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An ode to the ordinary

Ordinary parts of a set of headphones providing extraordinary experienceWith the average person spending approximately 2208 hours on the toilet in their lifetime, the ‘water closet’, while ordinary, is inarguably one of the most vital inventions in human history. But let’s be honest, its flush valve does very little to inspire poetry. On the other hand, urban dwellers the world over sure do need that flush valve to work.

The toilet – and a myriad million other things – are all exquisite examples of the mundane in motion. Whether it be a power line or the inner workings of your smartphone, an abundance of little unexceptional parts are operating interdependently to forge something rather exceptional at the end of the day. The pieces in themselves may not be all that pretty, but the product of their synchronicity can be something magical.

Sometimes our jobs as engineers and designers are not all that sexy. We work in the dark, behind the spotlights, ensuring the mechanics run smoothly. But, is that the sole and main purpose of our jobs, to only make sure that everything works?

Should we, as engineers, simply seek to design things and spaces that are functional, efficient, safe, and utilitarian, and risk having a world of the ordinary? Or should we take the chance to go beyond the math and sciences of our solutions and start to create memorability and experience?

In today’s fast-paced world, full of creative, shiny new technology there seems to be little or no room for the mundane. Nobody wants a world of the ‘ordinary’ but, as these unremarkable and seemingly unnoticeable things help run our world 24/7, the fact remains that we need them. So, the question begs: How do we make the ordinary extraordinary?

Judging a book by its cover

First impressions matter. Ask artists who design book covers, manufacturers specialising in product packaging, or architects and engineers who design building facades for a living. These are professions and businesses hinged on the idea that first impressions are important ‒ and it’s true. The way we package our products and services is one of the biggest factors that drive businesses and connect us with our customers. They all matter. But it’s how the product or the inside of a building lives up to expectations that ultimately determines its legacy. Design and performance should go hand in hand, not one without the other .

That’s essentially what Frank Lloyd Wright was saying in his iconic axiom “form and function are one.” His mentor, Louis Sullivan, believed form should follow function ‒ that a building should take on the shape of the purpose it plans to serve. But Wright voted for a more organic relationship between the two, where physical space is the genesis of inner purpose. Experience blends seamlessly with design; the highest achievement is integration and continuity, where all the bits grow as one interconnected, living design.

The way a building functions should give justice to how it is designed, and vice versa . The job of an engineer, designer or architect is to strike that perfect balance between performance and presentation, allowing infrastructure to be more than just bricks, but a place that tells and preserves memories and stories. If a product looks good, but it doesn’t do good, chances are consumers will turn a blind eye.

Every bit counts: the advantage of being ordinary

There’s no such thing as a ‘little thing’ if it’s optimally serving a greater purpose. Particularly in today’s design world where ‘slick and streamlined’ rule, every bit counts. From the tiniest tweak in your software programming to the choice of PVC piping, every small design decision is crucial to the overall design and has the capacity to make a difference , good or bad.

Because it’s just a little thing, we often shrug it off, thinking that it’s not going to have an effect. Or so we thought. What we fail to realise is that the greatest superpower of these little ordinary things is the opportunity for the unexpected . When the majority fail to pay attention and identify the possibilities, others will seize the chance to innovate and surprise. And no one sees it coming – take it from Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, and Snapchat.

“Most of the world thinks that the fantastic innovations coming out of Silicon Valley are just short of magic. But if you look at them from the right point of view, they start out looking ordinary,” says Disrupt or Die author Jedidiah Yueh. “I’m not saying anyone can do it. It takes brains, guts and determination to succeed. But it is far more accessible than people think. It just depends on your point of view.”

Tend to the soundtrack

The boring can be brilliant if the big picture is celebrated. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” was how a NASA janitor framed his job during the great space race of 1962. Because his work was clearly contextualised within a greater mission, he knew he was helping to write history in some way, big or small.

It’s crucial that our messages are meaningful and well-articulated so our people see their contributions’ worth. What we believe and say about the work we do inevitably becomes the soundtracks that write the rhythms of our organisations.

Design and engineering is a constant case of trailblazing that requires not only our former stories be told; it demands our pens be poised to write some new ones. “People appreciate that they live in a warm building or have bridges to cross,” says author and structural engineer Roma Agrawal, “but they don’t appreciate how they came to be there. You can live in a city that works really well, and a country that works really well, but you only hear about engineering when it goes wrong. ‘Engineering works’ are the reason trains are delayed.” This is why she thinks our stories need to be told and celebrated.

The toilet’s mundane appearance belies its extraordinary impact on humanity. Though early toilet systems were used by several ancient civilizations, including the Romans, the flush toilet did not become mainstream until the 19th century through Alexander Cummings’ S-shaped pipe design that ensured water could be permanently retained and prevented sewer gas (and consequently foul odours) from entering buildings. The toilet, along with proper sewerage systems, is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives from disease outbreak, including cholera.

If Dr Percy Spencer had not stopped to question the melted candy bar in his pocket when exposed to his tested magnetron device, the microwave would not have been invented. Had builders of the Ming Dynasty not infused their mortar with sticky rice, the Great Wall of China may not have been still standing, intact and weed-free, today.

So, let’s not despise the small things. They are in fact the bedrock of our built worlds. Let’s not only take time to salute these little engineered unsung heroes (and the engineers who tend to them). Let’s see the immeasurable value in seeking out the ugly and unsexy. Innovation doesn’t have to be an overhaul but an incremental change one day, one flush valve, at a time.

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2 replies »

  1. Great Cecilia! Finding the beauty in the ordinary teaches us to see with new eyes, and that IS creativity. (….not specifically speaking about toilets though….)

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