This Man Is Flush With Ideas About How to Make a Better Toilet Paper
Tysonn Betts’ job sounds innocuous enough. He’s the associate design director for family care at Procter & Gamble.
“I’m here to make the things that people don’t give a crap about,” he says with a chuckle.
In his role, Betts leads a team of designers for the household paper category, which includes Bounty paper towels, Puffs facial tissues and Charmin toilet paper.
That’s right, he designs toilet paper. And yes, he gets how that might seem funny to you (or to me).
“I’ve become a little immune to it sometimes,” Betts says. “But yeah, there is some fake poop around this place.”
OK, now that we have the potty humor out of the way, what exactly does it take to design these seemingly mundane paper products?
Betts’ team, made up of graphic and industrial designers, is responsible for market research, product design and even the packaging that you see on the shelves.
So let’s get his story rolling. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
Although the products Betts works on have been around for decades, there is always a need for changes in response to innovations or for aesthetic enhancements, he says.
Betts compares the design updates to a visual you may more readily recognize.
“What’s your general impression of your white refrigerator vs. the impression of the same refrigerator in stainless steel?” Betts asks. “It’s exactly the same box, it has exactly the same function, but somehow we’ve now been trained to have a higher aesthetic appreciation and a trendier expectation for stainless steel.”
The same goes for paper products, even if it doesn’t occur to you why you picked up one roll of paper towels instead of the other (or why it doesn’t come in stainless steel — yet). That’s why Betts and his team visit people’s homes for market research, observing how people use a product every day.
“We’ll spend half a day or a day with [them] just to try to understand,” Betts says. “How do they use the product, what do they do with it, where do they keep it, why do they want it, what do they wish they could do with it, what are they not thinking about?”
OK, so that’s great for the paper towels, but, um, what about the toilet paper?
Betts laughs, noting that the in-home visit is a less viable option.
“You’re not doing as much direct observation,” Betts says. “But I might give two or three things to think about and then ask you to record your thoughts about toilet paper over the course of the next week, and I’ll come back, and we’ll chat about it.”
Paper That You Only Think is Softer
Betts notes that a common request regarding toilet paper design is for it to be softer, so his team works with product teams to test different textures and fibers to discover how it influences the product’s performance.
But a technical improvement is just one way to encourage you to buy.
“Maybe I can change how soft the product is, but maybe that’s going to take a while, so in the meantime, I have to figure out some other trigger to make you believe,” Betts says. “If I take a flat sheet of toilet paper and I start to emboss clouds and birds and flowers on it, does that change the way you think about it?”
The design process can turn into a psychological game that involves object association and color theory, which elicit responses you’re not even aware of, Betts says.
“Maybe I start to get you to think it’s softer because the imagery and colors and things that I’m using signal to you that are telling you it’s softer,” Betts says. “What can I do to get you to be more emotionally involved in the decision you’re about to make?”
Katherine Humphreys, an adjunct Visual Arts professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, agrees that color psychology can be used to manipulate your reaction to a product, whether it’s appealing to a desire for softer toilet paper or to your french fry addiction.
“You may have heard that yellow and red make people hungry, and that’s why McDonald’s uses yellow and red, and so does Burger King,” Humphreys says. “If people want the most lush, soft, beautiful quilted toilet paper that they can buy… the market research might say to use darker colors with more contrast.”
That’s darker colors on the packaging, not the toilet paper. Because nobody wants chocolate-colored toilet paper, right?
The Difference Between Art and Design
Betts says that product design is often an invisible job since there are designers for everything from your table to your lightswitch to, yes, your toilet paper.
“You don’t walk by the design shop the way you walk by a bakery or the florist or the police station,” says Betts, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Art in Visual Communication, Graphic Design from Maryland Institute College of Art and an MBA from Xavier University. “So because you don’t know how it happens, you don’t know that there are people doing it.”
That invisibility can actually work to your financial benefit, according to Betts, who notes that industrial and graphic design school graduates can make $30,000 to $50,000 per year starting out on a product design team.
Humphreys agrees that there are plenty of opportunities for creative types to find lucrative work in graphic design, so long as they know what they’re getting into.
Although they might feel emotionally invested in their creations, Humphreys says that graphic artists must understand a client is paying the project for and thus has the final say.
“I tell students, ‘Graphic design is a business,’” Humphreys says.
Betts agrees, noting that there are misconceptions, even within his company, about what a graphic designer’s job is.
“People assume that you’re just making it pretty,” Betts says. “They assume that it’s more of an art than a science, which is why I’ve learned to say there’s a big difference between design and artwork. Artwork is something you do as a form of personal expression; design has to solve a problem or it’s not design.”
Although, Betts notes, in his line of work, he’d prefer that you’d not think too much about what he does.
“Nobody thinks about paper towels, toilet paper or facial tissues until something has gone incredibly wrong,” Betts says, laughing.
The reality of designing toilet paper isn’t that different than anything else you use in your life, from clothing to cars.
Except for the great jokes, right?
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She hopes Tyson Betts will forgive her for closing with: He’s flush with success.