»Comparing apples
and oranges is my
daily bread.«

Juli Gudehus

Design for the arse

In ancient times people used everything imaginable to wipe their derrieres after nature’s call. Then finally, in the first half of the 20th century, Hans Klenk invented toilet paper on rolls, thus creating what would become the worldwide standard. The company’s name until today, is Hakle, and their first rolls had a mere 1000 sheets.


There are different qualities of toilet tissue. Worst quality is close to crêpe paper, mostly recycled material whereas good quality toilet tissue is very absorbent, and tender. Toilet tissue usually has a smooth surface and can be embossed – partly to stabilize the paper, partly to make wiping more efficient, and partly for decoration. Here the Swiss display a remarkable preference for toilet tissue with knobbly patterns. Germans judge quality by the number of layers, and use shorter strips of toilet tissue. For US-Americans, the British and the Japanese the tissue needs to be as tender and fine as possible. They use longer strips of toilet tissue in a kind of »sponge cake« technique.


The single sheets of toilet tissue are divided by a perforation line, and their formats vary from nation to nation. In Germany, the Netherlands, France, Poland and Switzerland for example, postcard format is standard (about 100 × 140 mm), equivalent to Din format. In England, the usual format tends to be broader, measuring approximately 115 × 135 mm. The most extreme landscape format that I know of is 115 × 102 mm (Thailand), and the most extreme portrait format (discounting non-perforated rolls) is100 × 366 mm (German promotional toilet tissue by Schmidt Spiele).


For the background, other than natural hues between white and gray or beige, pastel shades are dominant: pink, apricot, light yellow, light blue, very pale lilac, pale green, but never deep colours like black, ruby, neon green, royal blue, et cetera. In all cases, paper is imbued. It is not common to print toilet paper all-over. Eco-conscious prefer unprinted toilet tissue. At most, they might approve of the imprint stating that a toilet tissue is – like them – eco-conscious. If there is a print, it is usually monochrome. Only very luxurious toilet tissue comes with more printed colours. Favourite print colours are again pink, rose or blue, often on a white background to give pretty and hygienic impressions. Lilac, orange, brown, and green are very rarely used.


Patterns are popular on toilet tissue. Most of the patterns are »scattering patterns« which means that a design will irregularly scattered all over the surface. Stripes, understandably, are very rarely used, as are polka-dots. Occasionally, toilet tissue may be embossed with a crocodile-leather look, with variations of waves, circles or squares, and may still be printed with yet more decoration. Ornamentation is usually self-contained, and is not continued without interruption, from the first until the last sheet.


Illustrations are dominated by anything we associate with cosy fluffiness (bears, cats, rabbits, down feathers & clouds), lightness (again clouds and down feathers, leaves, butterflies and birds) or sweet smells (flowers of all kinds). The indignity suffered by fluffy animals printed on toilet tissue seems to be of little concern. It’s rare to come across illustrations that are thought to look noble. However, one particularly sardonic British brand of toilet tissue, available from Marks & Spencer, is embossed with the lily of the Bourbons – a French aristocratic emblem. Allusions to water (fish, shells or other aquatic animals), are less rare.


Some kinds of toilet tissue come perfumed, often with camomile, peach or rose scent. Some are antibacterial. There is a whole world of fun, artistic, and promotional toilet tissues that offer amusing or profound content to read, instead of meaningless decors. Then there is moist toilet tissue which comes imbued with a cleaning lotion. This will be sold folded or rolled, in airtight plastic boxes. 


Who actually designs toilet tissue? This we can only guess at. I cannot recall any renowned design studio that was ever active in the field. No wellknown illustrator seems to have been assigned to date. Until today, there is as-good-as no designer toilet tissue. Also, design academies do not encourage students to think about this product. Despite all the existing variations of toilet tissue available, it is still one of the most conservative fields in graphic design – a lamentable state of affairs.

As I collected and watched toilet tissue for such a long time now I see many unexploited possibilities and have a whole bunch of fresh design ideas. In other words: I would love to design toilet tissue myself!