Lazy Sunday thoughts about design and repair

There was a strange story making the rounds a few years ago: apparently someone had thought up the idea of etching images of house flies on public urinals; boys being boys and men being men, they “took aim”. And suddenly “spillage” was reduced by lots and lots. You can see the story here.

When I was reading that in 2005, I’d already become obsessed by the Clay Shirky mantra about damage and repair: if you can keep the cost of repair at least as low as the cost of damage, then things that are “in the commons” are less likely to have tragic (as in Garrett Hardin) consequences. Well that’s my wording and interpretation anyway, apologies if I’ve got anything wrong.

What it did was make me think slightly differently about design. I started considering opportunities to reduce the cost of repair by minimising the need for repair. From a design perspective, what could we do to reduce the likelihood of damage and thereby reduce the cost of repair?

As serendipity would have it, I was thinking about these things while waiting for the flight back from Copenhagen, and found this in the men’s washroom at the lounge:

So it wasn’t just Schiphol airport where you could go up and see someone’s etchings in the washroom. Anyway, seeing it made me think about other places where the design of something reduces wastage and obviates the need for repair. And that made me think of this:

Now that’s a photograph of a room in the Wine Residence in Shanghai, a wonderful place where you can acquire wine, store it, taste it, learn about it and even trade it. I was taken around it by a close friend, and I loved the built-in spittoons. What did I like about it? Well, I’d seen spittoons being used in places where you learn about wine before, but they were usually set apart from where you were. You had to go to the spittoon. I come from India, where a lot of people chew betel leaf and betel nut.

And while spittoons can be found occasionally, what you tend to see is dried-blood scars on walls and floors in public places, as people aimed for the spittoons and missed. Here’s a sample (actually taken from the Solomon Islands, not India, but the point remains. My thanks to Everything Everywhere, Flickr and Creative Commons):

Where is all this taking me? It’s Sunday and I’m thinking lazily, provisionally. I started wondering whether Mac desktops used to be “dirtier” before someone thought of putting the Trash can there. Whether personal information would be more accurate if we presented the tools for repairing the information more usefully. That kind of thing.

If we take design seriously, we need to work harder at reducing the cost of repair. Sometimes that means doing what we can in design to reduce the need for repair.

7 thoughts on “Lazy Sunday thoughts about design and repair”

  1. I started wondering whether Mac desktops used to be “dirtier” before someone thought of putting the Trash can there.

    Surely the trash can was there from the beginning? Although of course technically it’s now on the dock rather than the desktop.

  2. You’re right, Kerry. I remember the trash can on the Mac IIe but I didn’t realise it was there on the Mac from the start.

  3. There’s a corollary to that; the damage you notice should be repaired if the cost of repair is less than the dissonance you’re caused.

    I got horribly offended by littering; teenagers here (everywhere) occasionally drop litter; fag packets. Sure, you can feel annoyed about it; and yes, if they are there, ask them to pick up after themselves.

    Now, if I see their litter… I’ll pick it up, rather than be offended every time I see it.

    Which is, of course, what I do when I see the grocer’s apostrophe used in a wiki I can edit.

    Then, at least, rather than feel offended, I feel virtuous – and never wince when reading the page again.

  4. HI JP

    I too am from India, what you have written about our (i don’t know if you permit to call it as “our”) country is true to every letter. But …but …. something is making me uncomfortable…… the truth is bitter… but …. :(

  5. I think that making things easy to repair is the flip side to the poka-yoke mistake proofing idea. In that one would aim to design out failure, for example by removing manual data entry. However this constrains creativity and can turn a job with variation into a simple widget-cranking activity.

    By making it easy to repair an error you give people permission to experiment, and to make mistakes. It’s an exciting concept. CMD+Z or Time Machine for example, or even PVR time shifting devices for fixing errors in the TV schedulue, are all ways of reducing the risk of experimentation.

Let me know what you think

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