Lessons From The Trash (-Can Design Competition)

Where are the most interesting trash cans in the world today? In Midtown (Manhattan), Flushing (Queens), and Parkchester (the Bronx). What makes them so interesting? The two styles represent the finalists in the New York City Better Bin Design Competition. How to make a trash can that solves all the problems a NYC trash needs to solve is a massive and messy problem with plenty of insights into how we solve our own big challenges.

First, do check out the request for proposal (RFP) which frames out the factors they asked designers to solve for. The “ideal” bin would help keep the city clean, inhibit rat access, be easily emptied by city workers, be cost effective, etc. Where certain details matter, the instructions are very specific (“opening shall be no higher than 40 inches, and the empty weight shall be no higher than 32 lbs.”). Beyond those details, creativity counts – this is a design competition after all.

Second, check out the two finalist designs that they are currently testing. Not revelatory to look at, but very impressive in how they function within the given parameters. Read the list of factors and consider how they’ve been included. This isn’t paint by number, this is a high-wire balancing act between form and function.

As we consider our own industries we want to consider how we are solving similar big questions. What factors are we defining? What’s our equivalent of “must inhibit rats?” What are our weight and size requirements? How does our structure proverbially provide drainage for a ton of rain if the bin is full of paper products? These represent tangible and intangible trade-offs we will have to make. No design can completely solve every problem, but the best solve for an impressively unique mix of them.

Whenever there’s not a perfect answer, there are usually a number of good enough answers, and often even a few really great ones. How we understand the real questions our customers need and want answers to should shape our products and services structurally. Our uniqueness is defined by the way we balance form and function. Take a tip from a simple, city trash can – design matters.

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