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Form over [dis]function

Why do electric fans start on high?  Who wants to be blasted with air, just to turn the speed down to a manageable airflow?  And then, suppose you’ve cooled down and had enough air, you have to speed it back up again just to turn it off.


Our ceiling fans operate in the same way.  The two dangling cords are affordances – pull to get an action.  But what action you’ll get (light or fan) is unclear.  Once you’ve memorized that the shorter cord is for the fan, there is no indication as to what speed you are currently at.  I’m often going through 5 or 6 pulls before I figure out what in the world is happening.  The conceptual model is unclear, causing difficulty.


I am a Communication and Media Technology student. My goal is to advance my understanding of communication, especially as it relates to marketing and organizations. I am quite happy working for my department at RIT and we'll see where the future takes me! I am passionate about graphic design and hope to have opportunities to build on these skills. My family consists of my husband (a soon-to-be brewmaster) and my silly labradoodle!



I actually think about this every time that I turn my fan on: Why do they start out so forceful instead of leading into a powerful breeze? And I also continue to keep pulling the different cords trying to figure out which one does which. I think this is a very good example of how a product can be a great product, but it needs to work with its audience a bit better, and be a bit smarter.


After having thought about it from an engineering perspective, there does seem to be a reason for this speed arrangement…

When you first energize a motor, it takes a lot of torque to get the fan blades and the wire windings (inside the motor) up to running speed. But once the fan is spinning, little change is needed to speed it up or slow it down. This is why the fan starts out on the highest speed setting, the setting with the most power will overcome the inertia of the fan assembly.

The low setting, particularly on older fans, may have not been powerful enough to overcome that inertia and would just sit there and make a humming noise. The user would need to switch past the low speed to a higher speed setting to get the fan in motion, and then bring it back down to the low setting. So while it may not be intuitive, there appears to be a history behind the speed arrangement.

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