November 1, 2013
There’s been so much scaffolding recently in Washington D.C. that it looks like the capital is recovering from an incredibly ruthless alien invasion, a knock-down drag-out superhero brawl, or some other action film-level disaster. In a city as widely visited as Washington D.C., a city where it seems that even structures of the smallest import are national landmarks, it’s not exactly desirable to have the monuments, memorials and buildings concealed behind wood and metal cages. In cities such as New York or Chicago, where change is the norm, scaffolding is a part the city fabric, but in a city where history is the major draw, where there are certain structures that visitors feel they have the inalienable right to see, scaffolding poses something of a problem. As a result, D.C. architects have gotten creative.
At the end of September, scaffolding was removed from the western facade of the Supreme Court Building after a complete restoration. But during the year that the building was covered, visitors were still able to enjoy Cass Gilbert’s design thanks to a scrim printed with a full-size image of the marble facade. It’s a common practice in Europe that’s starting to be seen more frequently in the U.S., as also illustrated by the recent scrims on Independence Hall in Philadelphia and on the Plaza Hotel in New York City. The Supreme Court scrim was so well done that from a distance I didn’t even notice it at first. While the image lacks the depth and complexity of the original, for tourists hoping to snap a picture, fake can be just as good – and just as functional. It’s fascinating to me that what is essentially a big billboard can act as a proxy for a building (or, as in Hong Kong, an entire city skyline). After all, dating back to at least Ancient Greece, building facades have acted as signs denoting the function or purpose of the structure.
A different approach was taken with the scaffolding now surrounding the Washington monument, which has been closed to visitors since the structure was damaged by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. The $15 million repair should finish up next spring, and until then the iconic monument will be enclosed in an impressive feat of architecture and engineering that beautifully illuminates the obelisk every night. This isn’t the first time the Washington Monument has been covered with illuminated scaffolding. In fact, the current scaffolding is nearly identical to the system designed by architect Michael Graves & Associates that was used for two years during the monument’s 1998-2000 restoration. MGA’s scaffolding mimics not only the shape of the monument, but is enclosed in a translucent mesh patterned with an exaggerated image of its stone and mortar joints.
Last but certainly not least, is the Capitol dome. The symbol of the city and of American democracy. While a lot of people would probably love to see the inner workings of the Capitol cleaned up, the dome, last restored in 1960, is overdue for a little paint, spackle, and some serious repairs to its rusted cast iron structure. That process begins later this month and will continue for about two years while the dome’s 1,000 cracks and imperfections are repaired. The scaffolding that will surround the dome from its base up to the Statue of Freedom isn’t quite as “designed” as the previous examples, but it seems like the Architect of the Capitol is making it as minimal and unobtrusive as possible and, like the Washington Monument, it will be also illuminated at night while workers are making repairs.
The architecture of Washington D.C. tells the story of America. Scaffolding is an inevitable part of maintaining our history and ensuring that story is told for centuries to come. It can be unsightly and inconvenient, but in the right hands, with the right motivation, the scaffolding-covered monumental architecture of D.C. continues to communicate the ideals that inspired the nation’s founders.
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.
June 18, 2013
We all have the wacky family member or coworker who insist on decorating their emails with a variety of fonts and colors. And woe to the poor soul who sends a graphic designer an email written in comic sans. But choosing a font is more than just a matter of decoration and taste. A well designed typeface, like a well designed…well, anything, can make a brand iconic, can benefit the public good, and it can even improve lives.
An example of a typeface with such potential is Dyslexie, from studiostudio graphic design. It’s estimated that about 15 percent of the world population have some form of dyslexia. For these people letters and characters can appear flipped, rotated, and transposed. As a result, they have trouble decoding the system of lines, curves and dots that we perceive as written language. As its name implies, Dyslexie was designed make reading easier for people with dyslexia. And to look good doing it.
Among its distinguishing features, the lower portion of letter has a heavy baseline thickness, weighting it down to help prevent it from flipping. Additionally, larger openings and spaces in letters make them more distinguishable from one another, as does the use of a very subtle italic on some characters. Characters that can appear identical when flipped, such as the lowercase b and d, have different elliptical curves with distinct slopes.
The preliminary research that produced the typeface (pdf) included a relatively small survey of 43 people, single-word tests, and one control font: Arial. While Dyslexie didn’t prove to increase reading speed compared to Arial, the test group did make fewer reading errors, and the designer suggests that the study could be expanded in the future to test speed and comprehension to further refine the typeface.
Clearview is another typeface designed to make a difference. Last year, New York City spent $27.5 million to replace 200,000 street signs with new, easier to read, mixed-case versions printed in Clearview, which was created way back in the 1990s specifically to be used for transit signage.
Also last year, researchers at the MIT AgeLab, working in conjunction with type and technology company Monotype published a paper (pdf) arguing that automotive GPS navigation systems could be redesigned to reduce the time that drivers take their eyes off the road. Their research showed that a certain style of typeface could reduce the time drivers look down at their dash by 10 percent. Those quick glances add up.
More recently, The Whitney Museum of American Art unveiled a new graphic identity that “embraces the inventive spirit of the Museum, and signals other changes afoot” as the museum prepares to move to its new Renzo Piano-designed building in 2015. A major component of this rebranding, which was masterminded by designers Experimental Jetset, is a new typeface, Neue Haas Grotesk. The last time Whitney moved into a new building, Marcel Breuer’s masterpiece on Madison Ave. (1966), they also adapted a new typeface – a bespoke design by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Aptly named Whitney, it ensured consistency among their publications, promotional materials, and public signage. Crafted in 52 styles, it was incredibly diverse and worked well for long form reading in print catalogs, larger wall graphics and way-finding signs, explanatory text, and even translates well to computer screens.
That pulldown list of strange and exciting fonts in today’s word processing programs is a constant temptation and expressing individuality is important, but if you happen to be that wacky family member or coworker, why not take a second to think about improving the lives of those people you’re cc’ing.
April 26, 2013
Cities around the world are covered in spray-painted hieroglyphics and cryptic designations scrawled on public surfaces; unintelligible tags and arcane signs intended to communicate messages to a specialized audience with a trained eye. Such markings are so prevalent that they just blend into the urban patina of dirt and disrepair and go largely unnoticed. I’m not talking about illegal graffiti. Rather, the officially sanctioned infrastructural “tagging” employed by public works departments around the country.
You’ve probably seen these markings on streets and sidewalks. Multi-colored lines, arrows and diamonds denoting the presence of some subterranean infrastructure or encode instruction for construction or maintenance workers. A secret language that temporarily manifests the invisible systems that power our world. Recently, Columbia’s Studio-X blog shared the decoder ring that unlocks these secret messages:
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block. To prevent future incidents, a system of notation known as DigAlert was developed to communicate vital information to anyone who might be doing construction work or excavations in areas near underground cables or pipelines. Since then, the American Public Works Association established a standard color code to identify subterranean infrastructure in American cities. This standard is a recommended by most national agencies, but, like the “fire diamond,” it is not a mandate intended to supersede any local regulations.
These “safety colors” –expanded to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey, white, and black– have been formalized by the American Standards Institute (ANSI) as Safety Color Code Z535, which provides Munsell notation and Pantone color-matching information to help ensure consistency across mediums.
While the color system warns workers about certain types of hazard, there is a complementary language used to approximately mark the underground location of a conduit, cable, or pipe. According to the Guidelines for Operator Facility Field Delineation established by the Common Ground Alliance, spray-painted lines (in the appropriate color, of course) space between four-feet and fifty-feet apart should be used to mark the center of a single facility or, if multiple conduits are running in a single trench, over their outside edges with arrows pointing in the the direction the services are running with a perpendicular line connecting the edge marks to form an H (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). A diamond is used instead of the perpendicular line to indicate a duct system.
While just as esoteric (though not as artistic) as illegal graffiti, these regulated utility markings encode a different type of turf. And knowing that Krylon code can save lives. Such urban annotation reveals the danger and complexity of American cities and is just one more example of the standardized, secret signs that surround us.
Previously: Decoding the City: The Fire Diamond
April 10, 2013
Cities are full of signs. Signs telling us where to go and how to get there; signs suggesting things to buy and signs keeping us from where we shouldn’t be. Every sign is a code of sorts, a graphic system linked to something else – an idea, an instruction, a building. Typically, these codes are carefully designed to be decipherable by as many people as possible – everyone, ideally. They reduce meaning to its most essential components: RED=STOP. But occasionally in cities, there are signs that aren’t intended to be read by everyone, coded messages for specific agencies or civil service employees. These signs are ubiquitous but largely indecipherable and mostly go unnoticed. One such sign is NFPA 704 – perhaps better known as the “fire diamond.”
NFPA 704 is the American system for identifying hazardous materials created by the National Fire Protection Association. It was first developed in 1957 by the NFPA’s Sectional Committee on Classification, Labeling, and Properties of Flammable Liquids “to safeguard the lives of those individuals who may be concerned with fires occurring in an industrial plant or storage location where the fire hazards of materials may not be readily apparent.” In 1961, the NFPA formally adopted the primary-colored diamond design as a National standard, providing emergency workers with a simple, readily recognized and decipherable system of signage describing general hazards to help workers in planning a safe and effective response.
These signs are found on chemical tanks, warehouse doors, and loading docks all over the country – any industrial, commercial, or institutional building that manufactures, processes, uses, or stores hazardous materials that “would cause, or significantly contribute to an increased risk of serious injury, incapacitating illness or increased risk of death.” They are exclusively used on structures or containers; signage for vehicles carrying hazardous materials is regulated by the Department of Transportation. Although the National Fire Protection Agency standard describes the relative sizes of the diamonds and the numbers, including the suggestion that diamonds used on building exteriors measure no less than 15 inches by 15 inches, local authorities have final jurisdiction over how the signs are implemented, including their location and size.
The basic form is familiar to anyone who’s every had some sidewalk chalk and a ball. A diamond divided into four smaller diamonds, each given a color code and number to signify a specific hazard: the blue diamond is the health signal, ranked according to the level of toxicity and effects of exposure to response personnel; the red signifies the level of flammability, and the yellow indicates reactivity. The white diamond is reserved for any other necessary information, such as water reactivity, radioactivity, the need for protective equipment, or specialized extinguishing agents. The number within each diamonds indicates the severity of the threat, ranging from 0, indicating no hazard or unstable materials, to 4, which indicates highly combustible, toxic, or reactive materials that could cause death or major injury.
With the exception of the poison and radiation symbols, NFPA 704 is almost completely opaque to the average person and just fades into the background of visual white noise produced by the modern American built environment. But to those for whom they’re intended, the signs provide invaluable, and potentially life-saving information. Other countries have their own unique standards, such as the orange hazard symbols required on all European vehicles carrying dangerous materials. Have you observed similar signs oversees? Are you curious about other signs and symbols? Let us know in the comments!