could be part of a snug “glove.” The old design makes it easy for the dog to suddenly pull the leash out of your hand. And I have heard stories about people almost losing a finger as the cable flies back and retracts.

These and other bad designs seem as if they came about without any thought to the poor user. A good design should always pass tests where plenty of different users try out the device. “Form should follow function” is one mantra. But function means more than a device works. It should also mean that consumers can use the device with no problem.

— Leslie Gordon, Senior Editor
[email protected], Twitter @LeslieGordon

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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