Most everyday objects seem to be available in three broad categories which roughly correlate to their price and usability. Category One contains the cheap, functional things. They are plainly made and do a job, but not for very long or very well – like forks that instantly bend, clothes that lose their colour after one wash, or people on work experience. Category Three is the super expensive things, usually designed by a Scandinavian dressed entirely in beige, living in a box made of glass in a forest somewhere. They will work perfectly forever and are so discreetly fashioned that only people rich enough to be allowed into the shop you bought it from will know how much it cost. But the category in the middle is the most complex and sadly the most common.
Category Two is made up of things that were clearly designed solely for the purpose of being moderately expensive and with only secondary consideration given to whether or not they work properly. They always seem to have begun with basic function at their heart, but to have become confused along the way and randomly gathered up a mess of strange quirks and unhelpful features. Also like people on work experience. As far as I can tell, the process for creating a Category Two object goes something like this: Person A, probably with a degree in engineering but not wearing enough beige to get the top jobs, thought about what they were being asked to make and, in about ten minutes, sketched out a design that would work. Then along came a load of other people, most likely higher up in the same company as Person A. These people obviously thought that the design, while doing exactly what it was supposed to, didn’t really reflect the company ethos. They knew that their brand didn’t have the clout to get away with charging £400 for an ergonomic teaspoon, but they also knew that they weren’t paying a mostly-beige level designer to churn out crap for Poundland. So they got out some crayons, glitter and glue, chuck them at the sketch until they were quite sure that it looked like some very serious designing had happened to it, then hit their clients with an enormous bill for what they probably refer to as, “Product Imaginification.” The cost of their work was then passed on to the consumer. The simple design had evolved into a perfect Category Two object.
That secondary group of people are responsible for the Upward Heat Dispersal Valve that causes all Category Two kettles to direct scalding steam up onto your hand as you pour from them. They patented the “compact” handles on the ridiculously heavy ceramic lids of my dad’s expensive saucepans that forced you to either train like a Shaolin monk until you could lift a kilo with the tips of your fingers, or hook your knuckles under the low protrusion and risk the kind of burns that your sadistic kettle could only dream of inflicting on you. They are the reason that someone I know has a set of coasters made of a net of irregular glass beads which generate no friction with either beverage or tabletop and so fail utterly in their two simple duties of being flat and staying in the same place. But they look nice, those coasters. They’re shiny and so very tactile. It’s not hard to picture how that particular meeting ended. “Top imaginifying today team! Now let’s all knock off for a drink. Only don’t put anything on those stupid coasters, we can’t afford the carpet cleaning.”
I’d been wondering where on earth this practice had sprung up from for some time. Then I went to buy running shoes. I like a flat, minimal trainer for running, so I went into a nearby shop, found a few pairs that fit my specifications and started trying them on. It was during this rigorous testing that the reason for the existence of Category Two objects became clear to me. As an experienced runner, I fully laced each shoe, flexed my toes to check the fit, rolled my ankles a little and took a few steps back and forth. This was all to disguise the fact that I was actually glancing sidelong into a mirror to make sure that the trainers passed the most important test of looking good. One pair I tried were perfect, but when I saw the price I knew instantly that I wasn’t going to buy them. Their subtle colouring made my feet look like hot coals, glowing from my devastating speed, but they were clearly Category Three shoes. For a second, I had a mental image of a pale figure shaking his head in disdain and retreating into his glass box to wash the taste of my relative poverty out of his mouth with some nettle tea, poured by his non-kettle-burnt hands into an earthenware bowl sitting on an austere coaster, set on a huge granite table in an otherwise empty room. It was a crowded second.
At the end of that second, I had begun to understand. I realised that I had already discarded the cheapest trainers and some of the more common brands on the grounds of nothing more than style, while telling myself that it was because they weren’t well made enough to last. I had now ruled out the really expensive ones too. I could see where this was heading. The painful glow of the Category Two shoes gaudily caught my eye. Picking up one pair, I could see the basic principle which had been considered far too dull to look expensive. The imagineers had whisked them off to a paintball range where Team Dayglo were playing Team Neon, and let chaos do its work. Then they’d placed them in the shop and waited for someone like me to come along. So here I was, caught in Category Two between my own meanness and my stylistic aspirations. Right where the imagineers wanted me and where they knew I’d end up. Category Two products were made for me. That was why they existed. I sighed, squinted at the trainers to convince myself that they didn’t look too bad, grit my teeth and bought them. I’ve only actually run in them once though. I’ve been out injured with steam burns and a fracture I picked up when I slipped on a drink that had mysteriously spilt despite being on a coaster.