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[whitespace] Toothbrush in Jeans Pocket

The Tooth Is Out There

Put a lowly toothbrush in the hands of a Palo Alto design team and watch 'em flash those pearly whites

By Kelly Luker

THEY REALLY, REALLY WANTED to talk about the Xooter, these folks from Lunar Design. A hot shot company that Business Week magazine named one of the top five design firms in the United States, Lunar was justifiably proud of its entry into the upscale transportation field--a high-rent, Razor-like scooter called a Xooter. Although a story about nattily dressed CEOs pushing childlike toys from cubicle to Starbucks was compelling, the Xooter could not possibly describe the talent found inside the Palo Alto office of Lunar Design as much as another one of their proud efforts--building a better toothbrush.

There may be no one better equipped to discuss the evolution of this humble tool than Jeff Salazar. This is not because Salazar is Lunar's senior industrial designer, or even because he was involved in the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush development. It is because the good-natured Salazar peppers his discussion with such golden nuggets as, "Brushing teeth--how can we bring excitement to the task?" or "Oral-B CrossAction--the Cadillac of toothbrushes!"

First, Salazar and his gang needed to study videotapes of ordinary folks brushing their teeth--many hours of many people brushing their teeth, over and over again and in more ways than the rest of us would care to contemplate.

Hundreds of hours later, Salazar walked away with some important information. First, that the average toothbrushing experience lasted two minutes and 20 seconds. Second, that everyone holds their toothbrush differently. And third, that Salazar and the rest of us have to share this planet with some real pigs when it comes to oral hygiene.

"The most distressing thing I learned is the lack of awareness some people have about germs," Salazar says tactfully. He ticks off the worst offenders.

"After they brush, they'll put the toothbrush upside down in the cup," he shudders. "Or, they'll just toss it in a cold, dark medicine cabinet."

After recovering from this unpleasant discovery about his fellow humans, Salazar and his team started meditating upon the task ahead of them.

"How can we enhance that two minutes and 20 seconds?" Salazar reflects on how he framed the challenge. "[The new toothbrush] not only had to look good, but work better. It had to feel like a tool.

"The aesthetics," he explains, "are driven by the ergonomics."

In other words, it's gotta feel good. Or, as Salazar puts it, "You need to feel that girth in your hand."

Even in the toothbrush world, size matters. Oral-B wanted a bigger, heftier tool. Not only because bigger is better, but because the CrossAction was going to be marketed as the first toothbrush to bust through the $5 barrier.

In their zeal to build the Cadillac of oral hygiene, Lunar made one teensy mistake. Most toothbrush holders are still being constructed to hold the girth equivalent of a fine-line marker.

Oral-B, however, solved that problem by offering a free holder to any CrossAction owner who called and complained.

The CrossAction also ran into trouble when it was test-marketed overseas. Asians considered it too unwieldy and Europeans were displeased about having to throw away an even bigger chunk of plastic.

Salazar responds to the quizzical look on my face. "You know, like, how you're supposed throw away your toothbrush every three months and get a new one?" I quickly change to a topic less revealing about my own oral hygiene and ask him if his personal grooming habits have changed since working on this project. "Oh sure," he chortles. "You're always learning."

Salazar's enthusiasm does not disappoint when we move on to his company's Xooter. It looks pretty much like a Razor to the untrained eye, but that is the beauty of investing zillions of dollars in design. The Xooter is made for the trained eye, the trained eye that's willing to shell out a few hundred more bucks to appeal to other trained eyes.

The Lunar gang are busy little bees, what with scooters, VCRs, PalmPilots, phones and all sorts of gadgets to redesign and improve.

"Got an idea? Lunar makes it real!" says Salazar, veering dangerously close to adspeak. But he redeems himself a moment later with a humble conclusion about the CrossAction.

"No matter how creative you are," says the designer, "at some point you go, 'Whoa, it's just a toothbrush.'"

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From the January 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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