Sometimes The Best Idea Is To Steal One

bottle of Method laundry detergentWhat do rolling luggage and Method laundry detergent have in common? Bear with me while I tell some stories, and I’ll explain.

The Mayans had wheeled toys, but not wheeled tools — I’m listening to a Financial Markets course by Robert Shiller from Yale. In one of the lectures, Professor Shiller talks about the Mayan culture. When the Spanish came to the New World in the 16th century they were impressed with the Mayan culture, for example, the buildings of the Mayans, and the Mayan calendar, which was more accurate than the calendar used in Europe at the time. But they noticed that the Mayans did not have any wheeled tools — no carts, no wagons, not even a potter’s wheel. Interestingly, the Mayans did know about wheels. Archeologists have found many wheeled pull toys, for example, animals made of fired clay that stand on a platform with four wheels, and a string around the neck. So the wheel existed, but not for a utilitarian purpose. here’s a picture of an early Mayan toy with wheels.

Picture of a mayan toy

The invention of rolling luggage — Professor Shiller goes on to talk about rolling luggage carts. Luggage itself has been around for a long while. First there were large “steamer” trunks that were used on ocean voyages, and then later on many variations of suitcases. Wheels have been around for a long time, yet like the Mayans, no one had thought to put wheels on luggage. The first time that someone married wheels and luggage was 1973! Robert Plath, a pilot, is often credited for creating wheeled luggage in 1988. Though he is the one who created the rolling luggage that we are all used to these days, Bernie Sadow was actually the first person to put wheels on luggage. Bernie’s rolling luggage is different from the carry-ons we use today, but he was the first (and he has a patent to prove it). And if you want to get picky, a man named Denton Chester Crowl In the early 1900’s invented a set of wheels that could be attached to luggage temporarily. Here’s a picture of one of Bernie’s  versions of  luggage with wheels.

Picture of Bernie Sadow's rolling luggage

Innovation is all around us — Professor Shiller’s point is that there are always new inventions in any field. Even when we think we are quite advanced, we can assume that there will be more innovation and inventions. I think the key is to be willing to steal ideas. In other words, look around at what works in one arena, and figure out how to apply that existing idea to the design of something new in your field.

Where the laundry detergent fits in — In a more recent example, Method One has recently come out with laundry detergent. I use liquid laundry detergent (Purex is the brand I’ve been using for at least 15 years or maybe more). The typical liquid laundry detergent bottle is large and clunky. You take off the lid, then pour detergent in the lid as a measuring device, pour the liquid from the lid onto your clothes, and then replace the lid. It kind of works, but you always end up with a sticky mess on the outside of the bottle, as the liquid drips down the side. Method One is different. They took the pump dispenser used in other products (think window cleaner or hand soap dispenser) and put it on a small, sleek bottle of laundry detergent. You just press down 3 or 4 times and out comes the correct amount of laundry detergent. Small, easy to handle, no mess.

What do you think? — Have you ever had a design problem that you were stuck on? Did you try looking around you to see if there was a design from another object that you could use to get unstuck?

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