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Desiging a Better Toothbrush

Posted by Simon Cooper on

Take a short trip with me. Imagine for a second that you’re 20 years in the future. Flying cars, refrigerators that order food for you… what? That's next year? 

Anyway, one night about 6 years ago I did that while brushing my teeth. 

As I brushed, I wondered what toothbrushes of the future would look like. Would we will still be using crappy, disposable toothbrushes? I mean, buying a new toothbrush, using it for a few months and trashing doesn't make a lot of sense. I get the business model; making a toothbrush from plastic is dirt cheap. Just design it to look high-value (“Wow, look at that super-grippy, moulded plastic”) and charge way more than it’s worth. 

Why replace your toothbrush every few months?

The reasons are hygiene and good oral health. Once a toothbrush has been used a few hundred times (on average twice a day for 3 months, or 90 days), it gets pretty nasty. Bits of food get stuck in the bristles and I’ll bet there is a serious germ party going on as well.

Plus, the bristles get bent and degrade, which can actually do damage to your teeth and gums. So getting a clean, new toothbrush makes sense. In fact, recent studies are starting to show that it might be wise to replace our toothbrushes more often.

So why throw out the entire toothbrush?

We need to replace the brush every few months. Cool. But the whole thing? Surely the handle part doesn’t need to be tossed too?

As a design geek (and a bit of a hippie), the waste we produce drives me nuts. It makes zero sense to put all that time into R&D, design, production, packaging and marketing only for the toothbrush to last a few months.

Think of this way—plastic toothbrushes should be designed for their time in landfill. Why? Let's say we use them for 3 months before throwing them away. The next 500+ years they spend on earth is in landfill.

So why not design a toothbrush that is beautiful, functional and made to last? The brush head should be replaced every few months, but a beautiful, well designed handle might be worth keeping. 

So I wrote down three reasons to create a better toothbrush:

  1. I would like a wicked-cool toothbrush. Maybe other people would too.
  2. We dispose of over 3 BILLION toothbrushes every year
  3. I often forget to buy a new brush, so having a new one arrive in the mail would be one less thing to remember.

A toothbrush worth owning

I love well-designed things. Most designers consider ‘well-designed’ to mean things that look great and work well. Design is actually a tool to solve problems, so if something looks good but doesn't work well, then it's badly designed. 

Great design is timeless. Take the Frank Lloyd Wright house below. It opened in 1889. Doesn't look 127 years old does it? I could ramble on about great design here, but I'll keep to the point.

Frank Lloyd Wright House

So why isn’t there a better toothbrush design? Because we’ve been trained to believe that toothbrushes are disposable. Think about it: if you had always used a permanent toothbrush handle and replaceable brushes, you would probably laugh at the thought of throwing an entire plastic toothbrush away 4 – 6 times a year. 

Own less stuff

I believe there is a massive change coming in how we think about and consume stuff. There is a growing movement of people who are choosing to own less, but higher quality things. They’re sick of the crap being sold to us in stores and are choosing to simplify their lives and save money doing it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m as guilty as anyone. My wife and I recently did a purge of our small house and it felt awesome. I don’t know the psychology behind it, but getting rid of clutter felt freeing. Like any family with two young kids, we need stuff, but the amount we’d collected was a real eye opener.

Designed to last

My day job is as a graphic designer, and, like most designers (graphic, industrial, shoe designers, architects, whatever…), I appreciate well-designed things. So I started working on a toothbrush design that would be better for us, simplify our lives and be better for the environment.

Right now I’m working with a talented industrial designer to create a beautiful, non-disposable toothbrush. I'm calling it the toothbrush 2.0. The idea is to make something better. Better for our oral health and better for our environmental health. I’ll write a blog post outlining the design process and our thinking. 

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this blog, leave a comment and let me know what you think. 

Simon Cooper



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