*Wheels On Luggage

Luggage without wheels

A short-hand expression used in and around the studio to describe that one, usually small, unexpected and deceptively obvious designed feature that makes an artifact suddenly transformatively useful/helpful/up-graded. The kind of transformation that makes you look back and wonder how the heck you ever schlepped that awkward, sagging Samsonite with one arm across entire airports..cities..continents. Like..what took them so long to put wheels on luggage, anyway? I mean — I’m sure there’s a business case study on it ((if you know, please share with me..I’m curious..))



Above is just one example I came across and was prompted to mention briefly after Ian blogged about his feelings towards presentation software. This is a simple button to do the switch-a-roo between displays that is inevitably a big bump in getting set up to present from Keynote. Often enough, almost inevitably, your presentation notes screen gets piped to the audience display and you have to hunt about in display system settings to switch them. Always awkward to have people staring at your notes, or, worse — your desktop or email. Here’s a quick ejection button that toggles the displays right from within Keynote. No hunting for your System Settings, losing track of where the display mode modal dialog has gone, etc.

*Wheels on luggage.

More generally this idea of *wheels on luggage is useful to remind ourselves that things have not always been as they are — things have been different and they’ll be different again. It’s useful, to me at least, to think that we are in the Jurassic era for *something. Where are the exemplars around us that are waiting to have a set of four wheels put on to make things work a little bit better, a bit more humanely, or sanely? What is the relationship to all our “new” things today to what they will become sooner than we expect — E-waste? Something squirreled away in another bin of lost-and-forgotten things that we once thought we couldn’t live without? bits-and-bobs in a vintage shop display case?

Why do I blog this? I find it a very useful approach to design to imagine that I am making the past for some future, rather than the future itself. Artefacts that reflect ideas and inspiration but are things that someday will be quite ordinary, quotidian and unspectacular. Normalizing heroic ideas to the everyday yet exceptionally useful — such that they are impossible to imagine a world without. Like wheels on luggage.

4 thoughts on “*Wheels On Luggage”

  1. Julian, I’ve never heard this use for “wheels on luggage” but I like it very much. I heard William McDonough once joke that if mankind were so smart, it wouldn’t have taken us 5000 years to put wheels on luggage. That got me curious to trace the history of wheeled luggage, and I came up with this post: http://caddellinsightgroup.com/blog2/2006/12/a-very-brief-history-of-wheeled-luggage/

    I hope it aids your readers a little bit as to where those crazy cases came from.

    By the way, I see these four-wheeled cases in every airport I go to nowadays. People wheel them around like show dogs. I prefer the old two-wheeled variety.

    regards, John

    1. Hey, thanks John. Good story in there! I had heard tell that it was partially driven by cabin crews putting the thing together on their own. I have my own imaginary ideas about the innovation being blocked by the Porters lobby and Valet activist who feared people would handle their own luggage. Or a curmudgenly old board member at American Tourister or Samsonite poo-poo’ng the idea like a zealous audiophile insisting that these new “Compact Disks” are a fad, and a objectionable one at that.

  2. I talked with some friends about your example a while back. We figured wheels could have been put on luggage in Victorian times at the very latest—as soon as we had hard rubber for wheels and decent bearings, basically. So why weren’t they?

    I reckon it’s down to curb-cuts, those gently sloped bits of pavement designed to make wheelchairs easier to manage. Once those were ubiquitous, luggage could roll around on small, lightweight wheels, where previously you’d have needed big wheels like those on dollies, to get the luggage up and down curbs.

    Some disagreed, though. They felt the crucial factor was the disappearance of porters from train stations and the like—as soon as travellers had to lug their own luggage, they suddenly needed wheels to ease the load. I’m skeptical, because I figure porters disappeared long before wheeled luggage became popular, but fair enough—could be a factor.

    The take-away point, though, is that a lot of game-changing innovations, the things that make you wonder how people managed before them, are not stand-alone inventions—they depend on social change like vanishing porters, or environmental change, like the curb cuts. Those future-quotidian designs won’t be independent; they’ll be embedded in a whole system of related designs that create the conditions in which the design will seem obvious and necessary.

    1. I think you’re on the mark here Dominic. Certainly any innovation is already and could only ever be surrounded by the social practices that then make people wonder how they could’ve done without it. It’s never solely an instrumental thing — good “ideas” are normative, valued assessments. And it’s foolhardy to think that any idea could be absent its lifeblood of social and cultural meaning. That’s what ideas are.

      What I’ve found most useful about wheels on luggage is the idea as a resource for provoking and prodding and poking. Finding the ways to help people imagine the world different from it is today, even in small unexpected, below-the-radar sorts of ways. So the story, such as it is, about wheels appearing on luggage is meant to create a small crack in the fortress of doubt that usually surrounds something new, especially when that new thing seems preposterous. It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick — you can mention wheels on luggage and someone might think..huh..yeah, that’s weird. What *did take ’em so long? Or, to be more contemporary — who would’ve thought that 140 character communication would be the lifeblood of a democratic political uprising in a theocratic militarist Middle East state? That sort of thing. Although — I would like to make a little catalog of wheels-on-luggage things.

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