Design for South Paws

After a history of marginalization, product design is finally catering more directly to left-handed users

by Sarah C. Baird


For every family of a left-handed person, a moment arrives when it becomes clear that the way of the right-handed masses is just not going to cut it.

The moment of reckoning for my unsuspecting parents arrived on my first birthday, when they repeatedly attempted to shove a tiny fork into my right hand in order to eat a baby-sized ceremonial birthday cake. After throwing it on the ground repeatedly in frustration, instant-replay style, I grabbed a hunk of cake with my left hand and squeezed it through my fingers like a tiny Hulk, mauling it around in my gummy mouth. VHS tape evidence shows a kitchen full of relatives gaping in horror. That day, it became official: I was an ornery lefty.

In both longstanding myth and modern urban lore, there are quite a few adages and assumptions about what it means to be a left-handed person. Over the course of my life — like most lefties — it seems as if I’ve heard them all. (Spoiler alert: they’re almost all negative.) The root of the word “sinister” derives from sinistra, the Latin term for “left.” In the Bible, those who displease God are sent to his left side, while those who he holds in high esteem are sorted to the right. Australians often refer to left-handed people as “cacky-handed” — which also indicates a degree of clumsiness. The cross-cultural connection between left handedness and varying degrees of assumed evil and idiocy is strong.

A 2013 New Yorker article even pointed to early 20th-century research by Cesare Lombroso (the grandfather of modern criminology) that indicated lefties as a group might be more prone criminal behavior. “I do not dream at all of saying that all left-handed people are wicked, but that left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species,” Lombroso wrote in 1903.

For a dedicated group, these sociocultural stereotypes have served as a call to action. The people behind the Bloomington, Indiana-based Handedness Research Institute are so concerned about the centuries-old bias against “alternative handedness” that they founded an entire non-profit research organization to “advance the scientific understanding of handedness…and help alleviate the social and educational discrimination of left-handers worldwide.”

While I have a hard time believing that my handedness makes me more likely to be an ax murderer than my right-dominant counterpart, there’s a kind of solidarity among left handed people that feels almost like a secret handshake. When (lefty) Jimi Hendrix flipped his guitar behind his back and upside-down to play it, when southpaw boxer Manny Pacquiao delivered an unsuspecting hook with his left fist, when Ned Flanders successfully reopened The Leftorium on The Simpsons — it felt almost like a victory for all of us. Every time a left-handed person succeeds, it’s like a giant, global (left-handed) high five.

Day in and day out, though, the biggest hurdle faced by lefties isn’t discrimination — it’s mundane, basic functioning. Almost all facets of society, from ink pens to urban design, are crafted and structured to support, abet and cater to the right-handed majority. For lefties, functioning means a constant, conscious consideration of how they can reverse or modify their natural behavior in order to most effectively move around in the world.

Over the past 20 years, baby steps have been taken in the design landscape to begin building a stable of products that better serve our 11% minority. For the first time, left-handed design is being approached in a way that is based less around lefties as a trivial (perhaps, humorous) novelty, and instead as a target demographic looking for items that actually work to meet their needs.

“For the longest time…there wasn’t really enough market for [left-handed products] for even the mid-sized manufacturers to make in bulk, so when we would find a left-handed spatula or computer mouse, we’d get real excited about it,” said Lucia Howard, co-owner of the Florida-based Lefty’s Left Hand Store. “Then, they’d stop making them because they weren’t selling enough. We’ve really had to get a lot of our own products made. We’re making our own scissors now — for kids, youth and adults — as well as little embroidery scissors that are shaped like a stork. We started making our own left-handed notebooks. It’s our bestseller.”

Lefty’s — which originally opened in 1978 — was the first outlet devoted specifically to left-handed products in the United States. The store shuttered in the 1980s, but reopened after a 30-year hiatus in 2008 and has since witnessed rapid expansion and growth. Today, Lefty’s has a thriving online business, a satellite location in Kissimmee, Florida and kiosks throughout Disney World hocking left-handed notepads to miniature, Mickey Mouse-loving southpaws.

“For 30 years, there would be calls from people who said, ‘I need to get my left-handed notebooks for school! I need my scissors! Please bring it back!’ From the moment we opened the doors [in 2008], it was wall-to-wall lefties or people buying presents for lefties. It was really astonishing to see how appealing it was to lefthanders to finally have a place that was just for themselves.”

After centuries of second-class citizen status, lefties today might finally be witnessing the sea change towards greater functionality they’ve so desperately craved.

This national movement in favor of more efficient, lefty-friendly design is most visible in the diversification of products for school children, from pens, to notepads, to desks. Until the mid-1980s, classroom items made with lefties in mind were all but absent from schools, with “alternative handedness” largely regarded as a defect. Left-handed students were forced to make do with the tools given to them or — in extreme cases — forced to switch their handedness or adapt ambidextrous traits. You’d be hard pressed to find a southpaw adult who can’t recall the struggles of wedging their thumb awkwardly into a pair of right-handed scissors for cutting construction paper, or getting the dreaded “inky pinky” after dragging the side of their hand across a page full of freshly written notes. Even standardized tests — with the question text on the left and bubbling form on the right — tailor to the dexterity of right-handed students. For lefties, even seemingly mindless steps in the classroom often required an extra helping of energy or thought.

Schools today are more sensitive about making accommodations for all students, catering to the needs of an individual child — whether it’s a tree nut allergy or writing with one’s left hand — rather than forcing lockstep conformity. Differences are seen less as flaws and more like distinctive traits that should be approached with empathy and understanding. What’s more, classroom product designs are now more ergonomic across the board, functioning for both right and left handed children with a greater degree of fluidity and ease.

“Designers are really trying to make things ergonomically and are more aware of the left-handed need and will promote it,” said Howard. “This is particularly true with kids, and probably springs from learning more about developmental stages in kids and industrial design. We have some really nice triangular crayons, which are much easier for both right- and left-handed children. You wouldn’t have seen that 15 or 20 years ago.”

In addition to the increase in ergonomics, the rise in support for handcrafted, artisanal products also behooves lefties. Even with increasing left-handed market demand, large scale manufacturers will never be trucking out shipping containers full of left-handed whisks or stitching southpaw baseball gloves by the millions. Instead, small businesses (those focusing on specialized, high-quality versions of a single product) have the distinct opportunity to make life a little bit easier for left-handed people with their commitment to specification and quality over quantity. These companies — from ambidextrous coffee mug company Grandma Hoerner’s to the Shun Classic left-handed knife — not only celebrate distinctiveness, but understand the appeal of a tool crafted with its user firmly in mind.

Lefty’s has also found its way into the artisan market, tapping into a subset of makers that’s been decades ahead of the curve in crafting products suited for the individual. “We carry a really beautiful set of cherry wood [kitchen] tools made in Pennsylvania that are handcrafted. There’s a tradition there that comes out of the farm country that everything is handmade and…designed for specific people. They’ll have things that are made small and bigger — or even left-handed — because that’s what they’ve always done for 150 years.”

Unfortunately, this quickly becomes a double-edged sword for craftspeople looking to make a living via specialty product. If an item, such as a set of gardening tools, is expertly designed and made with the utmost care, there is little reason to ever replace it. With lefties comprising such a relatively small percentage of the population, “one and done” purchases (such as knives or garden tools) that don’t require regular upgrading or replacement means that no artisan company will likely ever be able to focus exclusively on left-handed versions of a single product.

While the dedicated, old school tinkering of craftsmen on behalf of underdog lefties may seem downright romantic, new technologies are also revolutionizing access to and the creation of left-handed products. In the world of firearms, in particular, the left-handed market is booming.

“The big impetus in left-handed firearms for the past few years has been in rifles and shotguns,” said Steve Fore, who served for 16 years as sales manager for Antique and Modern Firearms in Lexington, Kentucky. Fore is also a National Rifle Association-certified instructor for handguns, shotguns and patrol rifles and, as luck may have it, he’s a lefty.

“This uptick in left-handed guns has been spurred by market demand, of course, and the benefits of modern machinery,” he said, “The rise in CNC [computer numerical control] mills and machines that can mirror image a [fire arm] piece for a left hander without a great deal of difficulty — and in the same amount of machine time — has really spurred the growth of left-handed bolt action rifles, primarily for hunting.”

Of course, Fore also believes no company could possibly ever focus exclusively on left-handed firearms. “It’s kind of like buying a refrigerator,” he laughed. “You only do it every so often, so the market’s probably not there. Lefties like us still make up a relatively small chunk of the population.”

While advances in technology, a push towards ergonomics and celebration of artisanal products may ensure that small batches of lefty-friendly gear will continue to be cranked out at a faster clip, there’s no denying that we still operate in a world that is not designed with a lefthander’s best interest in mind. Instead, we’ll continue to live as if peering into a looking glass, waving in front of the world’s mirror with our left hand and watching ourselves — begrudgingly — wave back with our right.

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