Ever notice how your sink, fridge, and kitchen make a triangle? Probably not. Unless you’ve designed your own kitchen it’s probably something you’ve never even thought about. And, unless you’re unfortunate to have your entire kitchen stretch along a single wall, I can guarantee, your kitchen is designed to have a “work triangle.”

The work triangle is a pretty simple concept: place the three main work areas in a way that requires minimal movement. For instance, the cook, can reach the fridge, the sink, and the oven/stove without taking a single step. If these areas were placed in a line, the cook would be required to move back and forth. Additionally, the triangle allows for counter space between the three main work areas for additional tasks such as cutting vegetables or mixing in a bowl before placing on the stove.

While the idea of placing items you use most in close proximity seems relatively simple, the work triangle was not developed until the 1940’s. Since it’s creation, it has become a staple in kitchen design and a key example of ergonomics.

Ergonomics in the Kitchen

Ergonomics is the study of physical and mental aspects of people in relation to the things we make, so that people who use the design for the first time can be successful, and people who use it repeatedly find it easy and safe.top-shelf

You design your kitchen to be ergonomic without even realizing it. Things as simple as placing items you barely use in the cabinets that are most difficult to reach, or putting frequently used items such as butter in easy to find places like the door of your fridge, all require consideration of ergonomics.

Design Flaws

We don’t really notice how well designed things are because they seem so simple. But, it is easy to tell when human use is not considered in design.

I find stove tops to be a frequent offender of ergonomics. I recently spent four months abroad using a stove top that was quite different in design than what I’m used to. All of the knobs for the burner were in a line along the right hand side of the stove, and while each had a small description beside the knob, I always seemed to turn on the wrong burner. Five minutes later I’d go to check if my water was boiling and realize I’ve wasted five minutes doing nothing. This was a fault in the design as it shouldn’t require special attention to turn on the right burner.

stovesEven design fundamentals like the work triangle have their flaws. The work triangle is great for a single cook, but if multiple people are in the kitchen at once they’re constantly bumping into each other. This could be because it was developed under the 1940’s assumption that one person was doing the cooking (ahem the wife?). In the 21st century it’s common to find people working together in the kitchen, yet design concepts haven’t been updated. Other gripes include that it messes with the feng shui of the house as the cook will often have his back to the door, leaving him/her vulnerable.

The key to kitchen design as well as ergonomics as a whole is to understand who will be using it. If you’re a family that likes to cook as a group, forget the work triangle requirements and design an area that will give your family a comfortable amount of space. If you want bar stools for your breakfast nook, but have smaller children, buy ones that have rungs to help the children get up while still being tall enough for the adults. There is no universal scientific law behind the best kitchen design. The best design will be the one that best fits you and your family’s needs.