1741: Work

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Despite it being imaginary, I already have SUCH a strong opinion on the cord-switch firing incident.
Title text: Despite it being imaginary, I already have SUCH a strong opinion on the cord-switch firing incident.


This comic details a set of theoretical examples of how much work went into the design and manufacture of everyday objects. See explanation of individual design elements below.

The joke centers around the fact that most people in modern times are constantly surrounded with human-built objects, which we generally use without giving them much thought. Randall implies that he occasionally imagines what went into seemingly simple objects around him (in this case his desk and the water glass and the desk lamp on top of it), and finds it overwhelming. This is because there are so many built items around us, many of which are inexpensive and mass-produced, which nonetheless resulted from a great deal of human effort.

This is similar to the thesis of the classic essay I, Pencil, except that while I, Pencil idealizes manufacture and commerce to argue for the free market and against regulation, the comic focuses on details that are far more human or based in bureaucratic or government red tape.

Presumably, this kind of realization is more likely for people who've worked in design and engineering, like Randall, because they have some insight into what's involved in bringing a product to market. Also people who sit around all day wondering what could be funny, like Randall, could also end up in such a thought spiral. The comment about California recalls is based on the tags on products that often state "This item has been known by the state of California to cause..."

There's a double joke in the title as the first thing most people will think of, when seeing such a table with a typical desk lamp, is that this is a work desk rather than about all the work put into making the desk and lamp. The potential implication is that Randall is so distracted imagining the work that went into creating his workspace that he can't get his own work done, hence the title. (Interestingly, but without being related to this comic, the next comic was called 1742: Will It Work).

The argument over putting the switch on the cord getting someone fired hits on another aspect of the design issue. Companies that design and manufacture goods will inevitably have human conflicts, where decisions will be argued over, and human personalities and office politics will impact the final design.

In the title text Randall states that this incidence is imaginary (based on his imagination) but still he has apparently come up with an entire fictional narrative about the conflict over whether to put the lamp's switch on the lamp body itself, or to attach it to the lamp's power cord. And now he has SUCH a strong opinion about the firing incident.

This may be because he already had a strong opinion about who was right, which could make him angry if that person was the one getting fired. Randall's distaste for lamps where the switch is on the cord was mentioned in the title text of 1036: Reviews. As the lamp on this desk is with the switch on the cord, and as it seems Randall really dislikes such lamps, this would make sense, as it would probably be the one wishing to put the switch on the body who were fired. Alternatively it could have been the one who put the switch on the wire that was fired later, when they got poor on-line reviews...

Using the lamp as shown on this desk would make it annoying with the switch on the cord, as it will be hard to reach under the table, when sitting at the desk. Often such lamps have the switch either at the main body or on the head of the lamp. That would make it easy to reach it while sitting at the desk.

A similar theme of the unseen contributions of engineers is found in 277: Long Light, including the title text: "You can look at practically any part of anything manmade around you and think 'some engineer was frustrated while designing this.' It's a little human connection." This fits in well with Randall's annoyance with a switch on the cord, as he might believe it was a frustrated engineer that is the cause of such an inconvenient placement of the switch.

Individual design elements[edit]

Individual Design Elements
Description Explanation
An engineer worked late drawing this curve in AutoCAD AutoCAD is a popular software package for doing computer-aided design. Curves in three dimensions are notable for being much more difficult than straight lines, this curve in particular must be revolved around an axis, and the engineer would need to ensure it correctly interfaces with the remainder of the body.
Extra vents added to avoid California safety recall Lamps can get very hot, especially if an incandescent bulb is installed, possibly causing injury if the shade is touched. Additional vents can improve air circulation, allowing the lamp to run cooler. The US state of California is known for its many safety regulations. California is notable for having strict safety requirements for every product, to the point that Disneyland's front entrance was recently required to have a cancer warning.
9 hours of meetings Any product development requires several meetings about coordination for any aspect of the design, especially critical ones that can affect other subsystems in the device, such as the flexible stem in this lamp. Its size is affected by the wiring requirements, strength requirements, intersections with both the base and the lamp head. The material, properties, color, manufacturing process, and so on also have to be determined for something as simple as this.
Ongoing debate Designers frequently disagree about what is important enough to be put on the label, where the label needs to be put, which laws apply, and so on.
Years-long negotiation with glass supplier Many products have to go through many stages of negotiations before the company can have the required supplies to build the product. This is a commentary on how long it takes to negotiate with other supplier businesses about things that the average consumer sees trivial: it can take months or years when outsourcing to determine and contract which kind of glass, how much, what price, what happens when base materials change in price, what other kinds of glass are acceptable, what compounds are allowed around the glass during production, etc. etc.
4 hours of meetings It takes several meetings for the design team to fully determine and justify what size is best for the market, and to relay this information to the rest of the company. Then, they receive feedback on what is or isn't acceptable, frequently by people who don't know exactly why, so they have to return again for another meeting for further clarification.
Months of tip-over testing The thicker the base of a glass is, the lower its center of gravity is, and the heavier it is. A balance between stability and ease of handling must be reached. In addition, testing generally takes longer than the consumer expects, and every variation must be tested to determine which one performs the most acceptably.
Wood source changed due to 20 year legal fight over logging in the Great Bear rainforest The Great Bear Rainforest is a temperate rainforest on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada. The government of British Columbia recently announced an agreement to protect 85% of this forest from commercial logging.
Argument over putting switch on cord got someone fired Some people can become quite passionate about whether a particular feature is, on balance, a convenience or an annoyance. If the designers cannot find a compromise or reach consensus, the supervisor may decide that the time spent on these disagreements outweighs the value of the passionate designers. Randall's distaste for lamps with the switch on the cord has been mentioned in the title text of 1036: Reviews.


[A table is shown with a glass of water to the left and a lamp standard type desk lamp on the right. There are nine labels in relation to different parts of these three items. For each label, one or two arrows points to the relevant part. Five labels are written above the table, two on the table and two below the table between the front legs. These last two labels are causing the table legs to the rear to disappear, and also cuts the lamp cord, going beneath the table, in two. Below each label will be written under a description of what they point to going in normal reading order from left to right, two lines above, one line on and one line below the table.]
[Arrow points a line that follow the curve of the lamps shade]
An engineer worked late drawing this curve in AutoCAD
[Arrow points to back of lamp shade just above the stem. The shade has four visible vents on the front. The part the arrow points to is not visible]
Extra vents added to avoid California safety recall
[Arrow points to glass]
Years-long negotiation with glass supplier
[A double arrow is placed above the center of the glass, ending on two lines above the edges of the glass]
4 hours of meetings
[Two arrow points on either side of the lamp's stem]
9 hours of meetings
[Two arrow, one pointing up at the bottom and the other down at the inside bottom of the glass]
Months of tip-over testing
[An arrow points to the lamp information sticker on the bottom part of the lamps base. Unreadable text can be seen as thins lines on the sticker]
Ongoing debate
[An arrow points to the front edge of the desk, ending in a starburst on the edge]
Wood source changed due to 20 year legal fight over logging in the Great Bear rainforest
[Arrow points to the switch on the lamps cord which can be seen going over the right edge of the table and hanging down below the table. The switch can be seen just under the table edge]
Argument over putting switch on cord got someone fired
[Caption below panel]
Sometimes I get overwhelmed thinking about the amount of work that went into the ordinary objects around me.

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Whoa, I've never been early enough to beat the explanation before. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

To, please remember to sign your posts. --JayRulesXKCD (talk) 13:21, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

I wrote the transcript. Feel free to change it so it's not so bare and write the explanation. Thanks. --JayRulesXKCD (talk) 13:20, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

Done ;-) --Kynde (talk) 13:37, 4 October 2016 (UTC)

To prevent fire hazards, objects in California are not allowed to surpass a certain temperature, 140 °C if I'm correct . Can't find the actual law quick. 18:01, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

I think Randall underestimates the problem. I used to work for the research arm of the electronics multinational, Philips. When a product design was "finished", it had to go to a special committee who decided where, exactly, on the product did the word "PHILIPS" and their little shield logo go - and (rarely) whether these things should be done in black or white. It was VERY frequently the case that the committee would take longer to come to a conclusion than the product took to design. SteveBaker (talk) 20:32, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

I often wonder about those tiny, cheap plastic toys that come in Xmas crackers (UK) or the 25 cent toy vending machines (USA). They are completely crappy things - but thinking that someone thought about what kind of toy should be made - then designed the shape of it, thought about the color of plastic to use, spent tens of thousands of dollars machining an injection mold for it - and STILL turned out a complete piece of junk...it's anyone's guess what effort that took. I know it costs around $40,000 to make a mold like that - but those toys look like someone who was being paid very, very little, spent no more than an afternoon designing each one! SteveBaker (talk) 20:32, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

What a coincidence. I just got out of my Product Development class. I remember having to deal with so many of these things that it's completely relatable. Jeudi Violist (talk) 21:17, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

Wow, that curve would be a bitch to draw in AutoCAD. I still shudder... Papayaman1000 (talk) 21:22, 3 October 2016 (UTC)

If anything, I'll bet the timeframes listed are shorter than they really took (only months of tip-over tests? only 9 hours of meetings on the arm?? David Lang (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I don't know anything about glass production, but is it true that "what compounds are allowed around the glass during production" matters? It sounds like those martini recipes where one waves a bottle of vermouth towards the glass. Miamiclay (talk) 05:47, 4 October 2016 (UTC)

I'm no expert, but if impurities gets into the glass the color or refraction may change or the strength. And if it is a drinking glass there may be any kind of toxic products that may be used in creating window glass etc. that could not be allowed to enter the production. --Kynde (talk) 13:37, 4 October 2016 (UTC)
I wouldn't call myself an expert on glass in cups, either, but I've learned about FDA guidelines, studied manufacturing processes, and visited a glass production company once. The FDA has issued a warning on lead crystal glass cups, and lead has been found in regular glass, and as you said there are many contaminants that can be present during manufacturing from any material but if the material comes in contact with food or drink (such as cups) special care has to be taken to avoid those toxins. I am not 100% sure this is done with drinking glass, but it makes sense. Even if nobody cares about getting toxins in drinking glasses, this comic is about "imaging the work that went into design" and not "knowing exactly what went into design". Jeudi Violist (talk) 03:57, 5 October 2016 (UTC)
My favourite (fake) dry martini recipe included having a friend in Hong Kong (the writer was based in Britain) whisper the word "Vermouth" over the 'phone, whilst the handset was held close (but not too close) to the Gin!RoyT (talk) 07:37, 5 October 2016 (UTC)

Randall may, indeed, be annoyed about the cord switch, but there is nothing in the comic or the title text to suggest that. He does, however, have a strong opinion on the "cord switch _firing_ incident". Perhaps that bit of the explanation should be amended? RoyT (talk) 06:48, 4 October 2016 (UTC)

I think they say that because he implied in the title text of a previous comic that having the switch on the cord is worse than having your dog possessed by a demon. 11:43, 4 October 2016 (UTC)
Both are true. I have corrected the explanation to say that he is upset about the firing. And then by referring to the old comic makes sense of why he might have such a strong op--Kynde (talk) 13:37, 4 October 2016 (UTC)inion.

Removed an abusive and trolling "disclaimer" asking us to evaluate our life choices and our support of the comic. Trolling is unwelcome. Enfield (talk) 17:41, 4 October 2016 (UTC)

I think about design a lot and however many hours are spent on some products it never ceases to amaze me how the primary feature can fail so terribly, like pouring a liquid without the liquid spilling. 00:42, 5 October 2016 (UTC)

It's a bit strange to emphasize the work that went into designing these things, but to completely fail to mention to work that went in to *actually* making them. Shades of Marx and the table's wooden brain? Arctother (talk) 18:56, 9 October 2016 (UTC)

An engineer worked into the night? Maybe if the engineer had let a draftsman do the job for him all that time could have been saved. Mind you, ACAD is a drawing package. Modelling up that lamp assembly in any quarter decent 3D package is a tutorial exercise. 10:16, 11 October 2016 (UTC)

All of these objects look like they were designed <= 1950. So no AutoCAD involved.-- 10:52, 29 October 2016 (UTC)

Huh? How so? I can buy all of those products in a store today, and while yes, the general products were in existence before/around the '50s, the Korean company that made my el-cheapo dollar store versions had to make the designs from scratch. Yes, they had a general *idea* on how to make it, that only goes so far into what's discussed. -- Papayaman1000 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Not saying that I've ever done that, but some of the curves might have been drawn with one hand while the engineer is scratching the butt-cheek with the other ;) Flymousechiu (talk) 22:00, 26 September 2022 (UTC)