Today was Choti Diwali (small Diwali) and tomorrow is Diwali so a lot of the family is in town — my eldest sister and brother-in-law from Louisiana and my niece and nephew and my youngest sister and her fiancee. For those of you who don’t know what Diwali is, for many North Indians it’s the most important religious holiday of the year, the beginning of our new year.
A small puja (religious ceremony) was followed by our placing diyas (usually oil lamps, but in our case tealight candles), 51 of them, all inside and outside our house. That was followed by a elaborate meal and then everyone split as dishes were cleaned, children were put to bed and some of us sat around talking and drinking tea. Once the kids were down, we moved the coffee table out of the living room, threw down a bunch of comforters and settled in to play a game of Scrabble. As a side note, I haven’t played Scrabble in several years mostly because my eldest sister and brother-in-law are really, really good and it’s no fun playing against them because they’re in a league of their own, often drawing scores in the 300+ range (if I remember correctly). They get into obscure debates about whether letter combinations like ‘ti’ or ‘fa’ are “words” in the Scrabble dictionary… it’s just ridiculous.
So anyways, we played and it wasn’t so bad… I actually found that Scrabble is a lot of fun, a mixture of strategy and vocabulary. But the interesting part was that we played with a new Scrabble set that someone had picked up from Target — designed by Michael Graves.
Before we had played, when we saw the packaging, it looked really cool and new age — our old favorite spinning board with grooved slots and wooden lettered tiles reinvented with cool high-quality opaque plastic and shiny brushed metal.
After we spent some time playing on the Michael Graves designed Scrabble board, it became clear that either Michael Graves is a terrible designer or he was out to lunch when his people put this Scrabble thing together and slapped his name on it. The details:
* The board is a fold-out board, a diptych, and rather than the tiles being continuous at the seam where it folds, there’s this 1/2″ black band that separates the two halves, a disconnect in the otherwise uniform grid. This makes for annoying game play because letters that are adjacent to one another on opposite sides of the seam don’t actually appear to adjacent.
* One thing Michael Graves confirms here: a Scrabble board should spin so every player can easily see the letter layout on their turn, and the board should have grooves in it for the tiles, so when it’s turned, the letters don’t run the risk of getting scattered. The Michael Graves board doesn’t spin and it doesn’t have grooves.
* The board surface itself is made of a metallic material and the text printed on the board is also shiny — net result is that everything on the board is hard to read, including the otherwise useful legend of how many tiles of each letter are in circulation in the game.
* And probably the most inane part of the design is the score keeping mechanism: each player has a rack thingy to store his letters and in the Michael Graves Edition, the rack thingy is made of this sleek brushed metal… with a bunch of holes in it. So rather than just writing down how many points each person scores in each round and keeping a running total or a running difference for each player, you’re supposed to use these bunch of holes to keep track of your score. There are 20 holes in the first row, labeled at intervals of 5 (ie 5, 10, 15, 20) and 20 holes in the second row, labeled at intervals of 100 (ie 100, 200, 300, 400). So it’s basically some wacko, not-friendly base-20 counting system that is, IMO, almost completely unusable, or at best very, very unintuitive.
I’ve been generally impressed with what Michael Graves has done for Target in the past 5-10 years, making it a premium but value shopping destination. And while I haven’t bought or carefully studied any of his designed-just-for-Target products that always catch my eye when I’m at Target, I’ve heard a lot about how through his partnership with Target, he’s brought high-end design to the masses, like the American IKEA or something. This experience definitely changes my view of Michael Graves as a designer — maybe he’s just a great branding and marketing guy and not a very good designer or maybe this one product just slipped through the cracks.
In any case, I CAN tell you that if you’re looking to buy a Scrabble board and actually use it (as opposed to, say, showing it off as something that looks cool), don’t buy the Michael Graves edition from Target.