Inventing the perfect umbrella
Umbrellas shield people from the rain, but the current design is far from perfect. They fold down into soaked, dripping messes. They crumple when hit by powerful blasts of wind. And they fail to safeguard us from muddy puddle splashes
A handful of designers have put forth their best try for fixing some of these problems. First there is the Rain Shield. It features an enlarged canopy that extends. It's sort of like a tail on a tuxedo, down one side. This extra coverage guards against incoming splash. It also prevents forceful gusts from catching the inside of the umbrella.
The Rainshader looks like a blown-up motorcycle helmet (without the face guard). This version is designed to not interfere with people's views. It does this by hugging the user's head. This will help at crowded events like concerts or games. It will also prevent poking others.
The Senz umbrella is another oddly-shaped reboot. It comes in the shape of a stealth fighter. It is aerodynamically formulated to channel wind flow across the surface. This makes it less likely to flip over. The company claims the Senz can withstand winds of up to 70 mph.
None of these improvements, however, has the makings of a true evolutionary leap for the old school rain cover. That is, not yet. Each concept does fix one flaw. But it creates other flaws.
For example, the Rain Shield's odd shape requires the user to skillfully twist it down to size. This makes it similar to folding down those mesh pop-up hampers.
Using a Rainshader can feel a bit confining. It appears to others as if you're wearing a "nylon mullet."
If you're thinking of sharing the Senz umbrella with someone else, forget about it. Coverage is entirely lopsided.
Another person that has tried his hand at a 2.0 version is Japanese designer Hiroshi Kajimoto. His creation is called the UnBRELLA. Its collapsing frame is on the outside. It is better at resisting wind. It also folds upward to keep the wet surface inside and away from you and others. The ability to quickly funnel and drain the extra water also means you'll have more space in the living room. It does away with the group of open wet umbrellas left out to dry. It even stands up to drip dry.
There is a clear drawback. It nearly doubles the length of a regular umbrella when folded.
There is something about these efforts that comes off like trying to reinvent the wheel. It's understandably tempting for designers to try their hand at something that's naturally simple enough. The umbrella has stumped many creative minds before these attempts. The Telegraph has even called the challenge to improve the umbrella the holy grail of amateur inventors.
"The rewards for whoever improves the umbrella are substantial," writes Susan Orlean. She writes for The New Yorker. "The annual retail market in the United States alone is now $348 million. That is equal to about 33 million umbrellas. The rest of the world buys many millions more. This includes many cultures where umbrellas are used both as rain protection and as sun shade."
But perhaps people have grown too used to the umbrella. It has the well-known look of a perfectly circular hat on a stick. It simply opens and folds when we need it. Maybe people want it to stay cheaply disposable enough to forget in taxicabs, parties and other public nooks. Maybe, it's fine the way it is.
"It's hard to improve on the umbrella," writes designer Charles Lim at Crooked Pixels. "A better umbrella would have to be easier to recycle or repair. Or it would be constructed from carbon fiber. This would make it both durable and light. But why even bother? Umbrellas are perfect because of their price and size. It's a satisfied and dry market."