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

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

  • ethany-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:24 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve on because it's perfect for it's market.

  • kolbyd-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:26 p.m.

    The umbrella is hard to improve on because all umbrellas have been made the same forever. There is probably no prior research on improved designs for an umbrella.

  • calaabj-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:26 p.m.

    It is so difficult to improve upon because it is already perfect with the price and size already.

  • mattv-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:26 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve upon due to the good design it already has.

    In my opinion, why do we want to change something that works just fine?

  • coled-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:27 p.m.

    CTQ: Umbrellas are so difficult to improve upon because of their perfect size and price. It's a satisfied and dry market.

  • garretta-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:27 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve on because if you improve one thing it could have a bad effect on another part.

  • lances-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:27 p.m.

    This umbrella is difficult to improve because it's very close to the perfect umbrella if not the perfect umbrella.

  • travisb-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:31 p.m.

    It is difficult to improve on the market because umbrella's are already light, dirt cheap, and who would really pay an extra $30 or such for carbon fiber handles or better rain resistance. The market is dry, if they did this maybe 20 years ago, they would be rolling in the dough.

  • lucasp-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:31 p.m.

    the umbrella is so difficult to improve upon because it is in such a weird shape

  • callans-fel
    4/20/2016 - 02:32 p.m.

    The umbrella is so difficult to improve because if you fix one thing, you create another problem. If you fix the problem of getting splashed, it is difficult to close. Another, you can't share with anyone.

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