Universal Design: A-peeling To the Masses

An old fashioned potato peeler on a cutting board with some potatoes in various states of peeling.
Traditional stainless steel vegetable peeler
Traditional stainless steel vegetable peeler

Better Living Through Design: One Company’s Quest to Improve a Simple Kitchen Gadget

One day, ten-year-old me was sitting at my parents’ dining table peeling a huge pile of potatoes with a vegetable peeler. The peeler’s design was simple and straight forward, but a challenge for small hands. Even with a stern warning from my mother (“Be careful with that peeler – you’ll cut yourself!”), I inadvertently peeled off the upper part of my index finger. Decades later, I still have a scar on that finger and an irrational fear of potatoes.  

OXO vegetable peeler with wide plastic grip

In the early 1990s, the OXO vegetable peeler was unveiled. The design was based on the conventional vegetable peeler, save one defining feature: A wider handle, creating a more stable grip for the human hand to grasp onto. The founder of OXO, Sam Garber, developed the idea for the improved design:

Noticing that his wife, Betsy, who suffered from mild arthritis in her hands, was having difficulty gripping ordinary kitchen tools, he saw an opportunity to create more comfortable cooking tools that would benefit users. In 1990, the first group of 15 OXO Good Grips kitchen tools were introduced to the U.S. market at the Gourmet Products Show in San Francisco, California, in 1990.

This simple design has made vegetable preparation more appealing to a much broader clientele than just people with arthritis. Garber’s wide-gripped peeler, an eloquent solution to a particular problem experienced by a relatively narrow segment of the general public – that is, people, like his wife, who encountered difficulties peeling vegetables due to arthritis in their hands – found popularity amongst the non-arthritic community.

As it turns out, having a wider grip on a vegetable peeler was a highly desirable feature for reasons that didn’t have commonality with Betsy Gardner’s condition. By creating a vegetable peeler to accommodate his wife’s needs, Sam Garber’s design demonstrates one way in which Universal Design can influence improvements to a kitchen gadget found in nearly every home.  Today, the OXO vegetable peeler remains a top-selling product for the company and an example of how excellence in design impacts us all.

OXO has won over 100 design awards and sees Universal and Inclusive Design as a philosophy, as well as a profitable business practice. The company continues to set the standard for user-friendly kitchen utensils while maintaining an annual growth rate of 30%.