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Let's Solve a Problem: Target's Nail Polish Stand

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were shopping at Target, as you do at 9:00 PM on a Saturday. She needed some nail polish, and I needed some dairy-free ice cream. I love Target now more than I ever have in my life. Because the experience, or at least 99% of it, is amazing! 

But, I'm here to tell you, Target has a problem. I have literally no idea how this is a thing, but people like to "test out" their nail polish all over the metal stand.

The people who do this must also shop at TJ Maxx, throwing clothes in a fit of rage after they don't have their size (I'm coming for you next TJ's).

Target tried to solve the problem by painting the color on the rack already, to absolutely no avail. In fact, this might have actually made it worse.

So, this episode of Let's Solve a Problem, we are going to dive into why this is a problem and how Target could solve it. Let's go!

Why is this a problem?

This is a classic example of affordances, originally taught by Don Norman in Design of Everyday Things. According to Mr. Norman, "An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used."

The first time I read that, it blew my mind. So I'll try to make it a bit simpler by using an example: glass.

There are many properties of glass that determine what we can do with it. Because glass is clear, we can look through it. We can also draw on glass with whiteboard markers or permanent markers on accident. In addition, glass can also be cracked or shattered. All of these are examples of affordances. When you think of affordances, think "is for". What is glass for? Or , what can be done with it?

This stand is made out of polished stainless steel and is white. To some people that screams "please write on me with nail polish". The glossy white finish shows potential customers exactly what the nail polish will look like.

How could we solve this problem?

Idea #1: Put up a sign

Likely the most simple idea, we could put up a sign:

I'm sure some Target has a sign up right now to try this same thing. However, I can see many problems with this idea. If we laminate the sign, people will probably draw on this as well. Also, this would require a strict cleaning procedure. Paint on the rack in itself is a sign that drawing is fine. That is called a signifier.

However, what if it were a celebrity saying not to do it? Especially someone these people felt was serious. Like Kim Kardashians. I've watched 5 total minutes of KUWTK, so my opinion probably isn't the most accurate. But I would be curious to see the difference a celebrity would make. Especially Kim.

Idea #2: Make the rack a different color

The rack being white is making this problem much worse. White is going make every color pop and show the painters what the color will look like on their nails.

If the rack at Target was a different color, the painters would have a hard time telling how the color would look on their nails. Since some of the rack is already black, I think we just take that to the next level... paint it black! Like the Rolling Stones.

You can barely tell a difference design wise. I honestly think this could solve the problem.

My second choice would be to paint it red. But there are obviously problems to having a red rack. Most of all,  it is going to bring a lot of visual attention in the stores. However, that might be a good thing. If margins on nail polish are good, why not bring more people there?

Idea #3: Put tons of holes in the rack

Now here is an interesting idea. Because metal is so strong, it can be significantly reduced and still maintain much of its strength (engineers please DM with complaints). The idea here is simple: we take a drill and put hundreds of small holes in the rack. This would prevent the potential painters from getting enough paint on the rack to see how it would work.

Idea #4: Guard dog

While all the other ideas could realistically be implemented, are they truly what Target is after? I mean, don't we really go to Target because of the feeling. Feelings → happy → dogs → GUARD DOG!!!

I propose we put a trained German Shepard next to the rack (like the one who bit my dog Koda). When someone starts drawing on the rack, our friend Fredrick pounces and knocks down the bottle. Then, he presses a button and writes them a ticket.

I think Fredrick could eventually become the Target mascot. They only have a red circle right now. It is obviously an insane idea, but I could see that going viral!


We all know that writing on the rack is wrong. Even those fools who do it. But I honestly believe Target could implement these ideas to make things better at their stores. And that is what design is all about... solving problems.

And having fun!

Want more ideas like this one? 
Twice a month, I send an email teaching startup founders and employees to use design to improve their companies. It is a ton of fun!

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