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The Electrical Outlet and Musings on the Design of Things

Hacakday posted a piece recently about the creation of the electrical outlet and how it came to the form factor that we know today. What’s most interesting about this piece is how the mixture of market forces and arbitrary aesthetic opinions come to shape an object that, today, we take for granted. More than that, it got me thinking about how infrequently we ask ourselves why a thing is designed the way it is, and question whether or not that design is still relevant.

For instance, here’s an excerpt that explains why the pins on a plug are flat:

The device worked well, but the manufacturer and businessman in Harvey saw problems. Foremost was the costs behind those round pins, which would have required machining to achieve the tip and detent. Harvey would have known that parts stamped from sheet metal would be cheaper and easier to manufacture, and so he scrapped the round pins in favor of flat metal blades in 1904.

What struck me as interesting about this is that designed objects like the outlet have the ability to subsequently influence the design of other objects. Seemingly small decisions about the design of things have the ability to influence how others design with, or on top of those things in ways that the original creator could never anticipate. An inability to generate round pins (a lot less difficult now than at the turn of the 20th century) has lasting implications.

Also interesting:

For reasons unknown, though, Hubbell altered his design in 1912. The two blades were no longer in a line; each blade was twisted 90° to form the familiar parallel arrangement we see to this day.

In other words, perhaps sometimes there is no divine inspiration behind the design of a thing, and that decisions are made arbitrarily (or seemingly so). These decisions can still have a lasting impact, however, as numerous forum posts on how to rotate an outlet 90 degrees suggests.

Human designed objects are often made to solve an immediate problem, but with little ability to predict the impact or implications of the decisions we’re making on the future. We do the best we can now, taking into account our knowledge of market forces and aesthetics, but there’s no telling how a future generation might look back on these limitations as quaint and arbitrary. And yet, it’s more important than ever to understand why these decisions were made so that we can go back and re-evaluate their validity, and assess whether they’re still necessary, or no longer relevant.

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