Monday, December 10, 2007

Emergency Décor

Attractive things work better ...

"Not long ago, Home Depot began selling a $25 fire extinguisher that did not look like a fire extinguisher: white, smooth and resembling a countertop kitchen appliance, it is “attractive enough to keep within reach,” according to a sales circular. Earlier this year, the Industrial Designers Society of America came to a similar conclusion when it gave the HomeHero one of its top awards. As is typical, the organization’s judges praised both functional and aesthetic qualities of the object. The write-up for the International Design Excellence Award asserted that it is less cumbersome and easier to use than a traditional fire extinguisher. “Most importantly,” the statement concluded, its “fashion-conscious” looks mean that “homeowners won’t want to keep the HomeHero hidden out of view, ensuring it will be in reach when seconds matter.”

Industrial designers are forever pointing out they are not mere stylists; doing their job well means making better things, not better-looking things. So it’s attention-grabbing when IDEA judges call style the most important feature of a piece of home-safety equipment. Peter Arnell, founder of the marketing and design firm Arnell Group, which created the HomeHero, certainly doesn’t play down the style factor. Regular extinguishers have had the same look for a hundred years, he explains, and are “so damn obtrusive, ugly and not conducive to a pleasant experience of the rest of the aesthetic of your kitchen.” His firm’s own internal research, following the “informed intuition” that sparked the creation of the device, “found out that if people had fire extinguishers, they didn’t know where they were.”

So solving the ugliness problem with the extinguisher was a priority. In fact, it still is. At the moment, the firm is working on creating “skins” so that HomeHero owners can customize their extinguishers. “It’s such a good thing for people,” Arnell says. “Normally things in the design world are very pleasing aesthetically — but they tend not to, how can I say this, provide a bigger service to your life.”

The essential claim that underlies the praise for the HomeHero — aesthetics save lives — is indicative of a broader shift. Once viewed with suspicion as source of planned obsolescence, a product’s looks have gradually come to be seen as creating value, pleasure and even quality. (Donald A. Norman, a Northwestern University professor and author of “Emotional Design” and other books, has famously argued that “attractive things work better.”) More recently, Prasad Boradkar, who teaches design at Arizona State University and was a member of this year’s IDEA judging panel, says he has noticed more designers, from students to professionals, positioning style as a form of “sustainability” — that is, if something looks good, we’re less likely to throw it away. Under this theory, pure style not only dodges the critique that it causes a superfluous-consumption problem; it actually solves that problem. Of course, Boradkar adds, designers know that such claims won’t be taken seriously unless they are backed with substance. Still, this is the design argument that the HomeHero fits into: that good aesthetics can make a claim on virtue."    (Continued via New York Times, Rob Walker)    [Usability Resources]

Fire Extinguisher - Usability, User Interface Design

Fire Extinguisher

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