Talking with U of M

Talking snow shovel design with U of M

A portrait of Gabriel Ruegg next to an image of a man in a winter coat shoveling a driveway in a heavy snowstorm by a residential house.
Credit: Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (01/12/2024) —  With Minnesota winters, there is perhaps no tool more important than the snow shovel. Gabriel Ruegg, a senior lecturer of product design in the College of Design, answers questions about how to make sure you select a quality shovel this winter.

Q: What should people look for when deciding what type of snow shovel to buy?
Consider which of the two major motions your space requires — pushing snow like a plow, or lifting and tossing it from one place to another. Shovels for pushing tend to have longer handles and shallow, wide blades, whereas those for lifting tend to have shorter handles and scooped blades. Most snow shovels on the market are optimized for one of these two functions. While many shovels are designed to accomplish both tasks reasonably well, you may decide to have separate tools for specialized tasks.

Q: How do the product materials impact effectiveness?
The main consideration is weight, especially for the lifting and tossing motion. In addition to the weight of the snow, you’re also lifting the weight of the shovel, over and over again. However, if the snow is icy or compacted, the momentum of a heavier shovel might help break it up or pry it loose. 

Keep in mind the type of surface you’re clearing. A metal blade or blade edge might damage wood decking or ceramic patio tiles, whereas concrete or asphalt are unlikely to be affected.

Finally, all shovels eventually wear out, so considering what will happen at the end of their use is important. Plastic, rubber and fiberglass are likely headed for the landfill, whereas metal is more likely to be recycled and wood can be a renewable resource. 

Q: What features should someone look for if they are concerned about protecting their back?
The curved or ‘ergonomic’ handles available on many snow shovels elevate the point where you grasp the middle of the handle when lifting and tossing snow, so you don’t have to bend over as far. Third-party loop handles that attach to any shovel can accomplish the same thing. This doesn’t help with the pushing motion — in fact, it may even hinder it. 

Heavy, wet snow is the real back killer. Be aware that a shovel full of light, fluffy snow might weigh only a few pounds, but the same volume, on the same shovel of wet snow might weigh as much as a bag of cement! Just like in the gym, it’s easier and safer to do a lot of reps with lower weights. A heavy load might help you bulk up, but it will also increase the risk of injury and drain your energy quickly. 

Q: Do you see any new trends or features in shovel design? 
One trend I’ve noticed lately is steel core handles — a steel tube coated in plastic — presumably to get the strength of steel without having to worry about rust or cold hands. They’re heavier than plastic or fiberglass handles, but probably more durable. The extra weight might also make consumers think they’re getting a better quality product, regardless of whether or not that’s ultimately true. I haven’t tried one myself, so I don’t know how the trade-offs balance out. Still, from a sustainability standpoint, generally, any time two materials are attached it takes extra effort to separate them, which means they’re likely headed for the landfill. 

Q: How does the College of Design prepare students to design high-quality, user-centered products that benefit Minnesotans?
We teach our students to consider several things about product design and use, such as the user’s body, social or cultural context, physical context, and direct and indirect impacts. Ultimately, they work to ensure a product appeals to the intended buyer or user. This might be about style, social status, product features or functionality, materials, or production processes. Regardless of what factors are most important for a particular product, we teach students that it is the designer’s responsibility to understand and integrate as many of these considerations as possible into their final designs.

Gabriel Ruegg is a senior lecturer of product design in the College of Design. His areas of expertise include prototyping, 3D modeling, form development, design for manufacturability, design research and sustainability. He has worked in several industries, including pet products, toys, hospitality hardware, and mass-market, consumer kitchen products.

About the College of Design
Located in a major design city and in one of the largest research universities in the U.S., the University of Minnesota's College of Design encompasses a full range of design disciplines — including landscape architecture, architecture, retail merchandising, and the design of interiors, graphics, apparel, and other products. Faculty, students, and staff aim to advance the quality of manufactured objects and our natural, built, and social environments through sustainably resilient, socially responsible, civically engaged, and human-centered design collaborations. Learn more at

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