written by:
illustrated by:
August 12, 2009
Originally published in The City Life

Last night I went to a corner liquor store to buy some toothpaste. While the beer and candy aisles of the store were heavily trafficked, the back “household goods” section was not. And that’s where I was, searching for Crest among reams of dust-covered carbon paper for typewriters nobody now uses; scissors made in China with finger holes too small for toddlers; and paper-thin polyester argyle dress socks hanging like petrified bats from plastic hooks.

holder andrew ipod teapot

All these products were uncomfortable, ugly, hard to use, and obsolete—–so useless that nobody had ever wanted them. And since they rolled off the production lines 10, even 20, years ago, they have rotted beneath the flickering fluorescent lights of this liquor store and thousands like it, grimy unmarked gravestones in the cemetery of bad product design.

I left the store empty-handed and wondered why a free market society would produce so many things that are so wholly crappy. I also wondered what it is that keeps one product relevant, useful, and beautiful for decades (i.e., Crest) and another instantlandfill fodder (i.e., unwearably thin argyle polyester socks). What is it exactly that makes one product’s design good and another so bad?

Basic economics dictates that good products are items consumers buy from manufacturers angling to make a profit. What makes a product successful is not one but many things, a tangled web of form and function that enables the product to (a) serve an unmet need, (b) be easy to use, (c) be attractive, and (d) be efficient to produce. In other words, the product needs to make sense to the consumer. A tube of Crest makes sense; so does a bottle of Chartreuse. These things are useful and pretty, sure, but they are more than the sum of their parts. Good products have a feel about them that other products don’t. Early products fit the needs of the environments from which they were produced. Near forests, people might have built wooden arrows that helped them hunt animals beneath a canopy of trees; by the sea, they built hooks from bone to gather food from the deep. But product modality changed as trade developed between cultures. Those products that garnered the most in trade had to catch a mer-chant’s eye—–an elaborate engraving on a sword, an ornate frieze on a clay vessel. Aesthetics became a factor.

By the Industrial Revolution, the cost of products had decreased as manufacturing processes developed. To compete and stay viable, good products also had to make economic sense. By the 1950s, superindustrialized production lines became so efficient that more products became available to more people than at any other time in history. To keep people buying products more often, manufacturers developed various modes of planned obsolescence, in which products were developed in timely fashions and styles. Trends ruled.

In a world of new concerns, where landfills are growing, resources are dwindling, and economies are recessing, why is Crest a well-designed product and polyester argyle socks so crummy? Why is an Alessi tea kettle better than the one I just bought at Walgreens? What makes an Eames side chair look timeless and a knockoff look so silly?

Good product design is about how the product works, the thought, organization, process, and manufacture of the thing that just makes it feel right. Take a quintessentially good modern product design—–the iPod. Before the iPod there were many MP3 players on the market, some of which were more powerful, had more features, and cost less money. These were hard to use, ugly, and temperamental, and didn’t make sense to a lot of consumers. Apple took the contents of these devices, thought them over, reorganized their parts, and processed them into a product that was accessible, simple, convenient, and pretty. The iPod rules the MP3-player market not by its technology but through its good design.

If the iPod—–and history—–shows us anything, it is that a good product exceeds the physical object, the way in which its parts are pieced together. Not to get too high flown, but good product design makes sense; bad product design doesn’t. Which is why the same plastic, chemicals, ink, and paper that make Crest so good (and often sold out) can also make children’s left-handed scissors and polyester socks so bad (and destined to rot on shelves for an eternity). It’s not the materials themselves that make a product successful; it’s the feel of the thing, or rather, how the thing makes us feel. Good products make us feel good.


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