CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If you’ve ever had difficulty using a product or felt uncomfortable adapting to a piece of furniture or wearing certain clothing, it might not be your fault, but rather the result of poor design.
University of Illinois architecture professor Kathryn Anthony recently published a book, “Defined by Design,” in which she discusses the gender, age and body biases in product, building and fashion design. Anthony looks at both bad and good examples of design and suggests ways for consumers to demand better designs for products and places.
Her book came out of two seminars she teaches: Gender and Race in Contemporary Architecture, and Social and Behavioral Factors in Design. She asked her students to talk with people who are a different gender, age or body type than themselves about the design of products, places or clothing that are either advantageous or disadvantageous to them. Anthony began asking those questions a decade ago, researching designs that work well and that don’t.
One example of poor design she writes about in the book is the plastic clamshell packaging that comes with many products. The packaging is difficult to open, inducing “wrap rage.” Anthony writes that people often use knives, razor blades, box cutters or scissors to open it.
“What shocked me was the high number of injuries per year that can result from just trying to open a package. Some of these are very serious injuries, like amputated fingers and severed tendons,” she said.
Another topic she covers is taxicabs with bench seats and a glass partition between the front and back seats for safety. The design can make riding in the back seat uncomfortable for passengers, but Anthony was surprised to find it also caused serious health problems for cab drivers. The front seat could not be moved because of the glass partition, and many drivers complained of hip and back problems resulting from sitting all day on a seat that wasn’t properly adjusted for them.
Her book contains a broad look at many ill-designed or unsafe products that cause injuries.
“Our national agencies that keep statistics about injuries and accidents really should be looking at design, too, and keeping track of how faulty design leads to injuries and accidents,” Anthony said.
Anthony has studied gender inequities in access to public restrooms and has testified about the issue before Congress. She writes that issues with public restrooms include a lack of diaper-changing stations in men’s rooms and the lack of family friendly restrooms for single parents or same-sex parents with children of the opposite gender.
Anthony also looks at the design of homes, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, health care and public transportation, among others. In addition to problematic designs, Anthony also highlights examples of innovative design.
For example, a group at the U. of I. led by Anthony created a Universal Design Podium that adjusts to the height of the speaker, can accommodate people who use wheelchairs, has a place for a laptop computer so that it doesn’t block the view of the speaker, and has a power supply on both sides for left- and right-handed speakers.
She also writes about a smoke alarm developed in Japan that uses the scent of wasabi – a pungent, horseradish-like smell that causes the nose to run and eyes to water – to wake people who are hard of hearing or deaf if there is a fire.
In the book’s final chapter, Anthony issues a call to action to consumers to insist on safer, healthier designs that reduce or eliminate gender, age and body biases. They can vote with their pocketbooks by buying well-designed products, as well as lobbying manufacturers, government officials, school administrators and employers for better product design and healthier neighborhoods, schools and offices.
“I do focus on much of what is wrong and what is right in our world of design, and how gender, age and body biases in design disadvantage many of us in harmful ways. Being aware of these biases can make us all much smarter consumers of the clothes we wear, the products we buy, and the places we live and work,” she said. “As a citizen and consumer, you have a far greater ability to harness the hidden power of design in your everyday life than you might imagine.”