Paper Towels in Hiding

Bath room furniture seems to be many a designer’s favorite playground. If it weren’t, why would so many usability blogs, books, and magazines cover washbowl taps, etc.? Here’s another example: paper towel dispensers in a lounge at Düsseldorf airport.

The paper towel dispenser is located at the bottom of a mirror, but it is very difficult to see the paper towel peek out (see arrow). There is almost no contrast between the color of the towel and that of the paint on the wall, so the towel is not only difficult to see in the image above, but also in real life.

What’s more, when a paper towel gets stuck inside the dispenser box, there is no visual indication as to dispenser’s location.

No wonder, then, that it was necessary to put up the small sign stating that “[p]apertowels can be found underneath the mirror.”1

Finding the paper towel dispenser is only the first issue. Having to reach over the washbowl to grab a towel is another: because of the depth of the washbowl as well as the width of its rim, you may inadvertently lean against the bowl with your lap, getting your clothes wet in all the wrong (read: “embarrassing”) places.

Finally, while there is a total of five washbowls along the wall, and every washbowl features a towel dispenser inside its mirror, there are only two trash cans for disposing of used towels. These are nondescript, metal boxes, which are mounted flush into the walls at either end of the row of washbowls.

To identify them for what they are, the users will have to have seen similar trash cans before. A little icon with a hand trashing a paper towel would do wonders here. As would placing the towel dispensers right above the trash can.

If you will allow me the — admittedly somewhat far-fetched — application of the Gestalt Law of Proximity to this design, I would argue that you could split washing your hands into two tasks: actually washing your hands — open water tap, put soap on hands, rub in soap, rinse, shut off water tap — and then drying them — grabbing a paper towel, drying off your hands, disposing of used towel.

When viewed from this perspective, the proximity of the washbowl, the tap, and the soap dispenser are appropriate. But the towel dispenser(s) and the trash can(s) should be associated with each other, instead of the former being associated with the “washing environment” by virtue of its location inside the mirror.

While this kind of “analysis” may be debatable, the merits of this design are not: if you have to provide instructions for something as elementary as (finding) a paper towel dispenser, your design is seriously flawed.

  1. Judging from the sign’s haphazard design, I would bet it was created and put up by someone from the lounge’s staff who was getting tired of having to tell visitors where to find those paper towels…