dials, caps, and folded-up triangles

by The Design of Things

Sometimes the best design is so simple we never even notice it. The cap on the toothpaste – a slim threaded screw top. A piece of waxed cardboard folded up to become a carton for milk. A dial that turns.

Our Toyota Prius has a touch screen for all the interior controls, requiring the driver to take her eyes off the road to adjust anything. The screen is set high and is fully lit, so the white-green light is a constant glare against the black of a nighttime highway.

The Volkswagen has dials, lit quietly in red and blue circles, sitting low and within easy reach of the right hand. Everybody knows that dials mean yesterday. I don’t mean to stand in the way of progress, but the dial is a design that cooperates beautifully with the supercomputer that is the human brain. Fire up muscle memory and all you have to do is reach over, without looking, and turn up the heat or change the tunes.

The tube of toothpaste in our house right now has a “family style” top that attaches to the tube and clamps over the end. It is much bigger than a toothpaste cap. It never really closes, particularly after any toothpaste has been squeezed out and a little bit lingers on the end. It makes a mess of toothpaste where it sits, and it’s made from at least twice the plastic of a simple cap.

Many milk cartons now feature a round hole with a plastic cap on the side for pouring. When bakers want to be precise, they create a paper triangle from which to measure out flour. When you pour from a round hole you might pour more, or you might pour the same, but do you need the extra plastic? Apparently, if you have children (say the advertisers) you do.

All the extra plastic waste turns to tiny beads that are often ingested by marine life, like dolphins and whales. The constant light of screens not only takes our eyes off the road, but messes with our brains and our endocrine systems, hopping us up and dropping our levels of the cancer-fighting hormone melatonin.

Not to mention all that toothpaste lost to American sinks.

It’s enough to make you appreciate the beauty of a dial, a small threaded cap, and a folded up waxed paper triangle – still available, if you can find them, in a showroom or grocery store near you.