Design Origins

One of the podcasts that I really like is 99% Invisible. This podcast explores unseen design. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the categories of news chum that catches my eye has to do with design. Here’s some that I’ve seen recently:

  • Orange Handled Scissors. We all have them, if not multiple pairs. I’ve got two staring at me from my desk: one real, one a knockoff. Yet have you ever wondered who invented them. Two recent articles, one from Mental Floss, and one from Co.Design, provide the answer. You probably remember the scissors that were common before the orange wonders: either silver or black handles, all metal, and heavy. This changed in the 1960s, as plastic was just starting to become a popular material. Fiskars began using the light, strong compound to make tabletops and dishes, but one of the company’s industrial designers, Olof Bäckström, sensed an opportunity to completely reinvent one of the company’s signature goods. Using plastic, he created a lighter scissor handle that was curved to fit the hand, thus making them easier to hold. Ultimately, this tweak also helped make the scissors easier to manufacture, helping them become affordable to the masses. Why Orange? At the time, Fiskars was making orange juicers from orange plastic. The first prototype for plastic-handled scissors was created with plastic from a juicer that was left in a machine. Fiskars employees ended up liking this original look so much that they ultimately voted to stick with it.
  • Common Typographic Symbols.  We use symbols like “@”, “#”, and “&” every day, but do you know where they come from? Mental Floss did an article recently on the origins of 6 common typographic symbols: “@”, “0”, “#”, “&”, “…”, and “+”.  Now you know will know why & == “and per se and”.
  • The Barcode. You likely think grocers invented the barcode. But you would be wrong. The original bar codes were invented by railroad companies to keep track of railroad cars.  The US rail industry, due to its large size and the sheer amount of stuff being delivered on its tracks at all times, had a fundamental challenge: Tracking where an individual car was going was really hard, and cars would often get lost.  The industry needed a solution that workedwhile the train was moving, perhaps as fast as 60 miles per hour. No delays allowed. No stopping, either. And because trains travel through all sorts of elements—rain, snow, wind, light, dark—that tracking has to work in basically any setting. And because it had to go on so many train cars, it had to be cheap—no more than, say, a dollar per device. The solution: KarTrak. Using a series of reflective color bars as a layer of abstraction from the complicated codes, the codes were then optically scanned using helium-neon lasers that were intended to pick up the details of the codes, no matter the weather. It worked, and was a success for a while, but soon petered out because of the cost of the scanners and lawsuits.
  • Craigslist. The site is ugly and text-based. Trades are risky and often prone to fraud. Yet it is highly successful, with numerous less-successful imitators. Why is Craigslist so successful. Wired explored the history and the reasons. First there were garage sales and the Recycler. Then came the internet, and with it, so many new ways to buy and sell used furniture. It was a serendipity engine that made it infinitely easier for people all over the world to exchange old lamps. One of the most useful tools was a list maintained by a guy named Craig. Craig’s list wasn’t a list so much as a collection of listings—a free online classifieds service that made its inky predecessors seem obsolete. Craig Newmark founded Craigslist in 1995 as an email list of interesting events in and around San Francisco. The list soon mutated into a stand-alone website. Why is it successful?The site is whatever its users need it to be at any given moment in time: a housing agency, an employment office, a matchmaking service, a lost-and-found board, a town square. Or an ideology.
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