October 8, 2013
Founded in 1897, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is the country’s only museum dedicated solely to historic and contemporary design. As part of their mission to educate the public on all things design-related and spread awareness of the many ways design can enhance our lives, each year the museum organizes the National Design Awards. As the name suggests, the awards are given to U.S.-based designers “in recognition of excellence, innovation, and enhancement of the quality of life,” with categories in architecture, fashion, interaction design, product design and more. Awards are determined by a diverse jury of prestigious design professionals that this year includes, among others, Jury Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago Zoë Ryan, architect Tom Mayne, of Morphosis, Kickstarter design director Charles Adler, and you. Yes, you.
Cooper-Hewitt wants to know what you think makes for good design and one prize, The People’s Design Award, is determined by a public vote. For once, we’re not talking about designing the vote, but voting for design. Until this Friday, October 11, you can choose your favorite life-changing design innovation from among twenty potential candidates representing all the above mentioned categories.
Nominees include a hand crank to charge your gadgets, portable medical equipment, an artful video game designed to be played but not won, a mobilized telepresence device that reminds me of an episode of the Big Bang Theory, a device that transforms your hands and fingers into the ultimate computer peripheral, an emergency cell phone that runs on a single AA battery, a snap-together circuit boards that offers to do for engineering what Legos did for architecture, slick-looking technological handlebars with built-in with lights, navigation, and speedometer, a bike helmet vending machine for the urban bike-sharer, and of course, a few apps.
I only have experience with a couple of these, so I’ll keep my opinions brief:
The iOS app Mailbox has completely changed the way I handle email and has helped keep achieve –and maintain!– the once-mythical state of “inbox zero”. Mailbox’s major innovation is a method of archiving email that seems so obvious it’s surprising that it wasn’t widely adopted by other services long ago. Instead of letting messages pile up in your inbox or filing them into folders to be forgotten, Mailbox lets you reschedule an email to respond at a more convenient time. It’s like a snooze button for email that keeps unnecessary messages out of your inbox. A super-clean user-interface and shallow learning curve only make the app better.
Medium is a blogging platform and publishing network founded by two of the minds that brought you twitter. They call it a place to “share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends.” There are a few things that make the platform standout from similar services: its clean design, it’s promise to help writers find an audience “through a combination of algorithmic and editorial curation,” and a unique comment system that doesn’t relegate reader input to the bottom of an article, but alongside it, like annotations. Thus, commenters become collaborators rather than a collection of people yelling in vain from a soapbox at the end of an alley. Right now the service is still in beta, so only a few invited writers can use Medium (but you can request an invite on the site).
All these products and services that have been nominated offer something new. But which design matters the most to you? Which design has the potential to change lives around the world? Which one offers an elegant solution to a problem? Which one will improve your everyday routine? However you decide whats important, cast your vote before this Friday, October 11, to help decided the winner of the People’s Design Award. The winner be be announced at the National Design Awards gala and online on October 17.
August 2, 2013
With the onset of consumer technology like desktop printing and portable mapping devices, a general interest has developed in two previously niche design fields – cartography and typography. The National Geographic Society has been in the business of both since the days when there were still frontiers to be discovered and explorers had little more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. In the age of Google maps and GPS, old-school cartography is becoming something of a lost art. It’s easy to take maps for granted but they represent the labor of many surveyors, cartographers and designers. There amount of data represented in both geophysical and political amps is staggering. It’s no easy task to cram the names of all those cities, states, rivers, mountains, parks, highways and airports on maps. When so many different names are written in such a small space, a good typeface can make all the difference. Juan Valdés, Director of Editorial and Research for National Geographic Maps, recently revealed the history of the typefaces used on every NatGeo map dating back to the 1930s.
Before the ’30s, the maps of the National Geographic Society were true works of art. They were painstakingly hand-lettered; the unpredictable nature of movable type was unacceptable to the National Geographic Society, whose exacting standards left little latitude for imprecision and illegibility.
A former surveyor for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Society’s first Chief Cartographer, Albert H. Bumstead, worked to find an alternate solution to create a mechanical type that wouldn’t break down or blur together when it was enlarged or reduced. Bumstead, something of a tinkerer best known for inventing the sun compass used during Admiral Byrd’s 1928 Antarctic expedition, put his skills to use on the typography problem and devised a new photographic apparatus to create a more flexible, more legible map type.
After a bit of refining, his “phototypography” process was first used in a United States map included as a supplement to the May 1933 issue of National Geographic.
Soon after the successful implementation of Bumstead’s device, another society cartographer, Charles E. Riddiford, was asked to develop new typefaces with improved “photomechanical reproductive qualities”. Riddiford took his role quite seriously and wrote with a philosophical zeal about the importance of design and typography in mapmaking in the pages of the journal The Professional Geographer:
“Fine map-making is an art; it is also a science, and the one should compliment the other on equal terms. It is one thing to make an accurate and useful map, and quite another to make it presentable, attractive, pleasing to the eye…The factual content of a map is generally taken for granted; it is the visual appearance, particularly on the first impression, to which lettering contributes so much, that sometimes determines whether a map is prized or discredited. This leads me to believe that the impact of line and form on our minds in everything we see has a greater influence on us than the more tangible facts of everyday life.”
Riddiford’s dedication to his craft paid off. His designs (top image) were an instant success. In fact, they so beautifully accentuated the maps’ features and were so clearly legible that National Geographic never saw the need to change them. Even when they digitized their amazing collection of maps, the typefaces held up. So no matter how complex our mapping technology becomes, some vestiges of an early cartographic tradition will continue.
July 19, 2013
“Philately” (get your mind out of the gutter) is the proper term for the studying of stamps and stamp collecting. It was coined in 1865 by Georges Herpin, who very well may have been the first stamp collector, from the Ancient Greek φιλο (philo), meaning “love of” and ἀτέλεια (atelīa), meaning “without tax.” Of course, because the ancient Greeks didn’t have postage stamps, there was no proper Greek word for the idea. But, as we shall see, the term is actually a reference to the earliest days of paid postage.
Postage can reveal more than the history of a letter, it can reveal the history of a nation. As noted by the National Postal Museum, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, “every stamp tells a story”—and, I might add, it sometimes tells how the story should be told (fat Elvis or skinny Elvis?).
The forthcoming book A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps by Chris West tells the story of the stamp. And of Britain. West is himself a philatelist (seriously stop snickering) who inherited a collection from his uncle that included a “Penny Black”—the first postage stamp issued in Britain and, more importantly, the first postage stamp issued anywhere.
The Penny Black bears the image of Queen Victoria, but the first British postal service did not originate in Victorian England. In 1680 an entrepreneur by the name of William Dockwra started a public service that guaranteed the quick delivery of a letter anywhere in London. His system was quickly nationalized with Dockwra in charge. It was far from a perfect system, burdened with seemingly erroneous charges and tariffs that made it unreasonably expensive to send a letter. Worse still, recipients were expected to pay. As you might imagine, this presented some problems—either people weren’t home or flat-out refused to pay. Not to mention the blatant corruption. The system just didn’t work, but it remained in place for far too long.
About 50 years later, an ambitious polymath named Rowland Hill thought he could do better. Hill ran a progressive school, for which he also designed a central heating system, a swimming pool and an observatory. Hill’s skills weren’t just architectural and pedagogical, he was also an accomplished painter, inventor and essayist. In one of his most famous pamphlets, Post Office Reform, its Importance and Practicability, Hill argued for abolishing the postal tariffs and replacing them with a single national rate of one penny, which would be paid by the sender.
When the post office ignored Hill’s ideas, he self-published his essay and it quickly gained ground among the public. Hill was then summoned by Postmaster General Lord Lichfield to discuss postal reform and, during their subsequent meeting, the two men conceived of an adhesive label that could be applied to envelopes to indicate payment. Though it had gained momentum with the public who longed for an affordable way to connect with distant friends and family, officials still were’t convinced, calling it “extraordinary” (in a bad way) and “preposterous,” and probably saying things like “crikey!” and “I say!” and “what hufflepuffery!” and other such exclamations popular among the blustery Victorian bureaucrat set. Thankfully, Hill was far from alone in his passion for reform. He eventually earned enough support from other like-minded individuals, like Henry Cole, founding director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as larger, powerful organizations, to convince Parliament to implement his system.
In 1839, Hill held a competition to design all the necessary postal paraphernalia. The winning stamp entry depicting the young Queen’s profile came from one William Wyon, who based the design on a medal he created to celebrate her first visit to London earlier that year. Hill worked with artist Henry Corbould to refine the portrait and develop the stamp’s intricate background pattern. After deciding to produce the stamps through line engraving, engravers George Rushall and Charles and Frederick Heath prepared the design for printing.
The “penny black” stamp went on sale May 1, 1840. It was an immediate hit. Suddenly, the country seemed a lot smaller. Over the next year, 70 million letters were sent. Two years later, the number had more than tripled. Other countries soon followed suit. The Penny Black’s design was so well received, it remained in use for forty years, though, as the National Postal Museum notes, “it underwent color changes (1841), adopted perforations (1848), and acquired check letters in all four corners (1858)…and most of those designs were retained for Victoria’s successor, Edward VII, (1901) with his profile being substituted.”
The National Postal Museum also shares some insight into why we put stamps on the upper right corner of envelopes. The answer is refreshingly utilitarian: the location of the stamp was decided because over 80 percent of London’s male population was right-handed and it was believed this would help expedite the postmarking/cancellation process.
“Stamps can be a good way of establishing a ‘national brand,’” says West. Indeed, a nation’s stamps express the identity and the ambitions of a country. Few countries understood this better than Czechoslovakia, whose government hired noted artist and graphic designer Alphonse Mucha to design its stamps—as well as its money, and almost every other official piece of paper—when the country gained its independence after World War I. West cites other examples, noting how Germany, after World War II, focused on the country’s positive contribution to European culture, while modern America illustrates its history, diversity and individual achievement with its numerous stamps celebrating famous artists and innovators.
A History of Britain in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps lives up to its title. Though stamps may be the subject of the book, its content is full of insight into the full history of the British Empire, from Queen Victoria to Kate Middleton. Through West’s book, we get fascinating stories and anecdotes about wars, celebrations, the mercurial fortunes of Britain’s royalty, the rise and fall of its empire and, of course, design. All told a penny at a time.
July 10, 2013
Here on Design Decoded, we love exploring the signs, symbols and codes embedded in everyday life. These nearly ubiquitous icons and ideograms are immediately identifiable and may be vaguely understood, but their full meanings are known only to a select few equipped with specialized knowledge, and their origins are often lost to history. Software engineer and writer Keith Houston loves such symbols, too. In his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, he looks into, well, the secret life of punctuation, symbols and other typographical marks. Most of them are familiar, like “quotation marks” and the @ symbol, but others are less widely used, such as the interrobang and the manicule. The fascinating study in obscure typography opens with the single symbol that inspired the entire book, a symbol that has ties to some of the greatest events in human history, including the rise of the Catholic Church and the invention of the printing press: the pilcrow. Also known as the paragraph mark, the pilcrow, for such a humble, rarely used mark, has a surprisingly complex history. Indeed, as Houston writes, the pilcrow is “intertwined with the evolution of modern writing.”
I’ll spare you the earliest history of writing and skip to 200 A.D., when “paragraphs,” which could loosely be understood as changes in topic, speaker or stanza, were denoted by myriad symbols developed by scribes. There was little consistency. Some used unfamiliar symbols that can’t easily be translated into a typed blog post, some used something as simple as a single line – , while others used the letter K, for kaput, the Latin word for “head.” Languages change, spellings evolve, and by the 12th century, scribes abandoned the K in favor of the C, for capitulum (“little head”) to divide texts into capitula (also known as “chapters”). Like the treble clef, the pilcrow evolved due to the inconsistencies inherent in hand-drawing, and as it became more widely used, the C gained a vertical line (in keeping with the latest rubrication trends) and other, more elaborate embellishments, eventually becoming the character seen at the top of this post.
So how did the pilcrow, once an essential, though ornate, part of any text, become an invisible character scribbled by editors on manuscript drafts or relegated to the background of word-processing programs? As Houston writes, “It committed typographical suicide.” In late medieval writing, the pilcrow had become an ornamental symbol drawn in elaborate style, often in a bright red ink, by specialized rubricators, after a manuscript had been copied by scribes, who left spaces in the document explicitly for such embellishments. Well, sometimes even the most skilled rubricator ran out of time, leaving pages filled with empty white spaces. As Emile Zola wrote, “One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.” Apparently the written word itself can be forged on the same anvil. The problem was only exacerbated by the invention of the printing press. Early printed books were designed to accommodate hand-drawn rubrications, including spaces at the beginning of each section for a pilcrow. As demand grew for the printed word and production increased, rubricators just couldn’t keep up and the pilcrow was abandoned, though the spaces remained.
This brief overview only touches on the pilcrow’s fascinating history. If you like our articles on music notation, Benjamin Franklin’s phonetic alphabet or even the secret language of cattle branding, check out Shady Characters.
June 7, 2013
The BMW Guggenhim Lab is, as the name suggests, a research collaboration between the automaker and museum franchise. Based on the belief that cities are catalysts for innovation and human progress, the joint venture takes the form of a “mobile urban laboratory” that, over the last two years, has traveled to three major world cities holding free programs and workshops to inspire and cultivate ideas about design and urban living. Recently, the Lab launched a website listing the top 100 urban trends in the three cities they visited–New York City, Berlin, and Mumbai–based on discussions and research presented in each city. According to Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, the trend list is a means to “further the conversations started by the Lab and spark analyses of these three cities and comparisons of the respective urban environments.”
A few items on the list have been discussed on Design Decoded before. 3-D printers, for example, are among the top design trends in both New York and Berlin, and are recognized as viable alternatives to mass production with potentially profound implications in industrial design and architecture. Additionally, small-scale building proved a popular topic in NYC, with affordable housing, micro apartments, and shipping container architecture making the list. These small buildings and environments are seen as ways that good design can transform the way urbanites live and more efficiently use the limited spaces available to them. The New York and Berlin Lab was itself a type of versatile, micro architecture. The lightweight carbon fiber pavilion (top image) was designed by Tokyo-based architects Atelier Bow-Wow as a sort of architectural “toolbox” concealing performance equipment that could be lowered into the presentation space as needed.
While design trends in New York and Berlin were quite similar, those in Mumbai addressed an entirely different set of issues. Perhaps reflecting the fact that the city was a relatively unique venue, a new Lab pavilion was constructed for the Mumbai program (above image). Designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, the light, bamboo structure was inspired by a type of Indian pavilion known as a mandapa, typically used for celebrations and public events.
Mumbai is the most populous city in India and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. And like many cities in the developing world, it’s growing quickly and without any sort of formal planning. It’s no surprise then that issues related to overcrowding and infrastructure were among the primary concerns of designers in Mumbai. Public transit issues in particular seem to be a hot topic, with buses, auto rickshaws, and “informal” transit featured prominently on the list, along with discussions on infrastructure planning and centralized data collection.
Architectural restoration, thought not often touted as a proactive agent of change, was also discussed as an economical means to improve the quickly changing city while preserving and celebrating its rich history and eclectic urban fabric. Other “trends” unique to Mumbai were the fascinating notions of “City Mythology” and “infraspace.” City Mythology is defined as “the weaving together of mythological places that appear in folklore and religious texts with real, physical urban spaces.” Public spaces given value through cultural traditions and stories serve to cultivate a sense of community and pride among a city’s populace and foster “a type of imagined historical memory.” Infraspace is a term coined by one of the Mumbai Lab team members to describe the latent architectural and spatial possibilities inherent in Mumbai’s infrastructure. For example, architect Neville Mars suggested transforming an enormous defunct pipeline into an auto rickshaw highway and pedestrian bridge.
Of course, no discussion of Mumbai would be complete without addressing one of the most prominent and pressing issues in the city: slums. A large percentage of Mumbai’s population –60 percent by some estimates– live in slums, defined by the United Nations as “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor.” Issues related to the development, research and growth of slums were obviously at the forefront of many Lab discussions in Mumbai. Many of these high density settlements exist with scarce access to clean water or civic infrastructure, and if they’re at all considered during the urban development process it’s often only in terms of eviction and demolition. The Mumbai Lab was interested in studying these places more closely, in looking at them as a unique architectural typology that developed organically and has its own intrinsic values. During one of the Lab’s design exercises, architecture students worked with a slum contractor to design a “tool house” – a typical slum building type that includes both work and live spaces. This exercise was conducted to better understand the complex economic, social, and architectural systems that exist within the slums like a cultural microclimate, systems that shape and are shaped by the slum typology.
While some of these design “trends” are cutting edge, others represent the continued interest in longstanding, and sometimes overlooked, issues. With cities around the world become larger and denser, many designers are casting a critical eye on their environment to improve living conditions for everyone. As the Lab writes in its mission statement, “greater urban density can mean more conflict, but it can also produce a greater diversity of viewpoints and more opportunity for positive change.”
This research collected by the BMW Guggenheim Lab will culminate with an exhibition this October at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.