For a while now, I’ve been occasionally asking [non-designer] friends what comes to mind when they hear the word “Design”. For the most part, the answers aren’t surprising and are things like: beautiful kitchen products, IKEA, interior design, fashion design (Uniqlo, Eileen Fisher etc), Melissa & Doug, Apple, Fab.com, Tesla…etc. These are all good responses.
But design is also the systems of everyday life, and how stuff works or doesn’t. I’m not talking here about products that may be poorly made ( though that can be part of the equation), I’m referring to systems of functionality: from little stuff to the large and global. These have a huge, but below-the-radar, effect on all of us; when these break down or are done poorly, it causes stress—-beginning as small irritations or frustrations which build on themselves to become larger stresses.
Today’s subject is quite a small one: soap dispensers in public restrooms, either in an establishment or standing alone. Recently, I was in a restroom at a large, well known organic chain food market, washing my hands…and observed, not for the first time, that soap dispensers are mostly wall mounted over the floor , ensuring that any excess soap, and the water dripping from the hands of the hand-washer, falls on the floor, making it slippery, difficult for the cleaning crew, and becoming a rich bacterial community. Who thought of this? Does the resultant slimy wet mess [on the floor] ever really get totally cleaned up? Contractors continue to install these types of dispensers in restroom after restroom, in high end establishments and not, unquestioningly adhering to the construction documents. (Of course, design of restrooms isn’t exactly the glamorous part of architecture, and if my own experience is still true, restroom design is a plug-and-play kind of task, relegated to the most junior intern. Essential as restrooms are, no one has ever heard the likes of Frank Gehry, or other renowned architects, discuss the design of them.)
One of the better solutions to the soap dispenser issue I have ever seen was in a Walmart restroom in Ames, IA. The counter containing the sinks was a length of molded composite material. The brilliance was where and how the—very ordinary—soap dispensers were mounted between each sink. The configuration allowed any excess soap and accompanying water to drip down the sloped counter into the sink. Genius for the users and the cleaners.
Note the placement of the soap dispenser. (Also note the higher and lower sinks, accommodating many sizes of users.)