Every Day Design, Part II

Yesterday I talked about the brilliance of the Trident Layers gum packaging. Today I want to talk about…

Toilet paper dispensers.

Particularly, toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms. These are perhaps some of the coolest and simplest designs ever and also the most horribly misused.

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So, as I said yesterday, the first step is to identify the problem that needs solving. Here it is. Public restrooms are used by a lot of people and are maintained, not by the people who use them – like in your house, but by people who are hired to do so. It is of the utmost importance to guarantee that there is always toilet paper available to the user. And it is of extreme value to minimize how often the janitor has to visit the room to restock that toilet paper.

Back before the awesome double large-roll dispensers were invented, this was typically solved by stacking more rolls on the back of the toilet. This created other problems, like risking the rolls falling off, thus getting wet and dirty and making a mess of the bathroom. It also forced users to use toilet paper that someone else’s hands had likely been all over.

No, the modern person not only wants guaranteed toiled paper in their stall, they want it untouched by others.

Enter the double large-roll dispensers. The idea is simple. Two very large rolls, side-by-side. People use the front one until it is emptied and then they use the back one. The janitor just has to come by with enough frequency that they get there before the back one is emptied. They move the back one to the front, put a new one in the back, and voila!

Perfect system, right?

Well, almost. It’d be a perfect system if it was only used by engineers and other hopelessly analytical people. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us in the world to form critical mass.

The first problem is that people don’t always take from the front roll. This wouldn’t be so bad if we could all at least agree to take from whichever one was smaller. Then the system could still work. But, no. Many people don’t pay attention. So sad.

At work, whenever I notice that the paper is hanging down from the big one, I carefully tuck it away and pull down the end from the small one. Later that day, they’ve switched again. I am forced to conclude that someone is actively sabotaging me. Someone is so clueless as to actually believe it is better to take from the fuller roll! People! Sheesh.

There is a design out there that does away with this problem. It’s the kind they had in the bathrooms where I used to work. These have a clever lever that blocks access to the back roll (see the red arrow below). Once the first roll is empty, users can slide it forward until it latches. They can’t move the lever early because of a divider (see the yellow arrow) that prevents movement until the front roll is empty. Once moved, however, users can access the back roll.

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Now, this does depend on people being smart enough to figure out how to work the sliding lever. But at least if they can’t figure it out, they only deny themselves toilet paper. They don’t muck up the entire toilet paper distribution system.

Regardless of the specific design of the dispenser, my main beef is with the janitors. Their wanton disregard of the design is particularly alarming. Especially since they arguably went through some sort of training for this job and either they are very inept at retaining important information or their supervisors fail to see the value in properly training their employees in the finer aspects of the job.

In both my previous work area and my current, when one of those jumbo rolls gets close to empty, the janitor pulls it out and sets it on top of the dispenser. Or the hand rail. Or the sanitary napkin disposal unit sticking slightly out from the wall. Whatever surface he or she can find. Why? WHY??!!

No one uses the roll. It just sits there and people use the ones in the dispenser. And eventually one of them gets smallish and… gets placed on top of the previous one. At one point, I walked into a stall and found seven – SEVEN! rolls stacked on top of each other in 2 or 3 piles. Some of the rolls didn’t even qualify as smallish; they were about an inch thick. Remember the problems inherent with rolls not contained within the dispenser?

I had had enough. I had slowly been stewing about the stacked rolls but the seven roll pile pushed me over the top. I asked my admin who was in charge of the janitors and sent that person an email. I detailed how the dispensers were supposed to work and what their crazy, untrained employees were doing instead.

I got no response.

But! All the extra rolls vanished. I couldn’t help but suspect that they went straight to the trash, as did all future prematurely extracted smallish rolls. This really bothered me. Not because it was costing my company money but because it wasn’t necessary. If they would just stock the rolls like they are supposed to, the waste could be eliminated!

And that, really, is the true problem facing designers. The problem is making your elegant design obvious enough that even the average dimwit will benefit and use it correctly. Fail in that regard and, no matter how elegant and perfect your design is, you fail overall.

I am hopeful that after years (literally) of wringing my hands about the mishandling of the dual roll toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms, this rant will be the panacea I need. I hope that having gotten this off my chest, I can again enter the bathroom without my usual angst about the ignorance of the general population with regard to one of the most beautiful day-to-day design marvels of our times.

P.S. When I went looking for pictures, I found the following. I’m pretty sure I’d drool just a bit, or at least feel my heart rate increase, if I came across one of these.

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Every Day Design

I am fascinated by the design of things. Not big things like skyscrapers or complicated things like airplanes. I am intrigued by the simple, mundane, every day objects. The objects that are so simple, mundane, every day that the average person doesn’t even notice that there is a design. In fact, they often misuse the object and miss out on the beauty that went into it.

Take the Trident Layers gum package, for example.

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Every design starts with a problem to solve. The problem to solve with gum packaging is how to keep the package from collapsing and messing up the tidy arrangement of gum as pieces are removed from the package.

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I like how this package solves that problem. There are two rows of gum. We’ll call them the top row (near the flap) and the bottom row. There is a slot in the backside of the bottom row so you can fold that row into the top row and then secure it closed with the flap. But the whole result could start to get crushable once there’s only a few pieces of gum left.

So notice the slot on the top row. See it? Let me show you:

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There’s also a perforation between the top and bottom rows. Once you’ve consumed all the gum on the bottom row, you can tear that part of the packaging off and secure the flap in the top row slot, leaving you with a tightly secure, non-collapsing gum package. Beautiful!

So what’s the problem? Here it is:

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The design, elegant as it is, depends on consumers using it properly when they, by and large, don’t notice or care about its elegance. I noticed and as a result, I use the package as designed. My boys, on the other hand, just want a piece of gum.

The design is rendered useless unless the consumer is willing to use it as designed.

And that’s what fascinates me about the design of such things. The gum package isn’t too bad. I can – and will – train my children on the proper extraction method of gum from packages in my purse. Other people selecting their gum improperly does not impact me.

That’s not true for all daily use designs. Some have public impact. One in particular has become a ridiculous obsession of mine for an embarrassingly long time. At great risk to your continued belief in my sanity, I will share my tale of woe tomorrow.