99% Details

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

John Edson:
“The details are not the details. They make the design.”

Roman Mars:
That’s John Edson.

John Edson:
That’s what he said.

Roman Mars:
Quoting legendary designer Charles Eames.

VOICEOVER:
Express, test, and cycle.

John Edson:
I’m John Edson. President of Lunar.

VOICEOVER:
Express, test, and cycle.

John Edson:
There’s a conception in the public, I think, that design is a lot about making things pretty. That’s shifting I think. There’s a big DIY movement and maker movement and people are getting a better sense of how things come to be. We’ve always known how buildings came to be because we’d watch them go up, but products just kind of appear on the store shelf. From somewhere. From China. Right? But I really love the process of design and love bringing things to life.

VOICEOVER:
Express, test, and cycle.

Roman Mars:
The story I want to tell, about the details that go into product making, is about a toothbrush. But there’s a bit of a conflict of interest or at least the perception of one, that requires a disclaimer. So I asked Matt Martin at KALW to help me out.

Matt Martin:
“What matters to me, Roman, is that you are completely open about the fact that John Edson is the president of Lunar. Lunar underwrites these segments, but at the same time, you’ve got complete editorial control over how 99% Invisible sounds. So what do you think you’re going to say?”

Roman Mars:
Oh, I’ll think of something. You know, what he said.

Roman Mars:
This is the story of a toothbrush.

VOICEOVER:
Express.

John Edson:
‘Expressng’ is getting a design out there in the world in a prototype form so that other people can look at it.

VOICEOVER:
Test

John Edson:
And you can test it. You can evaluate it. And then you can decide what you’re going to do next.

VOICEOVER:
And cycle.

John Edson:
And it really is a kind of forced evolutionary process.

Roman Mars:
So the toothbrush company came to Lunar with what John Edson calls a ‘make-pretty exercise.’

John Edson:
Make-pretty exercise.

Roman Mars:
That’s not really innovation.

John Edson:
Our instinct was to ask them, “Well, how do people hold toothbrushes?”

Roman Mars:
But the toothbrush company didn’t actually know this.

John Edson:
So we engaged a hand kinesiologist.

Roman Mars:
That’s somebody who knows how people hold stuff. It turns out there are five common toothbrush grips.

John Edson:
And in the meantime, our designers went out and bought every toothbrush under the sun. And we started to take the conventional flat toothbrush with bristles sticking up out of it and we used a heat gun and made a bunch of different prototypes. We just bent-
VOICEOVER:
Express.

John Edson:
-those standard brushes into different shapes to see fundamentally what was working and what was not working.

VOICEOVER:
Test.

John Edson:
Hundreds of sketches and dozens of prototypes.

VOICEOVER:
And Cycle.

John Edson:
One of the first things we found when we were molding our prototypes was that at the time the Reach toothbrush was probably best known as the most ergonomic toothbrush.

Roman Mars:
This was all perception.

John Edson:
It was only ergonomic in that it looked like a dental tool. And it was a dental tool that somebody else would use on you. The crook and the dental mirror. It’s so that somebody can stick it in your mouth and manipulate it so they can see around your teeth but the Reach toothbrush, if you use it yourself, you end up with your hand back at your ear.

Roman Mars:
So scrap the bend. Straight handle is better.

John Edson:
One of the things we found was that a fatter toothbrush handle is more comfortable.

Roman Mars:
So fat is better than thin. But at some point in the process, someone at the toothbrush company said-

John Edson:
“Wait a minute. We can’t ship a toothbrush that’s got a fat handle on it like that because it’s not going to fit into those 1950s style ceramic toothbrush holders that people have stuck to their walls.” Part of their houses, right?

Roman Mars:
But this turned out to be a good thing for the toothbrush mongers.

John Edson:
They got a ton of press about it. “Oh, here’s the toothbrush that doesn’t fit.”

Roman Mars:
And Lunar came up with a strategy.

John Edson:
And if anybody called to complain, we created this little nickel-plated stand and just sent out this $5 component.

Roman Mars:
Just like biological evolution. Sure, the organism adapts to the environment, but also the environment adapts to the organism.

John Edson:
And now if you buy a toothbrush holder, it’s going to have these gigantic holes in the top, right? So you can fit these new-fangled toothbrushes in them.

VOICEOVER:
Future-oriented.

Roman Mars:
In addition to the straight and fat handles, the new toothbrush also had criss-cross bristles.

John Edson:
Angled bristles.

Roman Mars:
That was brand new. The handle was strategically flattened in parts to help you orient it.

John Edson:
Your fingers know which way the bristles are pointing in your mouth.

Roman Mars:
And it accommodated all the five grips identified by the kinesiologist.

John Edson:
There’s the spoon grip, there’s the death grip. More women than men use the death grip.

Roman Mars:
When I asked John Edson which was his favorite innovation in the toothbrush, he named something that most people would consider a lack of design or innovation – just getting the toothbrush back to having a straight handle.

John Edson:
It’s not trying to do anything crazy through the neck. That’s the best shape, really. You know, those kind of “duh” innovations.

Roman Mars:
And that’s a big part of design. The thing you don’t think about or notice probably had the most thought put into it.

99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, The American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org

  1. Craig PI Lane

    Apologies. This comment is not specific to this episode. My comment only appears here because I’m trying to listen to this one, but haven’t been able to yet.

    Most likely you’ve heard similar issues from others, but I wanted to let you know that it’s practically impossible to navigate your site on an iphone. The site reloads every second or two. I’ve checked my cookies and privacy settings to see if there’s something on my side causing problems, but haven’t found anything.

    My work-around is to search through episodes on my desktop, then email myself a link that I open on my phone. When I open the link on my phone I have to quickly tap the download button before the reload begins (usually takes a couple of attempts). If I try to stream, the episode keeps jumping back to the start of the episode.

    Although it’s a pain in the butt, it’s worth it because your episodes are soooo worth it. Thank you for putting together these stories.

    Regards,
    Craig

    1. 99pi

      Should be fixed now – please let us know again (99percentinvisible.org/contact) if you see this issue again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist