📰 Design You Haven’t Thought About

I’m finally past the mapping project for the highway pages, and I’ve posted the theatre reviews for the last weekend. Do you know what that means, boys and girls? It means I can get back to clearing out the accumulated links for news chum (as in, “ready, set, discuss”). This collection all struck me as having to deal with design issues you might not have thought about:

  • Coffee Cup Lids. Have you ever thought about that styrene lid you get on your take-out coffee or tea? Who designed it? What is the meaning of all those symbols. It turns out that there is a new book on the design of the humble lid, and there is even more details in an Atlas Obscura post on the same subject, where they decode the lid.
  • Concrete. If you were to think about what makes our civilization possible, your mind might turn to the humble man-made rock, concrete. It allows us to build in a variety of shapes, it makes our roads and tall buildings possible. But its manufacture comes with a tremendous environmental cost, and it is one of the reasons we are at peak sand today. The manufacture of cement creates loads of greenhouse gases, and the manufacture of concrete traps water and sand in a way that can’t be easily recovered (certainly, the sand).
  • Airline Maps. Consider the humble airline route map in the back of your in-flight magazine. Have you ever thought about how it is designed? How it shows you the detail the airline wants you to see while hiding others? How it conveys messages about the brand itself. Here’s an interesting exploration of the design process behind the creation of the map.
  • DC Metro Stations. When you travel on transit, you probably don’t think about the station design. But that design can tell you a lot about the system, when it was built, and the messages and wayfaring notions the transit operator wants to convey. Just consider all the different station types in Washington DC.
  • Highways and Cities. When you think about the design of highways, what thoughts go through your head? The material the road is made out of? How much easier it will make it for you to get from point A to point B? The fact that it completes a line on a map? But do you ever think about how the design and routing of a freeway can impact a city? Building a highway can divide communities and make racial segregation worse. This isn’t new; think about the “other side of the tracks” distinction. Look at how freeways such as the Harbor divide south-central LA. But that raises the next question: Would removing a highway undo the damage? How might we build these structures so that they do not divide.
  • Batteries. Finally, here’s a questions of A, B, Cs. More properly, I should say AAA, AA, C, and D. Here’s a handy diagram of all types of batteries.



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.