Emphasizing the need for ambidextrous design in our right-centric world
Illustration by Jean Wei
Left-handed individuals face a host of inconveniences in their everyday lives. Lefties are believed to make up about 12 percent of the global population (some estimates put them as high as 20 percent), with many pushed into an awkward right-handedness by cultural forces. They have a host of well-known figureheads on their side, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Winston Churchill to Leonardo da Vinci, as well as Barack Obama, Oprah, and Jerry Seinfeld. But for all the clout and ubiquity of lefties, and the fading of old stigmas around their supposed inferiority, we righties continue to blithely design most consumer products with an implicit right-handed bias. And that righty privilege finds its way into everyday life and the workplace in many small, insidious ways.
While the worst aspects of the left-handed plight have started to erode over the past decade—thanks to the emergence of a wide world of lefty specialty products and lefty-friendly technology trends—righty privilege continues to permeate everyday life in small, seemingly innocuous ways.
Some of the more common gripes in the southpaw community include spiral-ring notebooks and smudgy pens, can openers and credit card machines, and even doorknobs and the crotch flap on jeans. Lesser-addressed complaints extend to include chainsaws, video game controller button configurations, and the left-side casing releases on most firearms, which have scorched many an unsuspecting forearm. Yet for the most part these seem like low-grade annoyances—things to which people can adapt with relatively minor discomfort. And the presence of left-handed alternatives for most products at specialty stores has limited the sense of urgency behind pro-lefty mainstream design innovation.
The presence of these easy solutions, however, may blind the right-rest of us to the more dire inequalities faced by lefties in the modern, tech-dependent era. Namely, for much of the past two or three decades, most computer keyboards, mice, and even control panel interfaces for software and apps have been physically designed to accommodate right-handed users, putting lefties at a technological disadvantage. Granted, a few tech-era fixtures, like the QWERTY keyboard configuration, which placed common letters under the left hand (originally to stop fast typists from jamming old typewriters), are unintentionally pro-southpaw. The vast majority, though, are just antithetical to lefty users.
But the modern disadvantages of left-handed people pale in comparison to their pre-modern counterparts. In many cultures, lefties’ hand preference was viewed as a sign of demonic association, stupidity, or laziness. The persecution faced by lefties in previous ages has given us holdover words like “sinister” and “gauche” (from the Latin and French for “left,” respectively, and cast in contrast to “dexterous,” from the Latin for “right”). This prejudice also burdened the English language with at least 88 snide terms for lefties; the Christian Bible contains at least 25 unfavorable references to left-handedness. Even the very word “left” comes from the Old English term lyft, meaning “idle, useless, or weak,” demonstrating just how deeply such discrimination was woven into ancient cultures.
Still, when you consider how much modern employment is dependent on manipulating technology just a bit faster and better than the person next to you—how pro forma excellent computer skills are on almost every resume you have ever had to draft—you can begin to appreciate how irksome, or even demoralizing, the pro-righty bias in mainstream tech can be. In fact, in a disturbing twist, one recent study out of Harvard University looking at 47,000 individuals established that lefties actually tend to earn 10 to 12 percent less annually than their right-handed counterparts.
The study’s author, Harvard assistant professor Joshua Goodman, has speculated that this gap is related to the underlying genetics of handedness. Many believe that left-handedness means one has a dominant left eye, and thus a dominant cross-wired right brain hemisphere, predisposing lefties to creative and spatial thinking, and thus to lower-paying jobs matching their skill sets. Yet it’s still easy to think that righty biases in the everyday tools at the center of most activities could contribute to the massive handedness income gap. At the very least, knowing that there’s a possible genetic disadvantage at work should be a clarion call to even the playing field as much as possible—shouldn’t lefties be given every opportunity to utilize the tools needed to compete with their righty compatriots and coworkers?
Many of the direly inconvenient technological disparities favoring righties have been addressed by a few major lefty specialty clearinghouses (think Ned Flanders’ Leftorium), which make southpaw versions of just about every device you could ever imagine. Yet the fact remains that, thanks to the specialty nature of the products, these solutions can still present hidden costs—time, opportunity, and financial expenditures that shouldn’t be incumbent on lefties by dint of birth. Lefties sometimes even feel compelled to purchase unique corrective technologies, like anti-pen-smudging gloves, just to have the same sort of ease and comfort in the writing experience as a righty.
So many of the design-based solutions to left-handedness—solutions aimed at correcting product biase—are far from perfect fixes. In recent years, though, there’s been one major physical shift in mainstream technology that has brought unintended, all-around positive consequences for lefties: smartphone and touch-screen design. By liberating lefties from a set physical control system or layout that requires them to work at awkward angles, tech designers have essentially eliminated the inherent biases (and extra expense of finding lefty-compatible versions) of the world’s most ubiquitous tech. The revolution isn’t perfect—Amazon’s new Kindles, for instance, keep their next-page tap function on the right, slowing down eager-beaver lefty readers. But it’s far easier to hack and fix these issues than to change the entire hardware of a machine. Case in point, many worried last year that the new Apple Watch would, like most conventional watches, be made for righties without a thought to lefties. Then Apple revealed that thanks to the symmetrical and malleable nature of modern smart-device digital design, the watch could just be flipped and would function perfectly for lefties.
This little technological revolution is far from eliminating all the inconveniences and costs levied on lefties by life. Truth be told, the sheer fact that lefties are in the minority means that most consumer products will continue to favor righties. And there are no simple design fixes to most of these biases—at least none that don’t take a bit of extra cash and time to attain. But the digital, symmetrical design of touch screens, even if it’s not meant for lefties, goes a long way in leveling the playing field in one of the most ubiquitous, expensive, and vital aspects of modern life. That counts for something, and it’s a development that we ought to find a way to encourage and repeat in other sectors of design. It would probably take a law or a sizable incentive to catalyze ambidextrous design throughout the wider economy—and hey, maybe that’s something we should be considering.