Ted Dewan previews a series in which industrial designers send the shopping trolley and the swing bin back to the drawing board
Is humankind doomed to fight shopping trolleys with minds of their own? Couldn't the beastly trolleys be tamed? While we're at it, couldn't we ask designers to sort out a few more everyday design disasters? And why, if a designer made my stupid, overpriced "designer" toaster, is it so terrible?
In some cases, the suffering caused by bad design is substantial - poor lifejacket design was recognised as one cause of the huge loss of life in the Estonia ferry disaster of September 1994. Badly designed airline seats cause deadly blood-clots to form in passengers' legs - the condition even has a name: economy class leg.
Like any other profession, the design world includes the stupid and the lazy as well as the inspired. Industrial design consultants Richard Seymour and Dick Powell are clearly impassioned crusaders for good design. Two years ago they gave the bra, the car, and the toilet a radical rethink in their first series for Channel 4, Designs On Your . . . This time, in a new six-part series, Better By Design, the shopping trolley, the kitchen bin, the razor and the home security system get the treatment alongside the lifejacket and the economy airline seat.
The series is more concerned with the process of solving design problems than the solutions themselves, making it a rare educational resource. Seymour and Powell clearly revel in their role as people-centred crusaders setting out to banish poorly designed products. This is no cosmetic makeover - it's more of a call to arms.
The programmes show the two designers engaged in real-life assignments from real clients, pitted against the forces of cost-driven competition, safety regulations, ergonomics, world-weary managers and even consumer laziness. Rather than starting with a groovy design idea, Seymour and Powell start re-designing by identifying existing problems in detail. The experts they hire to join them for brainstorming sessions include such colourful characters as a heavily tattooed ex-burglar (on the home security system) and sports car engineers (on the shopping trolley). After working out concepts on paper, they make models and prototypes, and choose finishes. Finally, they lift the blanket off the prototype in the client's office. After seeing Seymour and Powell at work, few viewers would question Thomas Edison's formula for genius - 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.
For example, you might not think the common kitchen swing bin is a design disaster until you consider its shortcomings. The swinging lid always gets filthy because it's designed to stay in the way of the rubbish. And when you empty the bag, you have to somehow grab the bin with your knees as you lift the bag out, fighting gravity, friction, and the vacuum created underneath the full bag. The vacuum is a particular problem for the elerly and the infirm. You'd be surprised at the amount of high-powered thinking and drama behind the development of something as humble and ridiculous as a kitchen bin. The constraints included materials (plastic), cost (very cheap) and clients (sceptical, no-nonsense).
Better By Design seeks to normalise, rather than glamorise the design process. If the term "designer" brings to mind an arrogant architect, or someone more concerned with appearance than ergonomics, Seymour and Powell will change that perception. They demonstrate what good designers actually do - analyse, think, create, test, and sell their ideas. There's a refreshing lack of emphasis on computer-aided design and a surprising amount of cardboard, thumbtacks, and good old pen-and-paper work. In each case, there are problems that don't show up at the paper concept stage, but which become clear as soon as full-scale models are made. The fallibility of paper concepts becomes painfully clear at this point, with much nail-biting and visible frustration from Seymour and Powell. It's great to see top professionals making mistakes and learning from them.
Unable to switch their designer instincts off, the two men, who've been partners for nearly 20 years in their own consultancy, insisted the quality of the programmes came up to their design work standards. Stylistically, Better By Design manages to be contemporary without resorting to annoying visual effects or skull-numbing MTV-style edits. Even the technojungle musical score is superbly crafted, with the choice of sounds offering subtle editorial comments on the images. There are obviously creative thinkers on both sides of the camera in this series.
If you plan on using the series in class, you might consider stopping the tape just before the Eureka! moment to seehow students attempt to solve the problems within the samelimits as Seymour and Powell. The kitchen bin episodewould be especially good to use in this way, as the problemis so familiar (at least to those pupils who have ever tried to empty the things or, more likely, watched their parents struggling) and the level of engineering involved need not be too complicated. A truly satisfactory solution proved extremely elusive, even to the professionals, but Seymour and Powell's solution will be that much more exciting if it is withheld until after the pupils have had a go themselves.
Better by Design is certainly worth taping over the summer, but for a mere pound;5.99 you can buy the whole series on video. The Design Council is sponsoring this impressive educational package, which includes website materials aimed at all levels from primary school upwards, with an 'A to Z' of product design and classroom resources to download. Now, if only Seymour and Powell could take on the VCR. Or, for that matter, my toaster.
To order the Better by Design series on video at pound;5.99, see www.design-council.org.uk and www.channel4.co.uk, which will launch materials to support the series at the time of the first broadcast.