Inventing the perfect umbrella The Senz Umbrella is seen in this photo. (Senz Umbrella/Rain Shield)
Inventing the perfect umbrella
Lexile

Umbrellas shield people from the rain, but the current design is far from perfect. They fold down into soaked, dripping messes, crumple when hit by powerful blasts of wind and fail to safeguard us from muddy puddle splashes.

Recently, a handful of designers have put forth their best revisionist ideas for shoring up some of these deficiencies. There's the Rain Shield, which features an enlarged canopy that extends, sort of like a tail on a tuxedo, down one side. This extra coverage guards against incoming splash while also preventing forceful gusts from catching the inside of the umbrella. The Rainshader resembles a blown-up motorcycle helmet (without the face guard). Hugging the user's head, this version is designed to not interfere with people's views at crowded events like concerts or games and to prevent poking others. The Senz umbrella, another oddly-shaped reboot that comes in the shape of a stealth fighter, is aerodynamically formulated to channel wind flow across the surface, in a way that won't cause it to flip over. The company claims the Senz can withstand winds of up to 70 mph.

But not one of these improvements, however, has the makings of a true evolutionary leap for the old school rain cover-at least not yet. Each concept, while mitigating one flaw, propagates others. For example, the Rain Shield's unorthodox shape requires that the user skillfully twists it down to size, similar to folding down those mesh pop-up hampers. Using a Rainshader can feel a bit confining while appearing to others as if you're wearing a "nylon mullet." And if you're thinking of sharing the Senz umbrella with someone else, forget about it. Coverage is entirely lopsided.

Another person to try his hand at a 2.0 version is Japanese designer Hiroshi Kajimoto. With the collapsing frame on the outside, his creation, the inside out folding UnBRELLA, is not only better at resisting wind, but also folds upward to keep the wet surface inside and away from yourself and others. The ability to quickly funnel and drain the excess water also means you'll have more space in the living room, without an array of open wet umbrellas left out to dry. It even stands up to drip dry.

The most obvious drawback, however, is that, when folded, it nearly doubles the length of a conventional umbrella. Again, there's something about these efforts to revolutionize a tool that's been around and has remained, at its core, mostly unchanged for a millennium that comes off like trying to reinvent the wheel. It's understandably tempting for designers to try their hand at something that's intuitively simple enough, yet has befuddled numerous imaginative minds before them. 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 in the New Yorker. "The annual retail market in the United States alone is now $348 million-about 33 million umbrellas. The rest of the world, including many cultures where umbrellas are used both as rain protection and as sun shade, consumes many millions more."

But perhaps, when it comes down to it, people have grown too accustomed to the distinguished aesthetic of a perfectly circular hat on a stick that simply opens and folds when we need it. They'd like 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 would be constructed from carbon fiber to 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."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is the umbrella so difficult to improve upon?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (32)
  • lukeh-orv
    3/16/2016 - 02:11 p.m.

    Lot's of umbrellas either break or fly away until I get to use them properly, and when I do, I still get wet!

  • jacksonb-kut
    3/17/2016 - 01:07 p.m.

    Interesting. It makes sense why it is so difficult to replace the standard umbrella. The umbrella is just such a simple and perfect design, it will be hard to replace. There are problems with the umbrella, of course, but it is like trying to fix a bug in a video game. If you go onto an issue and fix it, another one will pop up.

  • markm-3-bar
    3/17/2016 - 10:56 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve upon because of how simple it is, it is hard to make more difficult. It seems that every time an inventor thinks of a good idea for it, there is something that doesn't work everyone that does work. For example, when an inventor made it better, it ended up being longer folded up so it didn't work. Once someone does think of a really good invention for the umbrella, it is said that the reward is crazy high.
    I really liked to read about this article because I never thought about umbrellas and there simplicity that much and how making it better could be so hard. Even the best thinkers can't think of a better solution for the umbrella.

  • laurap-ver
    3/18/2016 - 09:19 a.m.

    Personally, I like the idea of trying to improve the umbrella. Although, certain things will be very difficult to fix, many people will most likely be willing to use it anyways. (We see how many people use umbrellas despite the flawed design) Plus, once a design comes up that actually works better then the current umbrellas design, people will be all over it like anything that's new and seems like a good idea.

  • arianap-ver
    3/18/2016 - 02:22 p.m.

    I think no matter what we do, Mother Nature will win. Man can't beat nature, that's that. There always going to be something that isn't perfect. It would be cool if we could make one that drys itself easily or can have something else support it besides those little rods it has currently.

  • samp-ver
    3/18/2016 - 03:23 p.m.

    It's hard to improve because it's going to double the size of a regular umbrella. Also it's difficult because the design cost so much money.

  • ysabellem2-pay
    3/28/2016 - 08:06 a.m.

    The umbrella is an everyday tool we use to protect ourselves from the elements. However, its not always sufficient. The process of reinventing the umbrella proves to be a hard one, with each new invention having its own unique problem. As time progresses, maybe we can achieve the idea of a perfect umbrella. Until then, we may just have to deal with our current version.

  • ians2-pay
    3/28/2016 - 08:12 a.m.

    The umbrella is the perfect thing to improve upon! It's genius! It is the thing hidden in plain sight. The new designs can improve on the things people never thought they could. Given, it isn't a huge mishap or overlook that is being fixed, but it's the little things!

  • samuels2-pay
    3/28/2016 - 08:21 a.m.

    This is practically immunity water! Is it a new superpower? I want it! This is cool, although a little water is alright when you think about how much you'd go through without the umbrella.

  • johnj-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:23 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve on because it is so simple and there isn't much more that can be done to improve it even if it is "far from perfect."

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