It was late morning, I had slept in (truly an event worthy of celebration these days) and I was in the living room, taking a cherished break with bagel, TV, and my beloved iced coffee. I had sat myself squarely in my favorite chair and popped open the wrapper for the straw to my iced coffee and, low and behold, it was a bendy straw — joy!
I have no idea if anyone else on earth experiences joy at discovering a bendy straw in an otherwise non-bendy looking straw wrapper; frankly, I was surprised at the little burst of momentary happiness I found it elicited in me. And in that spirit, I stared at the straw in my hand, its little accordion elbow-macaroni bend and wondered who had come up with the bendy straw? Well, I found out, but first, let us take a break to examine the humble potato peeler.
A day or so ago in class we were talking about the OXO-brand potato peeler and its status as the unexpectedly revolutionary product that launched a multi-million dollar company. Even if you don’t immediately recognize the brand name, you probably have seen or used one of these potato peelers in your life, if you have indeed peeled anything in the kitchen.
The story behind this peeler is fairly humble: a retired cookware entrepreneur and his wife are on vacation, she has arthritis and has trouble with the potato peeler in the kitchen. Seeing her struggle, he has an “aha” moment, hires a design consultancy and voila – a luxury kitchen implement. Of course, the story in detail likely holds many more twists, turns, sketches, iterations and peeler-induced finger cuts, but for me the key point in this tale is the moment of curiosity—the one where he saw his wife struggling and thought—can I make this better? He designed for his wife, one rendered differently-abled by her arthritis, but millions of peeling people around the world, differently-abled or no, wanted the better experience he had created.
A professor mentioned the other day that we might, as designers and researchers, look at the extreme users of services when trying to learn more about the needs of a larger group. Those who are in extreme circumstances, for example, those who most desperately need healthcare, who will die without receiving it, tend to have to work hardest to get it, and therefore have likely been through more hoops and hurdles on the way to receiving it. The experiences of these individuals can provide great insight into what and how we might not only help them, but others trying to navigate such a system. In the same vein, the OXO peeler was created for a user with arthritis who had a hard time holding and using the thin, hard, not-sharp-enough dollar peelers of the day; she might be considered an extreme for that case and our purposes here. In solving a problem for her, an otherwise un-thought-of problem was solved for many. After all, it is not only those experiencing the extreme who made the luxe OXO potato peeler ubiquitous, but the many who, finding a path of less resistance and seeing value in it, brought it into their homes.
Keeping this in mind, let us return to our bendy straw, which is in fact called the “articulated straw” in more professional parlance. Looking into its history, I found it was invented by Joseph B. Friedman in the 1930s after watching his young daughter struggle to get high enough to drink her milkshake out of a straight, paper, paraffin-coated straw, the norm for the time. The straw itself had only achieved its paper status 50 years earlier in 1880 when a whiskey-drinking gentleman, tired of the taste of grass in his drink, decided the current straws of that period, constructed from grass reeds, were not sufficient drinking instruments. They both looked at the world before them and asked, at some moment, “can I make this better?”
Today, these are the advances of our past that we take for granted. The padded peeler and the plastic straw are neither the eradication of smallpox nor the advent of the telephone; we don’t think of the world in terms of pre and post bendy straw, but one morning when I was tired, this little plastic thing brought me a brief but potent moment of delight.
Perhaps part of finding joy in the articulated straw is the hyper-awareness I seem to have of everything I use these days; my routine has turned anti-routine and several times daily—whether by reading, professors, or classmates, I am reminded to step away from myself. I am to try, as best as anyone can, to leave my assumptions at the door as I go out to experience the world and listen to others. I open a straw and think, who made this wrapper, who had the idea for it to bend, who made the plastic lid of the cup into which, with moderate force, you jab your straw? I notice Starbucks has six cuts in their plastic lids as opposed to the cheaper variant that has only four – it is easier to both place and have your straw in the Starbucks one—is this more delight?
For many, moments of delight are expressed in the absence of friction—little joys we do not notice, but which happen daily. If you are in line at Starbucks with two small children and a dog, your thoughts are likely not focused on the ease with which you place your green straw in a plastic cup so much as your need to get to the coffee or tea within. For you, these smaller details fall appropriately into the background of your life. The metaphorical rock in your shoe has been removed and you are able to enjoy a smooth walk. If you do find a free moment however, you might be surprised, as I am, at the wonder and mild awe that a frictionless experience can bring. I believe we are all capable of tuning into this frequency if we choose; we can all feel the tiny moments of ease and friction in our lives and appreciate and wonder at them, or, perhaps ask ourselves, “Can I make this better?”
Curiosity has always been one of my favorite human qualities; I’m not sure there is anything I love more than a good question. A good question is so beautifully powerful; asking one resulted in a man empowering his wife to feel comfortable using an essential cooking implement, and it brought about the tiny, delightful, ubiquitous thing that is the articulated, plastic straw. These things may seem small, but they are now woven into the fabric of our lives. Until we act on these questions, they may not turn into anything, they do need care and persistent tending. However, like a seed, just because a question isn’t apparently big, does not mean it does not hold within it a great potential.
How very, very delightful.