Why has no one successfully reinvented the umbrella?

Edouard Bellin
May 22, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

We transported a man to the moon in 1969, put a thousand songs in our pockets in 2001, witnessed an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language win Jeopardy in 2011, watched the first woman-gendered AI news anchor earlier this year, and yet… despite a plethora of “cool” and “creative” umbrella designs online, in dollar-stores and supermarkets, we still have to hold this archaic and arguably fashionable device in one hand.

As an apprentice in industrial product design with years of professional exposure to the complex worlds of UX/UI within the realms of advertising and technology, I have recently begun to overthink and overanalyze the products and services I have adopted as parts of my daily life, and, well… Frustrations are piling up.

Living in a city like Hong Kong where rainy seasons will take you on a swift rollercoaster of changing weather conditions, from blinding gorgeous rays of sunshine to apocalyptic downpours, you definitely need a solid umbrella to get you through those dark days and nights.

But before we get down to the nitty-gritty…

A brief history of the umbrella

Source: Takahiro Suganuma on Behance

Although parasols were used to offer shade from the sun more than 3,000 years ago in Egypt, umbrellas are thought to have first been purposed and invented to protect ourselves from the rain in ancient China. These devices were largely used as a woman’s accessory until the mid-1800s when English traveler Jonas Hanway turned them into a trendy, fashionable item for all.

James Smith & Sons was the first single-purpose umbrella shop in 1830, opening in London’s New Oxford Street (still in business to this day). In the 1950s, nylon canopies, which do not rot, came into use as an umbrella covering, and the material’s strength allowed the development of golf umbrellas in the 1970s. You’ll have the great chance of seeing one of them in just a few moments.

The rest is, well, history… After decades of attempts to reinvent the umbrella, we can say with the utmost certainty that its design has not radically changed since the good ol’ days.

James Smith & Sons Umbrella shop in London

Some problems and their “solutions”

When it comes down to umbrella-purchasing, we basically only have two choices: the traditionally long and generally larger umbrellas — which tend to stretch towards the more expensive side of things — and the small, easy-to-carry retractable ones. In industry jargon: stick umbrellas and foldable umbrellas.

If you’re a woman with a habit of carrying a handbag around, opting for a one-button umbrella seems like a logical decision to make as you’ll be able to put it away with convenience with no fear of leaving it behind. But if you’re a man with no handbag nor a habit of bringing a backpack with you, things get a little more complicated.

Feel free to add more to the list in your comment, but I believe most umbrellas are annoying because:

  1. They’re not windproof and break easily;
  2. We can’t stop buying them because we always forget them somewhere;
  3. They don’t really protect us from the rain effectively;
  4. They can be difficult to open;
  5. They get our floors wet;
  6. They’re annoying to carry (keep that one in mind).
The grocery-shopping dilemma
The I-couldn’t-care-less-about-where-I-left-it dilemma

When I Googled “redesigning the umbrella”, most of the best searches showed articles dating back a few years. My first thought was ‘Why are there no recent articles or Kickstarter pages about this coming up on the first page?’ So I dug a little deeper.

An old 2011 article lists the then-15 most creative and unusual umbrella designs (unusual being the operative word), with designs that include a sun-shade hat, a coffee cup holder and — my personal favorite —a knight’s sword handle. After a bit more research, I stumbled upon the cooler Samurai version. It’s pretty dope, I can’t argue there.

What’s up? 🔪🔪🔪🔪

This article from 2012 once introduced the Rain Shield. Its sales pitch reads as follows: “ The slightest gust on a rainy day can make the umbrella you’re carrying completely useless. Besides flipping inside out, it doesn’t protect you from rain being blown in from the side. So Lin Min-Wei and Liu Li-Hsiang came up with the Rain Shield, a radical re-thinking of the umbrella that seemingly solves those problems.” 👇

Who doesn’t want to feel like Captain America every time God Almighty throws rain at your face?

In the more technically and meticulously-researched range, the SENZ umbrella was developed with an asymmetrical shape to withstand strong winds. “Indulge yourself with the best pocket umbrella there is,” they say. “From the stormproof frame to the leather trimmed handle: everything is designed with care.” See for yourself 👇

The SENZ protecting this friendly gentleman from torrential rain

Deemed “revolutionary” by Kickstarter staff a few years back, the KAZbrella is an inside-out umbrella which, after many years of research and engineering, had seemingly transformed the familiar traditional umbrella into a reverse folding rain-protecting machine. But behold, as there appears to be another competing umbrella brand named Better Brella in town (gotta love these ‘brella names).

A double-layered reverse-open umbrella? Say what now? ☔ 🌂

KAZbrella brellin’ around town

From the minds of Justin Nagelberg & Matthew Waldman, Sa™ is said to be a very “innovative geometric umbrella that reimagines structure, form, and aesthetics” to improve efficiency and recyclability. It’s visually flashy, arguably fashionable, supposedly environmentally-friendly and easy to recycle, and convenient to fold. I dig…

Sa™

You might already be thinking ‘Just wear a raincoat and voila, no need for an umbrella’ but (1) some people may not enjoy the feeling of getting smashed with rain in the face, and (2) China is ahead of the game with their Umbrella Raincoat: keep your face safe while showing off your outfit of the day!

Can be ordered on AliExpress

While both its website and Instagram feed seem to be heavily favoring well-off golfers as a targeted audience, the Weatherman umbrella is technically what we should be expecting as consumers given recent technology breakthroughs and, more generally speaking, our ability to connect things digitally. Basically, the Weatherman umbrella uses an app to detect weather changes and notify its owner. Even better, the app helps find your umbrella whenever you need it and just can’t find it anywhere.

#wheresmyweatherman ☔️🙌🏻

The real problem

After spending hours — I kid you not… hours — browsing the web in search of the umbrella that will completely revolutionize the way we use these devices, I was shocked to find nothing of the sort. None of the 30+ umbrellas I found successfully solve what I believe to be the biggest problem we face as umbrella users: regardless of how “smart”, fashionable and perfectly-designed they may be, I STILL HAVE TO HOLD IT IN ONE HAND! AND THAT. IS. EXTREMELY. ANNOYING!

It takes one full hand away from us, which is a particularly irritating concern for multi-taskers always on the move and with multiple items to carry. Despite their best efforts to create the next big thing, designers — in my humble opinion — unconsciously solve only half the problem by constantly trying to redesign the upper part of the umbrella, with fancy stretchers, beautifully-crafted caps and high-end windproof technology, but not the lower part.

While some may be very well content with having to swing by the convenience store every other month to buy another cheap foldable or stick umbrella, or satisfied with having to carry it around for show, with millions of umbrella users out there across the world, I can’t possibly be the only one who’s felt frustrated by that stick.

Naturally, it goes without saying that every designer mentioned in this article, as well as others, should be given immense gratitude for all their efforts to make our already-convenient lives even more convenient with their proposed designs. With this thought in mind, I am in no way trying to criticize anyone, but rather trying to force ourselves to flip the entire problem upside down and look at our user experience from a completely different perspective.

Our current situation: everyone tries to redesign what’s in blue.

Our challenge: redesign what’s in red and in blue.

What if the next umbrella is not even an umbrella as we know it?

That’s the bigger question I think designers should ask themselves. Instead of redesigning what already exists, why not start from scratch by listing all the elements we want our next “umbrella” to do for us? What do you want to be able to do with it?

Knowing that its most basic function is to protect us from the rain, where can we go from here? How can we leverage all this incredible technology that we have access to in order to liberate ourselves from having to hold our umbrella in one hand? Is it possible to activate it remotely? A piece of tech to be integrated into a backpack of some sort, perhaps? A completely new smartphone? While I may not be an industrial product designer by profession, my passion and deep appreciation for design leave me feeling very, very excited about this challenge.

But am I overthinking it?

Is the world simply not ready to nor interested in completely reinventing the umbrella? A timeless, emotional and fashionable item that has been passed from generation to generation that frustrates us only for very short periods of time and we forget about quickly after? Charles Lim says umbrellas don’t need a redesign.

To that I say… Wait until you see the next one.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

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Edouard Bellin

Written by

Constantly experimenting with life.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

Edouard Bellin

Written by

Constantly experimenting with life.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +788K followers.

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