Pissing in the Wind

Apathy suppression, viral lube, and oatmeal shrapnel

(Part 9 in my “Special Hell For Designers” series)


One of my favorite FAIL photos shows a sign above a hand dryer containing a message that aims to reduce user error. The helpful bathroom sign reads:

“Attention: This is not a urinal.”

The model of hand dryer pictured is a Dyson product. If you read Art of the Living Dead you might remember I praised the ambition of James Dyson’s dryer and questioned the haters who blindly criticize what they perceive to be the flawed “design” of the product. Today I once again find myself coming to the defense of Sir James.

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology concludes that the Dyson hand dryer launches far more viruses into the air than other forms of hand drying.

After reading the headline, it took great effort to care enough to actually read the article. I am sure you can relate. Instead of simply accepting the study’s findings blindly I forced myself to read the article. As it always does, my apathy suppression paid off. Here’s what I learned…

The research involved washing (their word, not mine) gloved hands with a virus solution and then drying them using:

a. Paper towels
b. An old-fashioned hand dryer
c. The Dyson Airblade

Then they measured how far the viral lotion was flung. That’s pretty much the whole study.

I don’t have a PhD, but even I had a pretty good hunch that the air pressure generated by a paper towel was about a million times less than the force of a product referred to as a jet air dryer. Turns out I was wrong. It’s only 1,300 times stronger. My mistake. I guess that’s why people go to graduate school.

Forget the fact that everyone who uses a hand dryer has just washed their hands. Let’s accept the premise that diseased people are just sticking their infected unwashed hands in jet dryers for fun. Who needs an official study to be convinced that an air cannon can launch viral lube farther than a napkin?

Let me sum up the astonishing results of this scientific study in terms that simpleminded people like you and me can understand:

If you piss in a hand dryer you are gonna get some on ya.

Spoiler alert: Sure enough, the jet dryer distributed the viral lotion significantly farther than even the most violent paper towel simulations.

Ready, aim, fire.

Another “finding” of the study was that 70% of the virus flung by the hand dryer was at the height of a small child’s face.

That sounds really scary until you stop and think about the height of the average hand dryer.

Wait for it…

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner. _Yes, they usually put them on the wall at about _the height of a small child’s face.

Would you be shocked to learn that the farther you get from the blower, the less piss you will get on yourself? Me neither.

The problem is that you can make a scientific study prove anything you want if you engineer the tests to prove your beliefs. Even Dyson uses a study to back their claim that “up to 88% of paper towels in the U.S. contain bacteria.” The result is watered-down messages that once airborne form a putrid mist that consumers are forced to inhale. Attention marketers: this is not a urinal.

If you go to all the trouble of conducting a formal study just to discredit modern technology, however, you would think the researchers would have the balls to make a recommendation that might save the disease-ridden public from infecting ourselves with our own filth. No, instead we get this:

“The results of this study suggest that in locations where hygiene and cross-infection considerations are paramount, such as healthcare settings and the food industry, the choice of hand-drying method should be considered carefully.”

Oatmeal. And this garbage gets published in serious scientific journals? No normal human has the patience to wade through a mind- numbing study like this. It takes a journalist, in this case Beth Mole, to sift through the academic jargon and pull out a Twitter-ready headline for Ars Technica. The oatmeal gets inflated into this:

Using a Dyson hand dryer is like setting off a viral bomb in a bathroom

The sexed-up story spreads across the internet like urine hitting a fan. I read about it on Daring Fireball from the notoriously pro-design John Gruber who in this case is an advocate for the low-tech paper option. (I guess I should disclose that given a choice, I also opt for the quiet option.)

Anyway, let’s compare the absurd perspectives represented in these two statements:

Academic: “The choice of hand-drying method should be considered carefully.”

vs.

Journalistic: “Using a Dyson is like setting off a viral bomb.”

On the one hand you have the dry, academic drivel that nobody with a pulse wants to read. On the other you have the click-bait of tabloid-speak. What has the world come to when scientific minds are incapable of generating compelling words? What does it mean when a journalist must resort to oatmeal inflation in order to capture eyeballs?

And who gets damaged by the oatmeal shrapnel? The person who dedicated his life and fortune to creating world-improving products, James Dyson.

This is how the zombie apocalypse starts. Not by a viral outbreak, but by apathy. We are passive participants in an armageddon of mindlessness. Instead of praising the humanitarian designer, we applaud academic non- accomplishments. Instead of encouraging innovative design, we re-tweet provocative headlines.

Meanwhile, the real heroes do the thankless work. James Dyson sums up his unsexy work like this,

“Our mission is simple. We solve the problems others seem to ignore.”

That echoes one of my favorite quotes from Jony Ive who said,

“We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. It’s tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care — just like the people who make them. But what we’ve shown is that people do care. It’s not just about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well made. We make and sell a very, very large number of (hopefully) beautiful, well-made things. Our success is a victory for purity, integrity — for giving a damn.”

Apathy suppression allows us to give a damn about the words we read, write, and re-tweet. And while I point the finger at dull scientific writing and silicone-implanted journalism, I can’t forget the fact that I am a co- conspirator in another realm of writing violations. As a designer I am often an extension of the words of marketers. Do I resist the lies and manipulative words of my marketing partners? No. I flow them into my designs, set them in a pretty font and pretend my human waste isn’t infecting humanity. That’s just another reason there’s a special hell for designers like me.

In other news, Dyson just launched a new product. It looks cool, but I can’t figure out which side I am supposed to pee in.


Thanks for reading, and thanks to Medium for giving me a place to publicly relieve myself. If some on my idea virus got on you, try clicking the heart button for inoculation. I try to infect as many people as possible with my weekly posts. You should follow me. Stay creative.

A Special Hell for Designers continues in part 10 where I tell you about Font Blocking, Invisible Words, and Flames of Shame.


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