When Designers do not Understand what they are Communicating

Toto Hand Dryer used as a Trash Can
I usually write posts like this over at TDOET.com (The Design of Everyday Things), but this one I though to share it here as it requires a more in depth discussion.
My colleague brought this to my attention at the local hotel loo. This fairly handsome vertical hand dryer by ToTo was filled with discarded paper towers. A vertical hand dryer uses high speed air, directed downwards, to blow excess water off your hand after washing it.
We thought it was a fluke, but the few other times I visited the loo, I noticed it was either empty or filled up with paper towels. The silly thing is that the paper towel dispenser, with a trash bin at the bottom of it, sits just across the room from this dryer.
So why do people mistake this hand dryer for a trash bin?
While the design of this product is not bad, I suspect the designer did not truly understand what the design language was communicating when the product was created.
Let me elaborate:
1) The choice of color is similar to that of steel trash bins.
2) The semantics of the rectangle shape of the hand dryer and the narrow opening triggers a person’s familiarity of a trash bins. Therefore paper towers are probably discarded in it without much of a thought.
This product can be improved in a number of ways. Here are my suggestions. Firstly I anticipate that this product is not one that people are familiar with. Therefore there is an unique opportunity to create a distinct design language or identity for this product. Secondly we could break open the sides of this product and created a distinct “U” shaped channel that stretches from edge to edge. This way people would not read it as a container but an object with a clearly different function.
If you are interested in learning more, check out my post “Think of Creating a Language Rather than a Form” for another angle.

12 Comments
  • David

    October 1, 2009 at 1:31 am Reply

    Interesting, the first time I’ve seen one of these apart from the Dyson Airblade of course (is it the same concept?)
    It does look like a trash can but also about the towel dispenser when you take one of those and dry your hands, what’s your instinctive next action? For me it’s to move, I don’t want to stand in the same place to dry my hands. So maybe that’s another contributing factor as to why people put their towels in the hand dryer.

  • Steve Portigal

    October 1, 2009 at 1:51 am Reply

    Excellent. I just posted this picture http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveportigal/3968684997/ of a bin for used towels with a too-subtle visual cue and a lack of acknowledgement for natural actions. From the IDSA09 conference last week!

  • Kevin Garcia

    October 1, 2009 at 5:01 am Reply

    I wonder how would something as simple as a grille or a mesh on top of this serve as a cue that “no, objects don’t go in this opening” without the expense of a complete redesign.

  • Cameron

    October 1, 2009 at 7:40 am Reply

    Great stuff DT.
    The Dyson Airblade has the U-shaped channel and while the aesthetics communicate the function well, it’s kind of awkward ergonomically. I would prefer to sick my hands straight out and have them dried, but I guess I don’t know all the constraints.

  • DT

    October 2, 2009 at 5:39 pm Reply

    @david and @cameron: Spot on, this product is very similar to the Dyson Airblade, of which is the first time I’ve seen it. So thanks for the heads up. I do like that dual subtle curve that is used to communicate where you would slide your hands in and out.
    @steve: Thanks for stopping by and sharing that link! Now that’s what happens when designers come together, the problem spotting I mean, not the hygiene.
    @kevin: For this to work you can’t have a grill, you need to slide your hands in and out. Check our the Dyson Airblade for an idea.

  • karl

    October 2, 2009 at 5:55 pm Reply

    Thanks for re-directing me back here DT. As I said there are quite a few more well designed U-section style ones here in Japan. I was just thinking whether the lights could be more of an orange to indicate warmth, and also deter throwing paper in there – alah fire, in response to Kevin’s suggestion of a retro-fit.

    • DT

      October 2, 2009 at 5:58 pm Reply

      Hi Karl,
      Thanks for that heads up and for sure a different color will work, unless the interior designers / architects want it to blend into the environment more.

  • Kevin Garcia

    October 4, 2009 at 5:50 am Reply

    @DT – the fact that the unit is meant for you to stick your hand through is not communicated clearly – I think this may be a case where a very specific utility is used regionally, but not internationally, so while for the original designer it would have been an obvious design, for those not familiar with the unit, the obvious purpose of a stainless steel vertical unit with an opening on top near the paper-towel rack would be a trash can.
    This is where pictography would come into play, with an illustration of the operation of the machine clearly displayed. Either in the top or along the front (maybe that’s already the case?)
    I just looked at the dyson airblade. The open and curved design of it makes it obvious it’s not a container, and there is a pictograph along the top illustrating it’s use.
    So, in this case, i think that while the unit may be technically superior (I see airvents along the sides in addition to the front/back) – it’s simply not communicating it’s intended purpose clearly enough.

  • DT

    October 5, 2009 at 5:44 pm Reply

    @kevin, spot on and thanks for sharing.

  • shane

    October 6, 2009 at 8:28 pm Reply

    there’s also the rather interesting result that the designer is essentially asking the users to shove their freshly cleaned hands into what appears to be a public bin. So even the ones who don’t throw paper in it aren’t likely to want to use it for its intended purpose.

  • Kevin Garcia

    October 7, 2009 at 2:25 am Reply

    @shane – yeah, i look at that and my reaction is “Yeah, i’m not sticking my hands in there”.

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