Wednesday, August 28, 2013

the remarkable dispen pak (or how I learned to stop worrying and re-invent the wheel)

This is a guest post from Gil Fewster, Technology head at Sputnik and co-founder of Lab116 our Behaviour, Technology and Experience division.

The post originally appeared at

Whenever somebody trots out that tired cliché about not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I think about that marvel of understated yet brilliant design, the Dispen Pak.

The Dispen Pak is a refinement of  disposable single-serve sauce packets. You may not know the name, but I guarantee you've used them countless times.

They are those twin-chambered packets of sauce or marmalade that let you squeeze just the right amount of condiment over your meal of choice using (and here's the miracle) just one hand to crack open the seal and dispense that tasty goodness.

Just one hand? Hell, all it really takes is two fingers.

The thing is, people who talk about wheel re-invention are implicitly talking about redundancy; they're inferring it's a wasteful expenditure of thought and energy to make a thing that has already been made.

They do this to champion the new, to falsely align innovation with novelty. But what of refinement?

Improvement? Assessing something with a critical eye, identifying its limitations or problems, and then fixing them?  Genuine newness is a rare thing. Perhaps the only thing rarer is perfection; an object, tool or process which cannot be improved.

The old sauce packs with their single chamber and foil lids you tear off were fine, but Dispen Pak adds two of key improvements.

  1. Functional convenience
    You can use it one-handed while you hold your meat pie in the other.

  2. Precision
    Squeeze a little, get a few dribbles of sauce. Squeeze a lot, get a big blob.

These are not trivial enhancements, they are answers to specific problems. One-handed operation may seem unimportant until you consider the context, namely that these packets are often used by people eating takeaway food on the go.

The functional requirements for dispensing sauce at the dinner table are considerably altered when one hand is busy holding your pie of choice and you're walking along a crowded footpath.

The Dispen pak is a design enhancement which can only be arrived at by thinking, really deeply, about not just the object's main function but the context in which that function is used.

It is an answer to a question so subtle that most people never thought to ask it, and yet now that the answer is in front of our eyes it seems impossible to imagine we didn't always squeeze out our sauce that way.

Never be afraid to look around, see what sits right in front of you, and challenge yourself to make it better. And beware of people who tell you they don't want to re-invent the wheel.

Most likely, they just lack the critical vision the see  how much better our wheels could be.

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