Design of Everyday Things: Fan/Light Fixture Pull Chords

In my last post, I talked about how I’ve become extremely conscious about the usability and “friendliness” of my software applications.  But I’ve also become more aware of the everyday objects I see and use, as well, especially after reading Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.

In his preface to the 2002 edition of the text, Norman states that his goal, if nothing else, is to “show [the reader] how to take delight in good designs and to take umbrage at mediocre, thoughtless, inappropriate ones” (xv). And throughout the book, he stresses the importance of adhering to the basic design principles of “visibility, appropriate clues, and feedback of one’s actions” (9).

I happened upon an interesting example of this not too long ago. A friend of mine is remodeling his house, and while he was giving me a quick tour, I happen to notice the pull cords on his fan/light fixture. I started freaking out and immediately told him I needed a picture of it.

Fan/Light Fixture Pull Chords with Images of a Fan and Light Bulb

I have no doubt that pull chords similar to this have been around for a while, but I haven’t seen them before (or if I did, I wasn’t paying attention).  I thought this was just brilliant–and no doubt frightened my friend with my enthusiasm. But the more I thought about it… the more I started to wonder whether this was truly a “good” design.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman explains the idea of affordances, which “refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possible be used” (9).  In other words, something that is designed well should be easy and obvious to use. For example, flat panels are for pushing, wheels are for turning, handles are for grabbing or pulling, and buttons are for pushing. Users expect certain things when they see these objects.

When objects employ affordances well, they don’t require instructions or pictures. Users just know what to do with them.

While the pictures on the fan/light fixture chords are indeed helpful, is the design obvious if it needs the pictures? I suppose they might be useful during the day–but the images wouldn’t be discernable in dim lighting, when people need to turn on the light.

Most fixtures try to mitigate the confusion of multiple chords by placing the chords in different locations on the fixture–one closer to the light and one closer to the fan, as the pictures below illustrates. The chords are also usually different lengths–the chord for the light (and the one that is likely used most often) is longer, and much easier to reach.

(Image Source: Light Fixtures)

However, the chords on my friend’s fan/light fixture both attach at the light base, making it difficult to discern which controls the light and which controls the fan.

Picture of a fan/light fixture pull chord

And in addition, the fan chord is slightly longer than the light chord–which doesn’t match most people’s mental model. So, as much delight as I took in my friend’s illustrated pull chords, I sadly have to admit that the images are superfluous and don’t really fix the problem. They simply seem to be an attempt to place a band-aid on a poorly designed object–much like a “Push” sign attached to a door that looks like it’s meant to be pulled.

Push Sign on a Pull Door
(Image Source: Dani’s Blog)

(As a side note: the fixture in my living room as three chords–all of different lengths. And, for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what the third chord does.)


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