At the supermarket, it is possible to find salt, pepper, and other bottles of spices with a built-in grinder. I consider this design feature not only useful but also enriching (to the experience of cooking). An added value regarding the user experience. I really enjoyed the idea of smelling fresh crushed pepper while I’m cooking. Moreover, grinding certain spices as salt or pepper gives me a sensation of crafting. One of doing something special and gourmet.
The operation of these bottles is very intuitive just by looking at them—as we can observe in the picture. You take a bottle, remove the lid, and then—thanks to the visible affordances of the device—just rotate the grinder to get fresh crushed salt, pepper, or any other similar spice. Very easy indeed. We might talk then about a good design. The design communicates the way to operate it without stressing or loading the user cognitively.
Although the built-in grinder works well generally, there are some occasions where it doesn’t. For instance, from the picture here shown, the grinder of the peppercorn medley bottle doesn’t work efficiently. I assume the grinder’s teeth are not sharp enough to crush the peppercorns easily. It might sound extremist, but this exception has instilled a suspicious feeling on myself to consider this brand the next time I require to buy a bottle of peppercorn with a built-in grinder. It is not difficult to note that a steel-based grinder will do a better job. Of course, a bottle like that will probably be more expensive. That’s to me the biggest downside of design: better design is always more expensive.
The bottles of this brand offer an additional design feature. We can decide between having a coarse or fine grinding. To obtain the former we should pull the half of the grinder up, otherwise we will obtain the latter. Notwithstanding, I think this feature is not obvious to the user. In fact, I just discovered recently—which motivated me to write this post. From my perspective, the affordances from the upper half of the grinder indicate that we can rotate that part in order to make it work. The design doesn’t communicate no offer the affordances that indicate the possibility to pull nonetheless.
In relation to the latter, there is a key component for this design: the lid. As it is shown in the picture, the lid has the following text: “Adjustable Grinder. Pull For Coarse Grind. For Fine Grind Push Down.” Curiously, I hadn’t paid attention to the lid before my finding. I always associated the lid with keeping the content fresh. And because I take the bottles at the moment I’m cooking, I honestly hadn’t stopped to read the beveled text on the lid. Was I being neglectful? Or should the design clearly indicate what I can do with it? How evident to use a design should be in order to be considered “good”?
This situation might sound stupid or exaggerated, but it generates a basic and typical discussion regarding the relation of the design with its users. How obligated is the design to make user’s life easier? I paid more money for this bottle because of the built-in grinder and hence I’m expecting a higher quality in terms of both the content and the design. If I think in a better design for this case, does it mean that I get what I can afford? Is it my responsibility to read the lid then?
What is good design anyway? These bottles are an exemplar of how everyday objects may engage us to reflect about design, its quality, and user’s agency. In this regard, I would like to share the following thoughts:
- Design is about selling an idea. Design it’s about selling the mental effort to project a feasible and producible “solution” to a problem. Just imagine the complexity of transforming the human action of grinding objects into a semi-automatic mechanism. Regardless, conveying why to bring an idea into its material form is relevant. It is equivalent to impact on other people’s ability to imagine the future.
- The idea will be always constrained by reality. The factors associated to the materialization and production of an idea will constrain the design process and outcome. Materiality is one of these aspects closely related to these constrains. What is the most adequate type of plastic that will better resist and minimize the production costs? What about the policies regarding sustainability and the grocery market? How easy is to reuse the glue employed for the sticker on other products of the same corporation, not necessarily on plastic bottles?
- Design is not always about solutions nonetheless. There is a general perception that design is about fixing problems. However, a design object may generate a new problem or contribute to other existing problems that might be consider of a bigger relevance. For instance, we may associate the bottle with the built-in grinder with acquisitive power and hence to think about social inequity.
- Bad design is situated. Depending on the context and the outcome, we could evaluate a design either as good or bad. Users bring their own values, desires, literacy, and perspective at the moment of interacting or using any design object. Furthermore, all these, including other aspects such as emotions, intentions, and even the situation, may change the next time the user interacts with the same object. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to completely characterize the quality of goodness in relation to the users and the context of use. How bad is bad? When bad is no that bad? When good will become bad?
- Good design is time-dependent. When we sum the previous points we can notice that talking about a good or bad design will depend on whether we can perform our goals in a satisfactory way and the knowledge we have about how that design affects our environment/context/reality. The idea behind a design might still be valid, but these factors might contribute to qualify the design as bad, not convenient, or even expired. Notwithstanding, the latter allows designers to exploit one of the key aspects of design as human activity: the opportunity to improve.