We go on holiday in the time-honoured British fashion: we decamp to the seaside. We've been coming to the same Dorset town for over a decade, always in the off-season, and always renting the same flat. We're creatures of habit and it is a very cozy home-from-home.
The mugs are awful.
There are two half-acceptable ones, in vaguely inoffensive shades of blue. They wash fairly easily, which means we can keep re-using them - a necessity, as the other eight in the cabinets are truly, irrefutably dire. You know the mugs of which I speak. They're cylinders of fragile glass; not proper china (that'd be, at least, classy), but a pasty glass the width of pressed cardboard, perpetually fostering hairline fractures, so you're drinking in a state of constant precarity. They hold very little volume - far less than a cup of tea, and so narrow that they are impossible to clean properly without commissioning Victorian child sweeps. The handles are too small, forcing you to choose between wedging two fingers in (and scalding your knuckles), or a claw-like grip over the top. Nor are they even attractive: an assortment of sickly stripes or weedy flower patterns, weakly commemorating the 2014 Glyndebourne Festival. They're too ugly to be ornamental; too dull to be kitsch. Mugs that only exist in holiday homes because you'd never use them yourself.
With the pent-up passive aggression of a decade of awkward tea-drinking experiences, this time we sought out new mugs. Like all seaside villages, we had the choice of multiple charity shops and a WH Smith. Plenty of options.
So what makes a good mug?
My personal favourite is a mug I got at a Little Chef, also about a decade ago. I can't even find one online to show you. It is big, but not stupid hipster-'Trenta' size. It has a solid handle, and a pleasant curve. It is a pleasing white with a discreet logo on it. The closet approximation is in the top row centre (Neutral Good) of this image, except, of course, with Fat Charlie hanging out on it.
(My other favourite mug is of an identical shape and construction, that I got in the visitor centre at Sherwood Forest. My mug aesthetic is 'Middle England'.)
This isn't a purely attitudinal 'favourite' as well. My mug preferences come through in my behaviour: it is a mug that I use a lot. Despite the plethora of mugs in the house (giving me a range of cost-less choices), I prioritise my mug, even when it takes a little extra effort to make sure it is washed and cleaned. I will put in the extra minute of labour to re-use the same mug, despite it being 'free' to reach for another. I like my mug.
Extrapolating to a greater framework of muggery, I think it is a combination of a lot of factors: volume (size, capacity), solidity (robustness, heft), aesthetics (visual), texture (feel), usability (handle size, cleanability, wobbliness), and, of course, personal relevance (I got this at a classical music festival and/or Little Chef). I suspect industrial and product designers could add even more dimensions to this, but, for me, these six cover off all the major, discrete, ways of appraising a mug.
Unlike previous discussions of, say, value, these factors are more objective. Only one - relevance - is uniquely subjective. The other five are all ways of the individual responding to the mug's intrinsic properties. Even visual aesthetics: the mug looks how the mug looks. How I react to it may be personal, but the essential self-presentation of the mugness is immutable. The mug abides.
The fact that I even have a favourite mug flies in the face of conventional brand thinking. I'm attached to my mug - based on the behavioural evidence. But that attachment results from a combination of familiarity and functionality. There's no greater story, no significance, no history, no moral worth. The mug has no intangible virtues whatsoever. I like it because of what it is does and how it is present. It's stability is a virtue. In an era where we are told to prioritise emotional messaging and perpetual innovation, this is a product that succeeds by being rational and immutable.
Nor is my mug the only object I relate to - or, more accurately, don't relate to - in this way. My pens and notebooks (Muji, cheap, reliable, identical). My backpack. My shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, razors, deodorant... Socks. For every one of these, I could go for more emotional or innovative variants. Some people prefer antique razors, svelte Nordic backpacks, self-consciously wacky socks, or a pen that's a family heirloom. Mundane objects can absolutely provide opportunities for self-expression. But, at the end of the day, what I want from these things is the comfort that they will do what I want them to do, and to be there when I need them.
Two follow-on thoughts:
It is really annoying when you want a thing that does a thing, and no longer does that thing.
And this is where tech companies' desire to continuously 'break things' can be deeply annoying. Whether that's Gmail or Twitter dicking with its interface, Google dropping its RSS reader, or battle royale games adding new features. It is the internet code of conduct to mock those that reflexively hate change, but, however minor, these are a shifts in a product that we interact with all the time. This is why customers get upset when a shampoo changes its scent and why Kraft has to remove its additives by stealth: it is tinkering, however minutely, with the thingness of the thing. It might be a good, or necessary, change. But it causes uncertainty, bringing awareness to an area of the customer's life where they had deliberately cultivated complacency. Swapping mugs may not be a big deal, but it makes me think.
There's also a category of functional/reliable thing that functions, but still never seems to breed familiarity.
My connection to my mug is rational, but I still care about it more than I do, say, my mortgage. My bank, probably. Insurance, definitely. Virtually every time I've ever worked with a financial institution, insurer, or utility, they've been gazing lustfully at Facebook or Apple, dreaming naughty daydreams about an emotional connection, and dreaming up schemes for reaching into more 'life cycle moments'. But maybe that's the wrong dream? I don't want my bank to offer emotional puffery, I want to never fret about money. I don't want add-ons - or more decisions - from my utility provider. I don't want deeper insights, and more scrutiny, from my insurer. I want them to be functional, reliable, and unobtrusive. I want all of these fundamental services to be in the background; out of the way. They should only register when I need to reach for them. I want them to be more mug.
Get: Anyone tackling a strategy
To: Avoid relying on making consumers care all the time
By: Appreciating all the things they don't have to care about
I think Brutalism is the mug of architecture. I really love that it is having a moment, and that there's even a whole concrete chic thing going on. But beyond the aesthetic, the principles of brutalism are those of muggishness: 'truth to materials' is honest, direct and the polar opposite of innovation for its own sake. This guide for 'Brutalist web design' translates the philosophy into the user experience, and is worth a read.
Another way of thinking about this: the household as an enclosed ecosystem of 'slack' and 'tension'. That dynamic adds a way of analysing design (in the broadest sense of the term). Does this product or service provide slack? Or increase tension? If the latter, bin it.
I may have linked this before, but the 'ode to gray'. I like gray. But I also approve of its mug-like functionality: It is the perfect intermediate... It lingers, incognito, in this saturated world."
Or, in its simplest propositional form: This vintage McDonald's ad gets it.
Come tell me I'm wrong TO MY FACE on the 21st and 28th of this month. Also, buy my book. Or my other book (it is on sale!).
Angie Thomas in Bradford. Malorie Blackman (et al) in London. More tinkering with Best of British Fantasy and a review of A People's Future of the United States (possibly more on that to come, as I had to edit that down like crazy).