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The Hummer doesn't hum anymore

I saw a TV ad just today for the latest "new and improved" vacuum cleaner. It was a slick design -- lightweight, easy to move about and a little (power? dust?) unit pulled right behind like a caboose. A vacuum cleaner with a caboose -- is that new and improved or a step backwards?

God bless our designers and inventors -- their creative juices are always flowing -- but sometimes it seems, in their quest to change, improve and sharpen their images, they overkill.

Let me give you a simple example. We have two showers in our house. On one, there is a handle about as long as the width of my hand that sits at 3 o'clock when the shower is off. To turn on the water, you swing the handle toward 12 o'clock and the water is on and it's lukewarm. At 11 o'clock it is just about right. To make the water cooler you turn back toward 12 o'clock. To turn it off, you turn it back to 3 o'clock. Simple and functional. In the other shower, the designer had more artistic ambitions. There is one knob, almost perfectly round -- about the size of a golf ball. Flip the knob up and the water turns on and down to turn it off. Rotate left to make it hotter, right for cooler. Not too complicated unless your mind wanders and you scald yourself and turn left while intending to cool off. But the catch is the golf ball knob. If your hands are soapy or just wet, it slips while you're trying to turn it. Is style more important than function? The more showers you step into, the more complicated the hardware seems. Some are almost impossible to figure out and some are downright dangerous. Kitchen sink knobs and handles can be even more fancy and confusing, but not as dangerous unless you're standing under them in the sink. But they look so cool.

Another example is baby buggies or carriages. If you want something simple to just do the job. For $99.99 you can get an 8.8 pound carriage to wheel your baby that has rain and sun covers, a carrying strap, removable mesh seats, curved handles and eight dual-swivel wheels. It carries your precious cargo and it works. What more do you need?

If you require more attention when you take your little genius for a stroll, you can buy the Space Cadet from Origami for $949.98. It looks like an outer space vehicle. It has push buttons open and close, glowing LED lights around the buttons, safety lights on the stroller legs and an LCD screen with a built-in speedometer and odometer so you don't go too fast or go too many miles. If you need to one-up your neighbor who has the same rocket, you can spend even more and add a device to charge your cell phone while strolling or change the buggy's seat color to lime green, red or sky blue. I'm sure baby will have a happier childhood, get better grades and a successful adulthood if he or she has the advantage of this advanced transportation.

A slightly larger example is the Hummer. In an age where autos have aerodynamic shape for style and improved gas mileage, the Hummer was a step backwards. The Hummer, you recall, was a big, square, heavy clunker that looked like a military vehicle General George Patton would drive through a battle zone. It reeked of muscle and machismo. It's message was, "Look at me -- I'm bigger and tougher than you. I chew nails and spit rust. Your car looks like a pussycat compared with this lion. I'm driving this king of the jungle and even though I get about half the gas mileage you do, to me it's worth it." When you see a Hummer you expect the driver probably has a machine gun, loaded and ready to shoot, up there by his side in the front seat and you know the driver will look something like the loud, tough talking, blowhard former governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura. The Hummer is now out of production. Not enough George Pattons and Jesse Venturas to keep it humming.

Why do designers come up with these gimmicky vacuum cleaners, shower knobs, baby strollers and Hummers? Not because they're needed, but because they add to profits, because our vanity demands them and because they have the talent and creativity to push the borders. As the late Steve Jobs of Apple said, "People don't know what they want until we show them."

Let the buyer beware -- need and vanity are on the opposite ends of the dial.