Fridge door sustainability

Posted on May 6, 2009


Fridge door

Yesterday I was reviewing my notes on Ron Wakkary’s Rethinking users as creative everyday designers.   He gives an example of a family calendar to illustrate his argument that sustainable interaction design will be promoted by thinking about the users as everyday designers.   What he didn’t say was that calendar was part of a family’s information system on a fridge door. 

That had me going back to my notes on a old favourite of mine, the fridge-door metaphor.  We extensively use metaphors as part of our design process (see the development of the LivingCampus metaphor). 

We first used the family fridge door  in a project to develop a project management and group collaboration tool (before we eventually settled on a wiki structure for management of capstone projects).    Now, following Ron’s lead I’m looking at this list of characteristics in terms of Eli Blevis‘ sustainable interaction design rubric.


– always there (you don’t have to open it to find information),

– supports messages to family (from each other, phone messages)
– calendar (today, arrangements, upcoming events)
– shopping list
– postcards
– security strap (to stop little chocolate stealers)
– inspiration (“do you need that chocolate?” sticker)
– progress charts (weight gain/loss)
– family cleaning/cooking roster
– current work (especially for younger ones, sketches sometimes  named and sometimes dated)
– document repository (music tickets, bills to pay) – interestingly layered!
– reconfigurable (information held together by fridge magnets)
– teaching role (alphabet letters introducing words and information to little ones).
– star chart (kids’ behaviour management, behaviour contract and rewards).
– public place
– central place: we go past it as part of normal life (work)flow (but without it jumping out and interrupting)
– achievements (kids’ school certificates)
– public statements of belief (religion, environmental values etc).
– photos of family (selves and relatives/baby photos)
– newspaper clippings
– limited space, information has to be managed to avoid loss in clutter (but this is done without any rules, design or manager) (note, I did write “it does this” here, the door itself of course doesn’t do anything except act as a static repository, it is the family who actively manage the information).
– arrangement often an artwork or ongoing communication between family members (eg the daily migration of a particular – magnet around the extremities of the door)
– sometimes display of themed collection (eg London magnets)
– magnet poetry
– whiteboard (either directly onto surface or onto additional board)
– phone numbers (family/friends/doctor’s etc)
– menu/phone number for pizza place

…and does all these things without getting in way of real job (keeping food cold – our system mustn’t get in way of the project being undertaken)


Despite there being no rules for the operation of a house, nor any instructions for the use of the fridge in this way in the box, the family fridge door is almost ubiquitous.   How does it stack up against Blevis’ sustainable interaction design?

(i) linking invention and disposal: is clearly a site of repeated and ongoing invention.   Does that increase the lifespan of the fridge?  Probably not.   It might increase feelings of goodwill towards the old faithful, but when it stops keeping food cold…

(ii) promoting renewal and reuse.  This is clearly additional use with the fridge “as is”.  Is this renewal though?  If we imagine a time where the original function was no longer needed (or the fridge didn’t work), would we keep the white hulk in the kitchen just to maintain its new function?  I doubt it.

(iii) promoting quality and equality.   The use of the fridge door as family information system probably has little effect on the perception of the physical product.  It does though, in addition to its stated value (keeping food cold) improve quality of life through additional outcome of scaffolding human motivations and desires.  It would be expected though, to reinforce the values held by the family (which may – or may not – align with sustainability goals). 

(iv) decoupling ownership and identity.   While the use of the door in this way clearly provides a stamp of ownership and identity for the family,  I think this would have little impact on the ownership relationship with the fridge itself.   What is perhaps most useful here is the collaborative management of the information on the fridge.   Eli points to “implications for sharing materials, intellectual
commons, and sense of self-hood which must be considered as part of sustainable design of interactions”.   The family fridge information system provides a strong example of this intellectual commons. 

(v) using natural models and reflection.  Other than the observation that to attempt to impose an artificial order on the structure of the fridge door, there is probably little here for this item (see our biomimicry paper for an extended examination of this prinicple).


Teatime.  I wonder if there’s any milk in the fridge?