10 Questions to Ask When Designing Pottery for Use

Something every functional potter should consider when designing pots that are intended to be used, is how well the pot works with the anatomy of the user. In other words, are your pots comfortable and easy to use? When potters carefully consider things like the thickness of the lip of a mug or the placement and size of a handle on a pitcher, it can make the difference between a pot that gets used often or one that gets avoided.

Robin Hopper, who wrote the book on functional pottery (quite literally – he was the author of Functional Pottery: Form and Aesthetic in Pots of Purpose), is back again today with ten questions that every functional potter should ask themselves when designing pots for use. Post these in your studio so you remember them every time you make a new pot! – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Form and Function

Functional pottery is made for people to use and many potters feel that the pot isn’t complete until it is physically used for its job. If it is to do its job totally, it should be efficient, easy to use, comfortable in the hands, and give pleasure to the user at the same time. One should consider how it is to be used and what parts of the human anatomy will be in contact with it for optimum satisfaction on all counts. Judging by a large volume of pottery that one finds in the marketplace, a great number of potters and pottery manufacturers seldom consider the anatomy of the user when making their wares.

10 Questions to Ask When Designing Functional Pottery

1. Are the top rims and the edges of the handles sharp to the touch for either lips or fingers? Any parts of the pot that come into contact with parts of the body should be smooth.

2. Is the curvature at the top of a drinking vessel suitable for drinking from? Does it curve in or out, or is it straight up? For optimum function, there should be a slight curve outward so that liquid flows easily from the vessel into the mouth and does not dribble.

3. Is the shape of the object suitable to be held or drunk from?

4. Does the handle have sufficient room for fingers? Handles should have room for average-sized fingers (granted, hands come in all shapes and sizes, but the thickness of the thickest part of the average fore finger is about 1 inch). If handles are too big, it will likely feel awkward and look awkward.

5. Does the handle fit the hand, or do the fingers have to conform to the handle?

6. Is the width of the mouth of a drinking vessel too large or too small? For comfortable drinking, the width of the mouth of a drinking vessel should be no more than the distance from the lips to the bridge of the nose (see image above).

7. Does the shape of the pot need handles to fulfill its intended use?

8. Does the sound or texture of the surface aggravate the user?

9. Does the object as designed get too hot to hold? If your piece is designed for hot liquid, you might want to adjust the thickness of the walls, or attach a handle so that hands don’t get burnt.

10. Could it work better and be more comfortable to use than it is?

 **First published in 2013
  • Genevieve N.

    This is weird that my name appears with a comment that I am supposed to have made and posted on the 18th of December. I suspect that it was a comment I made last year, at least, or maybe even 2 years ago. Why change the date of people’s comments ? to make it appear that it is a brand new article ? Please be honest and leave the original dates. We all well know that you recycle old posts and that it does not matter. It is always interesting. And the link inside Jeff Taylor’s post to the video by Pete Pinnel is an invaluable addition to this article.

  • I agree with Robin’s slightly outward curve to the cups, especially for hot liquid. This prevents placing the lower lip on the hot surface of the cup. As for dripping teapots —- the method of pouring has as much to do with a teapot dripping as any application from the potter

  • My view is that the outward curve is desired by some as it fits the bottom lip while drinking. I have always preferred the slight inward curve. I find that I am more likely to have liquids spill on the side of my lips on the outward curve, especially when in a hurry and taking a quick sip.The slight inward curve keeps the main course of liquid channeled towards the mouth. Wine glasses (most, not all) are a good example of the common use of the inward curve.

    As for the many other design features to aim for one is a pet peeve of mine, namely, the teapot that drips. To me a teapot that drips is just another teapot. One that does not and is beautiful is a great balance of design and art.

  • Subscriber T.

    Thanks Jeffrey Taylor– for the link to Pete Pinnell’s video. Just the kind of “over analyzing” that I like!

  • What about the issue of crazing, and bacteria lodging itself in the tiny cracks.

  • Genevieve N.

    Regarding the question of the foot added to some vessels, it appears that it was introduced by Chinese potters at the time they discovered/developed/invented glazes to prevent the glaze from running down and sticking the vessel to the kiln shelf, or in those days, more likely, the pots were stacked on top of each other or inside each other. One could say that the foot was a sort of wadding.
    It does bring elegance to a pot though, by elevating it above the surface of the table. But not always. An elegant foot is important. Some potters don’t put enough attention in the beauty of the foot of their pots. In Japan the pot is always turned upside down by customers as soon as they look at a pot.

  • What if you answered no to every question? Haha

  • Denise M.

    yes, great list, but obviously there is so much more, like Shelley mentions – the stability of the foot is critical for good function, or the flow of liquid in the spout on a jug or teapot etc etc. Its the endless considerations required that keep me so interested in being a potter who makes functional wares.

    I’m surprised about the inward verses outward curved rim comments. I would consider an outward rim far better than an inward curve any day. Can’t find anything in my cupboard with an inward curved rim. Straight or outward for me – and I often use slabs to make mugs – soft slabs, that I put a slight outward curve on.

  • Shelley M.

    Good checklist. I’m going to use it in my classes. But what about the foot of a vessel? It would be interesting to address the function and reason of a particular foot or lack thereof.

  • Eugenia T.

    Careful… too much outward curve and the liquid will pour beyond a person’s mouth and down their front! The key is SLIGHT or gentle curve. Most commercial cups are curved inward. A mug, because it often holds more liquid, should have the slight curve outward or straight up.

  • Jeffrey T.

    Was immediately reminded of the Pete Pinnell video on YouTube about cups. Amazing insight and some surprising comments that go counter to some of the advice above, and gives convincing insights on why. http://youtu.be/WChFMMzLHVs

  • Kaveri B.

    This is a thoughtful checklist but is one for mugs and cups only. Not for all functional pottery.
    Even for mugs and cups, it doesn’t talk about the stability of the piece when put down, the aesthetics of the visual ratio of thickness of lip to thickness of handle, nor of the foot. A good, bu incomplete list.

    Thanx though. It has given me an idea to make lists of things to keep in mind for each kind of form, to put up where my students can see it! A list for teapots, a list for jugs, a list for ladles, a list for soup tureens,… etc. Just some stuff to keep in mind when making a new design.. Students tend to get carried away with a single idea and forget about the basic checklist of things that a functional pot needs to fulfill.

  • I have been making handbuilt coffee cups for many years,NOT wheel thrown !I always use a straight side not curved,suspect the author is throwing cups on the wheel hence the slight curve.I do sell these cups also and only once had a complaint and it had nothing to do with the shape of the cup.An interesting article and of course well written,would not expect anything less from Mr. Hopper

  • Roland B.

    I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an expert like Robin Hopper, but I do drink a lot, and I’m not convinced that an outward curving top to a drinking vessel is either good for feel on the lips or necessarily prevents dribbling. Most mugs are straight, more glasses curve in than out (in my home at least). Am I a victim of industrial design or is the shape at the rim as important a factor as the curve of the side?

  • catherine p.

    always a useful idea to keep a checklist handy as we all forget things from time to time. My biggest bugbear with mugs though is the base being smaller than the rim. A disaster waiting to hasppen as this design is so unstable. The same goes for any functional piece to be honest, be it a jug, a vase or any vessel designed to hold liquid.

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