I’ve been prompted to look at the common loo lately, mainly because of some client work. But loo’s have been front of mind recently because I’ve also been looking at public, private and intimate spaces for some other research and discovered that many people value the bathroom / toilet space as somehow sacred – it allows them time and to territorialize space. Many working people especially parents find that the loo is the only space in the house where they can have some sanctuary from other duties. Public loos in privatised spaces – e.g. airports, train stations, universities, corporate offices etc. are increasingly used as media spaces – "toilet media" – undermining that sense of sanctuary. The use here seems far more functional.
But the public loo has it’s own history – as a space of subversion, be this in the form of sexual activity or inscription / graffiti. Perhaps due to this public loos are increasingly subject to measures of control and territorialization. Payment being a key mechanism – filter out the loiterers. But new ‘sanitory’ tools and products are deployed to control ‘us’: how much loo paper we use; how much time we spend in the loo – design of flows of movement; how much water we use etc. This is often so that facilities managers can measure and predict cost per use and manage their resources effectively [which is fair enough as one estimate says we use around 83 million rolls a day around the world]. Promoting these developments often as improvements in ‘hygiene’ is just a convenient way of packaging control. Electronic sensors on hand driers, taps and even all-in-one sanitory solutions – those hole in the wall things which give you soap, then water, then hot air whilst you desperately try to gauge where each is coming from next – are popular in Yorkshire. The message is: we’re not trusted to wash our own hands, we need to be controlled and managed along with the resources we use. The cult of hygiene allows us to perceive this as a benefit and sell the odd product – ‘sanitary seat covers’ anyone?
A new product we’re working with attempts to control the amount of paper people use and manage hygiene factors. As part of the research I’ve just done around toilet paper I find a proliferation of interest around whether people scrunch or fold their paper [I fold]. But this isn’t just a fun question for student forums – it’s a fundamental design issue for new products. Dispensers of toilet paper have also had to deal with the problem of replenishing supplies before the paper runs out. I found an article which actually analysed the problem of placing two rolls side by side and found that they both ran out at the same time. This due to the fact that people generally take from the roll that has most paper on [and confirmed by our own dispenser at work which has two rolls and always runs out simultaneously].
I find it interesting that the recent use of ‘open loos’ in central London – due to the problem of people urinating in public late at night – ha s proved to be quite successful. But this is the only innovation in terms of the ‘experience’ of using a loo that I have seen in recent years. How could the experience of taking a shit / urinating be improved? Is it too taboo to take seriously?
"If you go to the
men’s washrooms at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam
you may notice there’s a fly in the urinals. So what do you think most
men do? That’s right, they aim at the fly when they urinate. They don’t
even think about it, and they don’t need to read a user’s manual; it’s
just an instinctive reaction. The interesting feature of these urinals
is that they’re deliberately designed to take advantage of this
inherent human male tendency."