If LEGO Designed The World
In large-scale designs, design failures are self-evident. When the Silver Bridge collapsed in 1967, over forty people died because one eyebeam failed. The space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing its seven passengers, because certain components were unable to withstand the cold temperatures on the day of the launch. However, poor design is a part of our lives in more than just major accidents. An example of this is outlined in the popular movie Fight Club. The main character describes his job as a recall coordinator where he decides mathematically if it is financially more profitable for a company to recall cars that are failing or to simply pay for the legal consequences on a case-by-case basis. We understand that products in our life work this way and accept the risks of them being out on the market. When it comes to simpler products, we may not think about the design that went into making them a reality. However, even something like plastic grocery bags breaking under the weight of two cartons of milk is a type of design failure. We just don’t think of it as such.
Design is all around us. A classic example of this is IKEA. The store’s schema is a cleverly researched, well-planned means of convincing the shopper to buy items. The store has a long and potentially confusing layout that causes shoppers to feel overwhelmed by items, making them more likely to pick up things they were not originally planning on buying. The restaurant and daycare are all convenient ways to give adults the energy and means to keep shopping. Despite the classic complaint that people do not want to assemble the furniture themselves, customers are drawn back to the store. Another everyday use of design is traffic light timing. Lights are carefully timed based on data collected for the area. While they may not always be perfect, they are a necessary tool to enable travel. It has even been shown that adhering to certain timing standards can help prevent accidents and traffic-light based driving violations (Retting et al). Every procedure and product from spacecraft to the pens on our desks has gone through the design process.
For any product or process to be rolled out to the public, it must go through an iterative design process in which it is tested and improved upon until a satisfactory solution is reached. A common version of this is the Stanford design thinking process, which has five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The first step is considered a crucial means of achieving a successful product. Ultimately, products are for people. It is only by understanding people that companies can hope to create desirable and useful products. As this is by definition a process, the idea is to repeat the steps until a successful product is achieved. Versions of this process are used in the designs of all sorts of products to ensure their quality for the public. We may not always notice good designs, but we definitely remember bad ones, and designers strive to prevent their ideas from becoming part of the infamous latter group.
A product that has an unexpectedly rigorous design process is a LEGO block. LEGOs may be toys, but they have very specific qualities. They have to bond strongly enough to hold creations together, but break apart easily enough that a child can do it. Additionally, they have to be able to do this over and over again in order to be useful to their target audience. The margin of error to achieve this kind of ability is incredibly small; the machines that create LEGOs have a tolerance of 0.002 millimeters. Even the material itself is strong. Tests have shown that LEGOs can be put together and taken apart over 37,000 times before they break down from wear. A single 2x2 block can withstand weight up to 950 pounds, which is the same as stacking 375,000 blocks. LEGOs are incredibly overqualified for their purpose, but they remain a classic toy and an example of high quality design.
In one way or another, many people work with design in their careers. It could be a product, a process, or even just a means of considering empathy and options when making decisions. We have all seen the consequences of bad design in both big and small ways. Whether it is a leaky pen or a faulty screw holding together something far more important, bad designs do not help us. Therefore, when designing, it is beneficial to think a little more like LEGO. It may be a basic product with a minor purpose, but it is designed as if it has a much greater one. Maybe that is part of the reason is has endured for over eighty years. Regardless, we should all strive to design with the care and precision of LEGO.
Retting, Richard A, and Michael A Greene. “Influence of Traffic Signal Timing on Red-Light Running and Potential .” Transportation Research Record, vol. 1595, no. 1, 1 Jan. 1997, pp. 1–7., journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3141/1595-01#articleCitationDownloadContainer.