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Redesigning Rock-Paper-Scissors

For me, managing Smart Design's San Francisco office is a fantastic job: working on exciting projects, meeting with industry leaders, collaborating with creative types, and traveling the globe. But let's face it; there are also aspects of the job that are less glamorous—managing budgets, no time for lunch, collaborating with prickly creative types, and battling the never-ending office mess.

I try to do my part, so one day after an office event we were faced with multiple cleaning tasks. The kitchen was a minor disaster area; no one wanted to deal with that.  So we engaged in a spur of the moment contest of rock-paper-scissors to determine the loser: that would be the person responsible for kitchen clean-up. BAM! I threw rock, but unfortunately for me, my opponent, Barry the intern, threw paper. The agony of defeat... I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

As I was tending to my chores, I couldn't stop thinking about that stupid game and how I lost to paper. For me, it's easy to understand how scissors can beat paper, and I can see, with enough determination, how rock can beat scissors, but what I really have a problem with is how paper defeats rock. Sure, paper can cover rock. But let's face it, in reality rock will pulverize paper. Paper could gift wrap rock at best. It almost seemed unfair. I don't know about you, but personally, I would much rather get hit by a piece of paper than a rock.

As I was growing up, my mom had a lot of advice, especially when it came to safety. I used to hear "it's better to be a live chicken than a dead duck" a lot. Here's another one: "if there is ever an electrical storm, whatever you do, don't stand under a tree. The safest place during an electrical storm is in a car. The rubber tires protect it from the lightning". One day some teenagers in a fast moving Camaro hit a tree down the street from my house. The car was totaled; fortunately the teenagers survived. Mom, as usual, had a rule to cover just such an event: "if you're going to hit something with your car, don't hit a tree. A car is no match for a tree."

As an adult, I think back fondly to all that good advice. At the same time, I'm still bugged at how paper beats rock. Recently, I was driving to work and a large tree was blocking the road. It had been struck by lightning. I had to take an alternate route, but seeing that fallen tree got me thinking. If lightning could beat the tree and the tree could beat a car (remember the Camaro?), but the safest place to be in an electrical storm was in a car (like Mom said) then these three things seem like they would be formidable opponents in a game exactly like rock-paper-scissors but with a different name... say for instance, car-lightning-tree. Yes! And they could replace the flawed logic of paper beating rock. It would be a much fairer fight. It could look something like this:


As I finished cleaning up that mess in the kitchen, I put the shining steel scissors in the drawer, wiped down the durable stone countertop, and tossed the ragged paper towel in the trash. One more problem solved. (Or maybe it was two?)

What other threesome might beat rock-paper-scissors? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

Read more of Tom Dair's SmartDesign blog

Tom Dair, co-founder and president of Smart Design, runs the company's San Francisco office. He directs the firm's Insights and Strategy discipline, where he has pioneered techniques for achieving better design through an understanding of user behavior, business factors, and technology trends.

Dair holds 19 patents for products ranging from complex medical devices to children's toothbrushes. His designs have won a variety of awards and are featured in a number of museum collections.