Spill the wine

I have this cup here .. just a moment; I’ll take a photo:

plastic.cup 005

It’s an ordinary disposable plastic drinking cup. This style came out some 30 years ago, and hasn’t changed. An entire generation has known them. Trillions have been made, used once and thrown away. Ubiquitous, mass-produced, and unremarkable except for one detail: The design is really fu*ked.

‘Huh?’ Yes. ‘How?’ Let me explain. Fill this with any kind of drink, raise it to you lips, and drink. Some liquid will immediately spill out and down your front. Annoying, embarrassing, and the result of entrenched bad design.

It’s all in the rim, or more precisely the cavity under the rim. It is approx 3.45mm wide and 2mm deep (measuring upwards). I doubt you could design a more effective way of collecting liquid from inside you mouth and channeling it straight out again. Every day, half a billion people spill their drinks, but I guess that detail didn’t matter to the original designer(s), or those who continue to crank out these failures.

I know my structures. That curl-over rim was about creating some rigidity, but in so doing they sacrificed a core function of any cup. All to save a a few milligrams of plastic and/or the expense of re-building the injection moulds. This design never should have gone into production, but I imagine enough people didn’t give a shit on the day its principal flaw was discovered. “Users be damned. We wanna make money!” 

BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE. My intention with the following short list is to (hopefully) draw the attention of emerging designers to what I see as a kind of disease, or myopia, that besets the design world. And it’s not a new one, either.

ITEM #2 The Automatic Gear Shift – Imagine you came across a deserted alien vehicle parked in the woods. Curious you enter, and soon find the driver’s seat. There’s a hi-tech view-screen and lots of bizarre controls, but hmmm – they sort of make sense, especially that big lever at centre. You sit, ready for some fun, and push that sucker forwards. The vehicle slams backwards. Furtively you flee, muttering, “Those aliens are fuckwits.

Seriously, how could anyone design a control stick that you pull backwards when you want to go forwards? It is completely counter-intuitive. This one astonishes me every single day.


ITEM #3  The New Christchurch Railway Station. They build a new one in the 1980s. [My review is right HERE: Sorry, it’s a bit long-winded. I was like that in 1999.]

To cut to the chase: The architects designed it with a huge glass wall facing roughly northeast. All very sculptural deconstructionist. Looked great. And every morning for at least half the year, the morning sun beamed right into the building and directly into the eyes of the counter staff. They literally could not see who they were serving! That entire fuck-up was created by the designers, yet in 1973 I was sitting in classes and being taught to consider the seasonal solar cycle, penetration angles and consequences. Go figure.

ITEM #4 The Bosch Wall Oven. I was delighted when my wife agreed with to me to buy a Bosch oven. I regard Bosch as world’s best. If Bosch made cars, I’d be all – “Shut up and take my money!” So we got it home and it was installed under the gas hob, and it was all just fine and we put in a roast, then an alarm started bleating. Dafuk?

For a little while neither of us could figure it out, then we realised that a bunched up tea towel on the oven handle had been the trigger. I soon deduced the reason: the tea towel was partly blocking the hot air outlet and well d’uh: over-heated oven iz bad! We soon learned to be less slovenly.

But next morning, the alarm went off again! The oven was stone cold. It wasn’t even on! I was merely leaning against it. The alarm – designed to alert people to overheating due to lack of a cooling airflow – was completely un-linked to the temperature of the oven!

90% of the time it achieves nothing, and is just plain annoying. Worse than that, it made this Bosch fan 50% less impressed with Bosch. That’s a lot of PR damage. And the worst thing? I can’t disable it, or rewire it. Once again end-user be screwed.


ITEM #5 Blow Heater – At the other end of the technology spectrum is our blow heater. We’ve currently got two of these little buggers, and we’re about to buy a third. It would easily be the 11th or 12th one we’ve had in the last 20 years. They run, they have a cut-out that is linked to internal temperature (in yer face, Bosch!) and they fail within a few years.

One does not need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce where these are made: China. Much has been said about ‘Made in China’ so I won’t go over it all again. Just to note that in my experience: Well-made, reliable, long lasting products don’t get made there.

We bought two of ’em the first time out. One failed within two months. Back to The Warehouse ( – “where everyone gets a bargain!”). They replaced it without a murmur. The 2nd one failed soon after. This was getting suspicious! Taking up my trusty surgical implements I did a post-mortem … and found the nasty secret.

The circuit was simplicity itself. But lo – there was a noticeably fat resistor in the line. It was blown. I knew enough about circuits (Dux of my school in math& sciences), and this did not seem right. I’d never seen this in a heater or a toaster. After all – the heating coil is a resistor itself, with precisely known properties. I came to realise that they had obsolescence designed right into them. Manufactured to fail.

We keep buying them. They all fail. It is always the resistor. I open them up, snip out the fried resistor and solder the circuit back. After that it runs just fine for about 5 more winters until the coil gives out. I don’t mess with that. They go to landfill.

How many millions of these things have been made, sold, and gone to landfill far sooner than they need have? The sheer utterly cynical waste of our planet’s resources disgusts me. Seems as long as it looks good on the shelf at point-of-sale, that’s all that matters. I HATE that design attitude!

Speaking of design in regard to these heaters, Their ‘design’ keeps changing. Stylistically they change every few years. But on the day I do the inevitable surgery, it is quite apparent that nothing has changed inside. I could take the innards out of a 2016 heater and drop it neatly back inside a 1996 body. Same old same old; designed to fail.

[UPDATE: We acquired our new heater – the model at centre of my montage. And .. (wait for it) IT HAS A SCREAMINGLY OBVIOUS DESIGN FAULT!! Having moved the controls to the very top, they had to severely compromise the handle. It’s on the back, barely deep enough to get 4 fingertips into, and if you actually try – YOU CANNOT PICK UP THE HEATER. It swings from your fingertips and flips down onto the floor. Every. Time.]

To me, design is not tinkering with the outsides. It is not about looks. Sculpting the outside of an office building is not design unless everything on the inside is considered and challenged and improved on too. Example: without changing anything inside, you can sheath an entire building in ‘glass-curtain’. Then everyone bakes every winter as the sun belts in. The air-con strains to cope and the running costs go sky-high. It was a big problem when I was an architecture student. The world was only just waking up to it.

It is like putting new clothes on a fashion model who suffers constipation. No matter how many garments she wears, the duration of the applause or the number of awards the fashion designer is given; she is still sick inside. Nothing changes.

Design needs to go far deeper. Unfortunately, most people pursuing a career in design are pawns in the bigger game called ‘Capitalism’, and capitalism, like the fashion industry, is all about selling everyone ‘the new look’, be it heaters or cars or buildings, and screw the end-user. But forget all that; have some more wine (down your front)!

Here’s another commentary about design, by design expert Lena Groeger:


2 thoughts on “Spill the wine

  1. I enjoyed this article a lot. The point about built-in obsolescence rang particularly true, because we see it everywhere. I hate having to go out and buy a new fan-heater, or set of knives and forks, or whatever it might be simply because the only ones available are shoddily made. But down at the low-income end of the scale, that’s the only game in town.
    Anyway, thanks for saying what a lot of people are thinking.

    1. “But down at the low-income end of the scale, that’s the only game in town.”

      Yes – and the tragedy of that is: although the prices seem low at point of sale, the long-term consequence is that the ‘low end of town’ end up spending more money than the ‘high end of town’, forced to constantly replace all the cheap crap they keep buying.

      I’ve though about it a great deal as I gradually crept up the income scale. Buying the ‘cheapest’ item also means buying the smallest packet or bottle, and losing all advantage of economies-of-scale. By my crude calculations, even stepping up one pack size creates a saving ($ per unit of product) of some 40%
      My wife and I habitually buy the 3rd size up, usually 4x the smallest volume, and end up paying ~ half the $ per unit cost.

      As to the capitalist attitude of minimum inputs/max return and screw everyone/thing in between – well it’s destroying the planet.

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