Response Crafting

What is good design? Fork vs. Garlic Press

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Why a fork is a better design than a garlic press:

Once upon a time, I interviewed with a very good local design firm. I was meeting with one of the directors, and he asked me: “what’s your favorite kitchen utensil?”

“Probably a fork.” I said.

He stared at me, unimpressed. “Well.” He tried again, “How about more of a… gadget?”

So I told him “my blender,” adding as explanation: “because I use it almost every day.”

“Okay…” He said. “Is it… a cool blender?”

“No,” I said. “Just a standard one.” (And if that does the job (it does), then why would I need more?) 

He nodded slowly; almost sadly. Though the interview had only begun and would go on for another hour, it was apparent that I had already “failed” in his mind.

The “problem,” I knew, was that he wanted my answer to be far more cool – like a coffee pot that also functioned as a dishwasher and could tell me next month’s weather forecast – in Dutch. In other words, something “interesting” or “unusual.”

Still desperate for me to offer a “better” answer, he suggested, “okay, how about a garlic press?”

And then it was me who stared at him.

Because frankly, “garlic press” is quite possibly the worst answer.

The garlic press is one of worst kitchen utensils, a realization that dawns on anyone who has ever a.) used one or b.) endeavored in serious cooking.

Here is the thing:

The garlic press does not actually do its job.

And if it does, it certainly does not do it quite as well as we envision.

Many the most novice user, trying the garlic press for the first time, will watch in dismay as the garlic just becomes mashed into the utensil rather than chopped and deposited on the other side, as we want to imagine. (I personally bought a garlic press and used it a whole two times before I grew frustrated of having to wipe all the garlic mush off – and out of – the utensil.)

Chefs and cooking aficionados don’t use garlic presses at all. In fact, it is somewhat abhorred within the culinary world for a number of viable reasons: the press taints the garlic in much the same way silver spoons taint caviar. It is also a “one trick pony,” taking up more space than its limited utility warrants. And some of the garlic – the part too small to be pressed entirely through – is inadvertently wasted.

If you check out “garlic press” on Wikipedia, you will see that chef Anthony Bourdain calls them “abominations” and British cookery writer Elizabeth David once wrote an essay titled “Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless.”

(Interestingly, the utensil most beloved by many chefs? Their knives. Which, in addition to innumerable other uses, enable them to prep garlic far more efficiently than they could with a press… Fancy that! That we could possibly ever love something so stupidly “simple.”)

So if most people detest using garlic presses, the design is fundamentally not good… instead validated only by the imagination of a.) its inventor(s) and b.) the consumers who are seduced into buying them.

It is not at all warranted by reality.

And yet here I come across a designer who suggests to me that the garlic press is somehow a “better” answer to his question of favorite utensil – one more “deserving” of my adoration – than the fork.

And I think that this is the wrong approach to design. That the merit of “good” design and our esteem of it is largely based not on how “unusual” it is, but how well it functions in our life.

Good design is not about being “cool.”

It is about improving the quality of our lives.

Beloved products are those that help us do something. And when we are talking kitchen utensils, those that actually help us get by in our day to day lives and accomplish our everyday needs are obviously far more influential on our happiness. We cherish things that work for us. And a fork is a great example.

A fork always does its job.

You will never hear people complaining about a fork. It gets food into our mouths – e.g., it works – and it does it efficiently, without ruining or wasting the food in the process. It is intuitive – it doesn’t make us think. Even the most “uncouth” user, holding the fork all wrong, can effectively muddle through.

This, to me, is the mark of a great product – one deserving of our adoration.

(For a deeper testament to its appeal, consider this: the fork became ubiquitous despite being considered “vulgar” in the 11th Century.)

Consider your “favorite” of anything – pair of shoes; website; shirt; show. Cost aside, is it not the one you wear, visit or watch most? (If not, you may have a skewed sense of priorities.)

We love the things we use most. And we use the things we love most.

To suggest that anyone should (or would) feel otherwise is a bit unrealistic.

And this is really not so much an exercise in trash-talking a designer – or design in general – so much as it is an illustration of the troubling disconnect between what designers think is “good” and what users actually favor. Designers think nuclear mousetrap. Users prefer a baited empty bucket. This is, in fact, one of the primary reasons I am drawn to design and product – and building beautiful solutions that elegantly, painlessly solve problems and make us happier – happy to the point that we promote them to ubiquity, making them “real” rather than shelving them somewhere.

I think there is so much to be said for the elegance of simplicity; the quiet and subtle sheer joy that a user experiences – but may never vocalize – when something works just exactly as he wanted it to and, in doing so, resolves a want or need. And I think there is great work to be done in building solutions that strive to quietly create long-term satisfaction (that is, under-promise and over-deliver) rather than disappoint us with the opposite.

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2 thoughts on “What is good design? Fork vs. Garlic Press

  1. Pingback: When something “great” isn’t good | Response Crafting

  2. Pingback: The Cathedral + The Bazaar | Response Crafting

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