Dispatches from the Empire

Flies in Urinals: The Value of Design Disruptions

I discovered my favorite example of disruptive design about 10 years ago, between flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. This was not a slick new airline logo that attracted new customers or an innovative wayfinding system that helped people find their flights. It was the realistic image of a small black fly inside the white urinals in the men’s bathroom. When I first saw the fly, I wondered why it stayed put. Then I looked to the empty urinal next to me and spotted the same fly. They all had them. In response to dirty bathrooms caused by men urinating on the floor, an airport maintenance worker suggested that they etch the image onto the urinals to give men something to aim at as they hurry to and from flights. According to NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who gave a fuller account of the story, the man thought back to his time serving in the Dutch army during the 1960s, when red dots had been painted on the latrines in the barracks to improve cleanliness. Sure enough, spillage rates in the airport men’s room dropped an estimated 80 percent after the fly was introduced, leading to a much cleaner bathroom.