Episode 74: Hand Painted Signs
Today, hand painted signs seem nostalgic and perhaps a bit ornamental. But before the advent of the vinyl plotter in the 1980’s, sign painting was a stand-alone industry, employing thousands and demanding an expertise that could only come from years in the trade. Sign painters established best practices for letter placement, appropriate formats for different environments, and color selection and in the process created a visual landscape that we take for granted.
The trade and its best practices were gradually eroded by digital technology. Today anyone can walk into Kinko’s and make a sign without any expertise. Once you start looking, you will see amateur signs everywhere. Fortunately there’s been a resurgence of interest in hand painted lettering lately, and sign painting classes are regularly selling out. That’s good news: we all benefit from added aesthetic sophistication in our daily lives, and a fine craft skill will not be lost.
Episode 66: Kowloon Walled City
This episode describes the Kowloon Walled City (KWC) as a “beautiful monstrosity that fell between the cracks and then grew there.” Ignored by both the Chinese and the British authorities, this urban zone flourished despite having a population density of 3.2 million people per square mile, 46 times as dense as New York City’s population. KWC’s unchecked, unregulated growth made it a health and fire hazard. So many electrical cables were layered on top of each other that the walkways were canopied, ensuring darkness even in daylight. Residents regularly threw garbage from their windows, which then sat on the cables and nets below. Sanitation was so bad that restaurants would kill diner’s entrees in front of them to prove that the meat wasn’t spoiled.
And yet, while KWC seems to have represented the worst outcomes of urban living, the postman always knew where to deliver letters. Neighbors knew each other. Communities and lasting connections were formed in this hive of humanity. The KWC was demolished in 1993 but not before architects and urban planners had absorbed its lessons: design must always leave room for the organic nature of a city to form and express itself.
Episode 108: Bar Codes
Bar codes seem like they’ve been around forever, don’t they? In fact the bar code was only perfected in the 1970’s when the grocery industry, wanting to limit financial losses at checkout, invested in it. IBM and engineer George Laurer, interviewed in this episode, took on the project. Laurer designed improvements to an earlier bull’s eye bar code design. These improvements, a rectangular symbol, updated code behind the symbol, and redesigned scanners, led to the introduction of the Universal Product Code (UPC).
Bar codes quickly evolved beyond the grocery industry. The way we shop today, the physical layout of stores and even where some of us work, is shaped by the inventory tracking and data collection the bar code enables. Bar codes help retailers keep customers coming back for more. Without bar codes, super stores (big box stores) might not exist. Smaller stores would have to employ more people to track a smaller inventory. The bar code and the UPC have enabled a higher volume of business for retailers, more choices for consumers, and an easier way for everyone to access those choices. Maybe consumers would benefit from fewer product choices, but it would be hard to give up the convenience of one-stop shopping that we’ve been trained to expect.
Episode 106: The Fancy Shape
This episode traces the history of the quatrefoil shape. Initially found in Islamic and Moorish architecture, the shape reached Europe via trade through the silk routes. The shape appears in the tracery of stained glass windows, and as openings in the architecture of churches, which could afford the expertise needed to create the quatrefoil. Today it’s shed any Christian meaning, and is popular in interior design, appearing on textiles, wall coverings, and table top designs. It is still considered a fancy shape, and has been appropriated by luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Van Cleef & Arpels.
Episode 111: Masters of the Uni-verse
Sports teams command a unique form of brand loyalty: fans are loyal to whoever is wearing the uniform. Players come and go, but a fan’s team affiliation does not change. The uniform represents the visual identity of the team, and as such is fairly fixed. This episode is about how the limited opportunities for personalization within a baseball uniform are used by players for self-expression. It turns out that the intersection between pant leg and sock is the least regulated part of uniform. Baseball fans will enjoy geeking out on this one.
99% Invisible feels like the design world version of This American Life, and is just as engaging. You can listen to individual episodes or subscribe to the whole series on the 99% Invisible website or listen via iTunes. Enjoy!