Some thoughts on north-american design

graphic design and home appliances

Whew, what a grand title this is! I´ve been writing this post in my mind for a long time now, basically since I arrived to Panama and had first-hand contact with american-designed home appliances.

As you might have read on the first issue of my e-zine, my first impression of home appliances was that they´re disproportionate large in size: in Argentina, my washer, a top-loading machine, had a capacity of 5.5kg, which was absolutely perfect for the two of us. I just had to make sure not to put too many towels to wash at the same time, because the effort would make the machine stop and not spin water out. Other than that, it worked just fine, with extra points for low energy consumption.

Here in Panama most of the household appliances we had back in Argentina do not work or will need an adaptor, as electrical current is 110 here, versus the 220 in Argentina (and Europe as well).

So we sold or gave away most of the appliances and now are faced with a totally different reality: big flats, enormous appliances and the close contact of north-american industrial and graphic design.

Apart from the size, one thing that really stands out is the fact that efficiency is not a concern here. Some appliances – the ones prepared to be sold in Canada, apparently – have energy comparison charts displayed; but most do not. Small appliances, as a blender, for instance, have no such thing as energy efficiency information (to be fair, I think that these appliaces are exempt from those charts in Europe too).

Let´s talk about small appliances now: bread-making machine, blender and the likes. They´re mostly large and volumous for their useful area (bread mould or blender jar, for instance). They´re incredibly heavy. The blender? It smells like burnt plastic after 4 seconds of being in use. The toaster gets alarmingly hot on the outside too, risking a burn to the uncautious half-asleep person who operates it in the morning.

Really? A toaster that burns on the outside? Sad, but true.

The large appliances, such as washer, or dryer (why, why, why isn´t the dryer on the same actual machine as the washer? Why do I need the bulk of two gigantic appliances? And why do I need something that takes about 10kg of clothes?) are absolutely not efficient in design or consumption. The large capacity on the top-loading washer means that I almost need to dive into it to rescue those socks that got to the bottom of the pile while washing. And the dryer… why on earth is the dryer a front loading thingie? I have to kneel to save those socks that get in the bottom! Being from the same family as the washer, couldn´t they at least be front or top loading – both of them?

Do not get me started on the fridge, that is as large as my first wardrobe and, in the end, doesn´t fit that much inside.

Finally, to the graphic design part of all of this: it appears that everyone must speak english to operate these machines because not only they have no pictograms whatsoever (for wool or synthetic fibre, or wash-cycle, for instance), they have lots of text. Lots and lots of text. Even the dishwasher, a model very, very similar to the one we had in Argentina, has text here above its little LED illuminated buttons, instead of the pictograms we found back there.

I think there is an explanation to this design-culture-shock: in Europe (and Asia, from my experience), there are many, many limitations for designers when working on both industrial and graphic aspects. Some of them are:

– space and weight constraints: fuel is very expensive in Europe and therefore the cost of transportation must be as little as possible. Housing is expensive too. This means that appliances are as small and light as they can be for their function, so they need to be designed very smartly.

– a market with many languages: this means that all the information conveyed must be expressed in an easy to understand way. Appliances are small, anyway, so there´s no point in describing so profusely all those instructions and danger alerts. Pictograms are used and text is only used when absolutely necessary. You´ll see a danger alert have the word “danger” in more than one language, but other than that, information is given through pictograms.

In face of all this, I can only say – and I know how biased I am by being portuguese – european design is a lot more developed and smarter than north-american one. I know that this is a huge generalization and mean absolutely no offense to anyone who does not share the same view, but I have yet to come to find evidence that convinces me otherwise.

Constraints and limitations are the two main things that drive designers to push farther and work better.

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  1. Jesse says:

    Really interesting! Another thing I look for in appliances (actually, it's the first thing I look at) is how easy they will be to clean. I'm amazed at the strange ridges and grooves and hollows some of them have.

  2. Billy says:

    Very good point you made, Jesse. And guess what, no round edges around this parts, lots of grooves and ridges and design accidents that make cleaning a lot more complicated.

    Though the bread that comes out of the machine? Yum. 🙂

  3. Ms. M says:

    Interesting perspective. I just moved to Beirut where most of us new teachers in my building have European washers (I managed to get an American one) and all of them have called me asking if I know how to use it as they can't understand the pictograms and being used none of the machines have instruction manuals. If you are only marketing your product to an English speaking market, no reason NOT to use text, I guess. But can you explain this: Why do Italian (European?) washers take 2 hours for one cycle?? The American ones are super fast!

  4. Billy says:

    Hi Ms. M and thanks for commenting. It´s great to have the perspective of the opposite experience.

    You are so right about the amount of time washers take! I don´t know why, but I´ll speculate: being more economical, I think that european washers need to soak clothes longer to wash them well. The first time I saw how little time it took me here to wash clothes I couldn´t believe my eyes. Still, I´m not sure if clothes are cleaner.

    As for the pictograms: most clothes sold in Europe have their corresponding care instructions in pictograms as well, so it´s quite easy to match them to those on the machine.

    Also, as machines take smaller loads, clothes can be separated by colour or by fabric, whose pictograms are usually what differentiate washing-programmes.

    Do you have any cultural-design-shocks with smaller appliances?

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