Frustration by design

The designers of everyday things long ago abandoned their implicit mandate to make things better for the people who use them.

The last thing that was designed with its users’ comfort and convenience as a primary driving principle was probably the humble u-bend, an essential part of toilets since the 18th century.

The u-bend just sits there unobtrusively performing its duties, largely maintenance-free,  and with an indefinite lifespan though fair to say most u-bends could outlive their users’ grandchildren by a good margin.

It seals, protects, prevents, dismisses — it just works, and it works so well that most of us don’t give our u-bends a second thought.

But since the u-bend’s invention, the design of everyday things has undergone an inevitable slide — you could say an inevitable downward swirl — toward self-serving profiteering, where ease or economy of manufacture outweighs the interests of everyday users at every turn. And you don’t need to stray too far from u-bends for a good example.

Toilet roll holders should, by now, be honed to the point of perfection. But no, they are one of many daily sources of modern frustration — the world over, they are failing to perform the simple task of supporting toilet rolls.

Not because it’s hard to design a perfect toilet roll holder. But because the holders are designed in at least nine pieces — nine pieces — so that those pieces can be shared among other similarly frustrating devices and the manufacturer can gain in diversity of application. Meanwhile the homeowner has two pieces of metal attached to the wall with two bolts, two end covers attached with two screws requiring 20-15 vision to locate, and a spring-loaded holder for the actual toilet roll.

Any piece of this complex contraption could fail at any moment, probably will, and no doubt has already in the past.

The hapless user eventually gives up trying to cajole those minute screws into retaining the side bits that prevent the center part from releasing the roll to the floor whenever it’s accessed. The holder, though useless, stays on the wall as a twice or thrice daily reminder of its poor design, while the roll is left awkwardly perched on the vanity where, naturally, sooner or later it, too, will be rendered useless by the absorption of splashed water from the sink.

We put up with it. After all, it’s just the toilet roll — we’ll get it fixed one day. And that would be OK if it was only the toilet roll holder. But it’s not, is it. The tyranny of manufacturer-biased design spreads throughout our lives.

The closet door won’t close properly. The fridge isn’t cold enough. The window won’t close — it used to. And the blind string has broken. The vacuum cleaner never made that noise before. Didn’t we replace that garage door opener only a couple of years ago? I know the chrome piece on the car door handle isn’t necessary, but it’s fallen off and it won’t clip back on again.

And really, why must the entire wall come out because the shower mixer stopped working?

Things weren’t always like this. Until around the invention of the u-bend, things were designed entirely with the user in mind. Stoutly made, reliably operational. That’s why a lot of that kind of stuff — even though classified as ‘antique’ — still works. It might not look like it’s made of gold, and it may be bigger and less attractive than it could be. It’s not made entirely by machines, and it doesn’t share many parts with other things — except maybe for nuts and bolts that you can clearly see holding it together.

Grandma’s porcelain toilet-roll holder is pretty damned ugly, you might say.

But it works.

And in its long life much antique stuff has been the cause of less frustration to its users than sleek-looking, manufacturer-friendly, mass-produced 21st-century replacements already have.

The u-bend still works because its modern-day manufacturers haven’t yet found a way to profit from screwing it up for us. Consider that and give thanks next time you flush.