Where have all the good industrial designers gone?

Surely there are a few of you guys left out there who can help explain to me why the hell we still have to suffer with bulk long-life milk cartons that break as you remove them from the shelves and the multitude of other really silly product designs that we all somehow just have to deal with each day.  Please guys and gals… I have been a product developer & manager in a previous life so I do think that I know what’s involved in bringing a product to market but for the life of me I cannot understand some of the really stupid flaws inherent in the design of some everyday items.

Lets start with the bulk milk cartons.  I don’t know how many times these have changed over the last few years – an obvious sign that someone is trying – but jeepers guys… When a standard 5c (US) plastic shopping bag is capable of carrying 6 1L cartons of long-life milk without breaking (provided you don’t let it tear), why the hell isn’t the over-engineered cardboard box pack up to the task without the handle breaking or the sides splitting open before you have even put the item in your shopping trolley?  Am I going mad here?

What about the essential oils that you burn to make your home smell like frangipani, vanilla or lavender to keep everyone calm?  Am I the only one that immediately removes the stupid plastic ‘drop’ dispenser from the little bottle because life is too short to try and wait for each drop – even if you only need 3 or 4.  Yes, I know you have to hold it in a certain way and the little holes help let air in so that the drops come out in a controlled way, but honestly what a load of bollocks.  Over the years we have purchased many of these little bottles from many different stores (big brand names, boutique specialist aromatherapy stores and even most recently from Mauritius) and not one is any better than the other.  Sure if you have the patience of a saint and want to make a tea-pouring ritual out of the process then I am sure it will be fine, but again… am I going nuts?  Hello, I know dispensing a single drop of something is easy – anyone used eyedrops recently?  Anyone remember the little glass droppers that you dispense ‘rescue remedy’ drops under the tongue to your panicky kid after a fall?

cansThis one is for the moms who do the shopping.  Tins that don’t stack.  Same size, from the a single producer.  That don’t stack without you attempting to recreate the Great Pyramid of Giza  in your pantry!  Come on people.  Lets face it, most people don’t buy a single tinned item – they usually buy three or four tins to stock up because tinned goods are unlikely to expire before they are used up.  And what’s the best way to pack them to save space?  Why on top of each other of course!  Unfortunately not according to to most of the people who produce food in tins.  Nope, they expect us to build elaborate angled ‘tin storage and dispensing’ shelves that allow the tins to roll down a chute when we need them.   Either that or have OCD tendencies and carefully position each can precariously on top of the other.  Would it really be that difficult for the tin manufacturers to adjust the die that stamps the tops and bottoms of the tins to fit into each other?

There are countless others examples – I am sure you have a few of your own.  Kids shampoo with lids that kids can’t open because the edges are sharp and the seal is too tight for them to flip it up?  Sauce bottles that always need to be stored upside down because its a nightmare getting it out?  Glue, cosmetics and creams that make it impossible for you to get the last few applications without taking to the container with a wicked looking karambit.  Lint removal rollers with toilet paper perforations that tear awkwardly and never let you remove the dirty outer easily.  Packets of rice and pasta with “re-seal” folds – are they mad?  Anyone ever tried to use these stupid things on a daily basis?  Spare yourself the headache and just go get some tupperware.  Laptops with ports on the wrong sides making it almost impossible to not have usb and other wires in the way of normal everyday use.  Fresh food packaging (especially meat) that leaves bits of the plastic of the absorbent moisture pad on the food forcing you to wash it with steel wool to get it off or enjoy some plastic carcinogens with your meal. And what would this moan be without everyones pet peeve, hard plastic blister packs!  Yes, they protect the product but come off it guys, you are not protecting the product from a nuclear explosion, give us a little tab to tear or something!

Now I know that a lot of external factors play a part in devising solutions for these mundane flaws in product design.  Technology available, delays in time to market, practical issues in mass production, and ten other things come to mind as possible causes.  The cost of developing solutions and putting them into production is definitely not simple but when a cheap plastic bag works better than a more costly engineered cardboard box then you know that you need to go back to the drawing board.  Perhaps some products are designed like this on purpose – you can’t get that last squeeze out of the age defying eye cream because they want to you to buy some more and have decided that the visual design of the container is more important than its practical use.   Maybe they do not want you to buy bulk milk cartons because they make more profit if you buy the individual cartons and put them in your plastic shopping bag.  Maybe the drop dispensers are designed the way they are because they want you to think that you are buying more than you really are and the time it takes to dispense helps build this illusion – most times the little bottles are barely a quarter full.  Maybe the manufactures of tins could not be bothered to change the dies or they have a side business selling tin dispensing shelves.  More than a few of these problems refer to the packaging rather than the actual product consumed but last time I checked, the packaging all contributed to the usability of the product so should be part of the product design.

Then the opposite side of the equation – products that are so well designed that you use it for years and when you go back to get another, the company has been out of business – perhaps they designed a product that was too good and when they ran out of new customers they died off because they had not enough repeat business?  I had a pair of hiking boots I used to wear every day – to the point where people used to tease me – and they lasted about 8 years without tearing, wearing out or developing that inevitable stench that comes with the territory.  When I went back to purchase another pair / something new from the company, I was told they were no longer in business.  Now I am probably taking 1+2 and getting 12 on this example but it is still an interesting idea.  Are some products designed with inherent flaws to force repeat business at average intervals worked out by the bean counters out there and forced on the product/industrial designers against their will?

Are these product problems by design or are they just irrelevant to the designers?  Am I giving them too much credit for being devious in the product development process or are they just bad designs that should have been dealt with?  Come on you industrial designers and product people out there… what’s the deal here – why the hell can’t someone design a better way of packaging 6 long life milk cartons?


ps.  Oil bottle featured image from here, cans from here



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