Archives For June 2010


Riley —  June 29, 2010 — Leave a comment

Sometimes it’s amazing the extent to which things become convention and cease to be reimagined or evaluated.  One example: the humble toothbrush.  Your toothbrush is a necessity – it keeps your teeth clean and your mouth healthy – but it has a pretty big, somewhat ironic problem: sanitation.  For all that it does to keep your mouth clean, there’s only so much you can do to keep it clean.  After all, you keep it in your bathroom, a place where all sorts of things of a questionable hygienic nature go on, and we all know (or should) the frightening migratory habits of germs and bacteria.

So it seems as though there is not one primary design requirement of the toothbrush, but two: that it brush, and that it stay clean.  There are, of course, dozens of ways to achieve the latter of these goals, but the most simple is probably to keep the part you stick in your mouth from touching anything else in your petri dish of a bathroom (note: nothing personal, that’s just the unfortunate reality of the restroom).  The conventional approach is to create some kind of holder that keeps your toothbrush upright and the bristles off the counter.  Sounds reasonable, right?  But then, that’s what you’ve always done.

Enter Ryan Harc, a New York design team comprised of Ryan Yoon and Hark Lee, with the revolutionary proposition: what if we just made the toothbrush stand up by itself…?  And thus DEWS was born – “an upstanding toothbrush that incorporates a weight within its rounded handle base to keep the bristles away from dirty surfaces.”   It isn’t terribly hard technologically, it shouldn’t prove to be too expensive (especially when you subtract the cost of a toothbrush holder or cup), but it hasn’t been done before.

Aesthetic design is great, and design for comfort is even better, but the ultimate in design is making a product better achieve the goals of the user.  That’s what this design does.  Let Oral-B or Colgate or whoever makes toothbrushes these days co-opt this idea and adorn it with rubber grips and crosshatched bristles with rubber tips – the crucial step in design was this one, the one that incorporated a whole new quality into the design of a toothbrush.

If I seem overly excited about new developments in the cutting-edge field of toothbrush design, it’s only because I see this kind of thinking and product evolution as being crucial (and lacking) in other industries as well.  The biggest of these is the automobile industry.  For everything they tell you about being completely new, redesigned, and eco-friendly, the cars on the road today are really pretty similar to what Ford was cranking out a hundred years ago.  With all of the brilliant technology and innovation floating around today, it’s surprising that a metal, four-wheeled, gasoline-powered, 4-seater, steering wheel-driven, six-window vehicle with storage in back and an engine up front has so completely dominated the market for personal and family transportation.  I just can’t believe that’s the absolute pinnacle of design, especially with all of the pollutants they spew (aural as well as respiratory).  With product requirements as broad as they are, there’s room for a world of alternatives that don’t necessarily do everything cars do, but do all the things that we use cars for, only better.

Conventional design isn’t always the best design.  I’m still waiting for them to make a car that will stand upright when I set it down.

Sources: TreeHugger, Ryan Harc.

The Gyre

Riley —  June 26, 2010 — 2 Comments

In the past, I’ve talked about the importance of density as well as the importance of being creative with the use of space.  A new proposal by Zigloo called the Gyre-Seascraper takes this to a new level (specifically, below sea-level).  The Gyre is essentially a floating, upside down skyscraper that would function as a combination research station and underwater hotel.  Extending 400 meters down into the depths, the Gyre is stocked with all manner of facilities, like “shops, restaurants, gardens and recreation.”

It is also completely energy independent, using wind, solar and tidal power to generate all of its electricity needs, and a rainwater collection and purification system to supply it with fresh water.  In terms of structural breakdown, “the first two levels of the Gyre’s vortex are dedicated to circulation, community gatherings, restaurants and commerce.  Intermediate levels accommodate long-term residents, oceanic experts, hotel guests and crew quarters totaling as many as 2000 people. The deepest levels are dedicated to a scientific observatory for oceanographic research and an Interpretive Center for public discovery of the depths of the ocean.”

There are a few things that I like about this proposal.  First, it’s self-sufficient, a standard that we aren’t even close to adopting for our land-based buildings.  But second, it constitutes an efficiency of space that is pretty remarkable.  The ocean is, for the most part, a great uninhabitable dark area on our maps.  This kind of project is the first step toward utilizing that space in an efficient yet visually subtle way.

Now clearly that argument is just waiting for a harsh environmental or philosophical criticism accusing it of anthropocentrism and a colonial mindset, so I’ll admit that there are things that need to be considered.  What kind of impact would one of these have on marine life?  What about a thousand of them?  And what about the impact of the countless boats that their use would require?  These are necessary questions to ask, but I think there’s a risk here of falling into a one-perspective outlook.  If we’re analyzing the impact of a seascraper, we would do well to analyze the impact of a skyscaper while we’re at it.  My suspicion is that given the 3-dimensional inhabitable region of the ocean compared to the relatively planar usable space on land, seascrapers would actually have less of an impact on wildlife relative to conventional buildings.

But this only has relevance if we approach the future in a comprehensive way, seeking to adapt and mold our relationship to the natural world, rather than just expand upon it.  I think to see the sea as an environment that should go untainted by human habitation is a naive and potentially harmful position.  While we want to be sure to prevent further aquatic exploitation, we can’t shy away from the possibility that seascrapers present a more sustainable, benign form of built environment.

Source: Inhabitat, Zigloo.


Riley —  June 25, 2010 — Leave a comment

I’m always fascinated by infographics (information graphics) because of the way they concisely portray a usually dense and confusing collection of data.  That’s invaluable in a world overloaded with information.  The environmental movement is one of the more notable victims of this unfortunate circumstance.  There’s just so much information – some of it conflicting – that it’s difficult for the average person to process it all, much less come to some action-worthy conclusion.

Their other value is in rendering massive (or tiny) statistics into understandable values as, for example, Chris Jordan does with his art.  Numbers are just abstract ways of representing aspects of reality, and we often fail – or are unable – to mentally convert some numbers back into the reality they reflect.  That’s why when you hear that the BP oil leak is gushing 35,000 barrels of crude oil each day or that the nucleus of a hydrogen atom is 145,000 times smaller than the atom itself, it means something, but usually doesn’t carry the full weight it deserves; it’s simply too much for us to understand in an abstract way.

Eric Fisher's map of tourism in London based on geotagged photos. Red are tourists, blue are locals.

We are primarily visual animals, and using visualization is one of the best ways to overcome this cognitive resistance.  In many science textbooks, for example, they use the analogy that if the atom were a baseball stadium, the nucleus would be smaller than the baseball.  All of a sudden we seem to “understand” a situation that was, in a sense, already perfectly clear.  Just last night I was watching a program that said the Congo was the deepest river in the world, at a maximum depth of 750 feet.  While that certainly seemed pretty deep, it didn’t hit home until they explained that 750 feet is 5 times the height of the Statue of Liberty.  It was like a little switch was flipped in my head: what was abstractly big became concretely huge.

Mike Deal's graphic depicting the keys of different Beatles songs.

The main reason I wanted to bring all of this up is because I recently discovered a phenomenal website called Information is Beautiful that showcases beautiful and insightful visual representations of information.  The site is run by David McCandless, an “independent data journalist and information designer.”  He’s written for the Guardian, Wired and other publications, and is “interested in how designed information can help us understand the world, cut through BS and reveal the hidden connections, patterns and stories underneath. Or, failing that, it can just look cool!”

McCandless' graphic of the meaning of colors in different cultures.

It’s a tremendous compilation of graphics comprised of work by McCandless, as well as other information designers.  The visuals on the site are stunning, especially when you consider that they aren’t just aesthetic projects, they’re actually representing large and complex sets of data.  My favorite of McCandless’, more for the story it tells than for how it looks, is his “How Much to Music Artists Earn Online?

Graphics like these help us better understand the world and the complex, massive problems that we face.  In order to make the right decisions, we first need to correctly interpret and understand the information we’re confronted with.  Whether for public dissemination of knowledge, or for government or corporate decision making, information graphics are a beautiful and necessary way of bridging the gap between facts and figures and human understanding.