From New York to San Francisco, often in remote locations, the remains of a series of huge concrete Transcontinental Airway System arrows can be found. Here’s how to get to one of the rarest examples — a paired arrow set pointing in two different directions, each with a tail and a head jutting out from a shared center. But first: the backstory.
Installed in the 1920s alongside fifty-foot beacon towers, these arrows originally directed airmail planes across the United States. They became obsolete with advances in radar and radio communications, but, for a brief time, they guided night flights from coast to coast.
The towers are largely gone, stripped for steel during wartime, but many arrows remain, including a particularly fascinating ‘double arrow’ configuration near Oakland, California. And it is open to the public.
Getting to this Walnut Creek arrow located along Alcanes Ridge is not as easy as it looks — follow online map directions and a would-be visitor will wind up on the wrong side of a steep incline.
The trick, as it turns out — visible once you toggle to a ‘satellite view’ of the area — is to park near the entrance to this open space along Bacon Way, then wind up the path to the top of the ridge.
Today, the beacon tower and original sleeping hut for its operator are long gone, but the steel footings of the tower are still visible. The arrows, though, are mostly intact. Chipped and faded away, their original yellow coat has been replaced by multicolored graffiti.
From the top of the ridge, it is easy to see why someone chose this spot, and imagine the advantages for pilots using the route. It is high up and exposed, with great visibility (and views) on all sides.
According to Arrows Across America, a site documenting many of these around the U.S.: “This is the second arrow on the San Francisco-Reno Section of the San Francisco to Salt Lake Airway of the Chicago-San Francisco Contract Air Mail Route #18. Arrow point #1 on the left points to Beacon ‘2B SF-SL’ on Vine Hill” at the Military Ocean Terminal Concord. “Arrow point #2 on the right points to Concord Air Mail Field ‘2A SF-SL.’ Arrow shaft #1 on the left is aligned with ‘1A SF-SL’, now the Oakland City Stables. Arrow shaft #2 on the [right] points to an unnumbered beacon on the San Francisco-Los Angeles Airway.”
By the end of the first year of the program, the airmail service had 18 terminal airfields and more than 500 beacon lights in operation along the main mail delivery route. But by 1933, new technology and the high cost of operation during the depression shut the program down.
This is not the only remaining example, but it is well-preserved and publicly accessible, making it well worth a trip if you’re in the area.
The Chase logo was introduced in 1961, when the Chase National Bank and the Bank of the Manhattan Company merged to form the Chase Manhattan Bank. At the time, few American corporations used abstract symbols for their identification. Seen as radical in that context, the Chase symbol has survived a number of subsequent mergers and has become one of the world’s most recognizable trademarks.
Its graphic designer, Tom Geismar, had set out to create “something bold something would stand out … that could be reproduced in various materials [and] that could work at a small size.” It had to work in black-and-white as well, to be printed in newspapers. He came up with the octagonal shape still in use by JPMorgan Chase & Co today.
Initially, not everyone at the bank loved the new logo, but within months, higher-ups who had once been skeptical were wearing it on ties and cuff links. “So it was a great lesson to us,” recalls Geismar, “because suddenly someone who couldn’t understand it as an abstract design now really accepted” it as a representation of their company.
A founding partner of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, Tom Geismar has created logos for numerous famous companies and institutions, including: Xerox, Univision, National Geographic, Mobil Oil, Princeton University Press, the United Nations Development Programme.
He offers three basic criteria for a successful logo design:
Appropriate – good fit for the client and their business
Distinctive – stands out, but be easy to recognize and memorize
Flexible – works in different sizes and in various contexts
A design for a sports team, for instance, needs to look different from a design for a bank. And designs should be memorable, able to be drawn after having been seen just a few times. Then, of course, they have to work in various forms, from building signs to letterheads and apparel.
His firm has a long process for developing their designs, starting with client interviews as well as background and competition research. Sometimes, ideas come directly from this learning period.
In some cases, the result is an abstract design, like the Chase logo, which served as a kind of “empty vessel” into which meaning can be “poured.” In other situations, a more representational logo may be appropriate, like an abstracted fish or wave for an aquarium.
When it comes to showing clients design ideas and drafts, Geismar and his colleagues don’t generally say upfront which one is their favorite. They also try to mitigate potential negative reactions when presenting ideas, explaining “it’s never love at first sight” and suggesting clients try to “imagine what it might be like in actual use.”
These days, Geismar says people are more aware (and critical) of logos than ever before. The recent rise of mobile devices has put app symbols in the palms of our hands. And this has also forced designers to think about how their work will function at different scales, something that has long been a key component to how Geismar’s firm operates. “It is a coincidence,” says Geismar, “but it happens to have worked very much in our favor, because we’ve always tried to do things that are very clear, very simple and that can be reduced to a small size.”
Tom Geismar’s firm has a new book coming out as well — “Identity: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv showcases a body of work spanning 60 years from the seminal New York design firm founded in 1957 by Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar. The firm’s contribution to design has shaped the way corporate identity programs influence culture.”
To a casual observer, the difference between a squircle and a rounded square can appear negligible and sound semantic. But Mark Stanton, a product and industrial designer, is attuned to the squircular shape’s potential. He says “once you know how to spot it on products, you’re likely to start seeing it (or more likely the lack of it) all around you.”
A squircle is a mathematical intermediate between a square and a circle (and a portmanteau of the words ‘square’ and ‘circle’). One “secret” of Apple’s physical products, Stanton explains, “is that they avoid tangency (where a radius meets a line at a single point), and craft their surfaces with what’s called curvature continuity.” In side-by-side hardware shots, it is easy to see how the dynamic approach informs shapes and eliminates sharp transitions between flats and curves.
The distinction is reflected in Apple’s software as well, where iOS icons have gone from being rounded rectangles (or: roundrects) to squircles. It doesn’t really make much of an on-screen difference, but it does bring hardware and software designs into alignment. In turn, this has implications for anyone designing icons for Apple devices and interested in implementing precise details, like uniform borders.
So why aren’t squircles everywhere? For one thing: a squircle involves complex curves while a rounded square is easy to define, draw and model — flat edges for the sides, simple curves for the corners.
“Companies used to have more excuses,” recalls Stanton. “It used to be that engineering CAD tools weren’t as concerned about this sort of thing. Or engineers might not have been expert in that module of their CAD tools. Or surface design tools and engineering tools didn’t play well together. Or its importance to the bottom line wasn’t recognized.”
These days, squircles are easier to make and can be found in more and more graphics and objects. The shape also has some advantages for physical products beyond handheld devices. A squircular plate, for instance, can hold more food than a circular one of the same horizontal dimensions, but eliminates the sharp edges of an otherwise optimal square. Still, buyer beware: most products boasting the shape seem to be trading more on the word “squircle” than its actual geometry — you may have to settle for a stack of deformed roundrects instead.
Hostile urban designs can look innocuous, like “armrest” bars dividing up a public bench to prevent rough sleeping. So artist Stuart Semple has launched a new sticker series and website to highlight these approaches around the world. Already, this campaign is having an effect, and at least one English borough has caved to pressure from Semple and other activists his project helped inspire.
The “Design Crime” stickers are available on his new site, Hostile Design, which also has a gallery showcasing any images tagged on Instagram with #HostileDesign. He is offering some stickers for free for those who can’t afford to pay, and asking those who can to send either 50 pence (to cover printing) or a pound (to cover free sets for others).
“Hostile design is design that intends to restrict freedom or somehow control a human being — be that homeless people, a skater or everyday humans congregating to enjoy themselves,” Semple told Hyperallergic. “The danger of hostile design is it’s so insidious. It’s so quiet, so camouflaged, that unless you know what it is, you accept it. And that blind acceptance makes things grow and spread.”
A UK-based artist, Semple was inspired to create this awareness-raising project after encountering defensive design in his hometown of Bournemouth. There, old seats were retrofitted with new dividers. This was a particularly visible intervention because the bars clashed with the benches, making their hostile intent especially clear.
Thanks to a petition sparked by Semple’s photos and signed by nearly 20,000 protesters, the local Borough Council has since announced it is removing divider bars from public benches. “We’re totally over the moon,” said Semple of the news. He cites this victory as a great example of what can happen “when the community comes together” and “gets behind something.”
Meanwhile, Semple continues to encourage people to tag hostile designs around the world with the stickers he designed and share the results on social media. He hopes this effort will help raise awareness and start discussions among urban activists and planners, in turn leading to more inclusive and welcoming public space design.
“Hostile designs are designs against humanity,” argues Semple. “They are made specifically to exclude, harm or otherwise hinder the freedom of a human being. Quite often they aim to remove a certain section of a community from a public space.”
Note: Semple’s website also includes an “important disclaimer” that he is “not endorsing any kind of vandalism or public damage.” It advises interested participants to check local laws and, “if you are worried, apply the sticker, take your photo and then remove the sticker.”
When current President Donald Trump took office, he promised to build an “an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” The first part of this episode by Radio Diaries tells two stories of what happens when, instead of people crossing the border, the border crosses the people. Then, in part two of the show, Avery Trufelman takes a closer look at eight current designs that have been turned into prototypes near the border in California.
In 2006, President Bush signed a law to begin building an eighteen-foot-high fence along key parts of the border between the United States and Mexico. Today, sections of that fence cover about a third of the border. The idea is simple — putting a physical barrier along an invisible line — but the reality is a bit more complex.
In Brownsville, Texas, for instance, some American citizens living on the U.S. side of the actual border live in houses on the southern side of the border fence. If the fence followed the Rio Grande, it would be a winding affair, but a straight line is easier to build. And even trying to follow a river can been complicated at times, because rivers can move.
In 1864, the Rio Grande jumped its banks and moved south. Texas effectively gained roughly a square mile of land. It came to be called the Chamizal, and became a sticking point for international relations.
Above: buildings in the Chamizal. Below: President Johnson visiting Juarez, Mexico and shaking hands with Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz at the Chamizal Monument in 1967.
Eventually, the U.S. gave the land back, but some people had already made the area their home — they were forced to resettle. In the late 1960s, the U.S. and Mexico came together to create a cement-lined channel to control the river and stabilize the border.
A lot of so-called “defensive design” is explicit and easy to spot, like sloped benches or anti-homeless spikes to prevent rough sleeping. But in some cases, the designs are more subtle, masquerading as aesthetic improvements or even other kinds of public infrastructure — sprinklers, for instance, that dissuade sleepers but water no plants, or these curiously isolated bicycle racks installed last year in Seattle.
At a glance, they seem like helpful cycling infrastructure conveniently sheltered below an overpass. But some people were suspicious, noting an apparent lack of usage or need in that particular location. Situated under a viaduct, these parking spots looked out of place. And thanks to a public records request, The Strangerhelpedbreak the story of their true purpose as part of a “homelessness emergency response” effort. The request revealed that these racks were designed to deter camping and funded by money set aside for homeless-related initiatives.
Sara Rankin, a law professor who directs the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University, explains that “the idea, of course, is to drive undesirable people away from certain public areas.” She also notes that “cities are getting much more savvy in their approaches. They realize that a fence is blatantly clear to everyone,” but, she says, “if you install bike racks or boulders that somehow are serving other functions, it’s very … ‘disingenuous’ would be putting it mildly.”
Your city government just spent $8,700 on giant rocks to prevent unsheltered people from camping near highway overpasses: https://t.co/YEDCSmHkV0
And that example of using boulders is not an abstract one — San Francisco recently spent thousands of dollars to haul and install a set of large rocks in a popular homeless camping area. “We put them in there to help deter re-encampment a bit and for aesthetics, just to change it up,” Larry Stringer, Deputy Director of Operations at the city’s Department of Public Works, told Mission Local. Officials claim this kind of intervention is cheaper and nicer than doing periodic sweeps, but many activists see it as just another form of anti-homeless landscaping.
Defensive design initiatives tend to be divisive. Proponents argue they can help get the homeless off the streets, or achieve other urban goals (like dissuading loiterers and skateboarders). Critics say these designs create problems — angled benches can be uncomfortable for the elderly or unusable for people with disabilities They also can move problems around, forcing homeless populations, for example, to occupy more dangerous areas with less public visibility.
Either way, camouflage-based strategies seem fraught — they risk masking problems rather than trying to solve them, and hiding true intentions through creative budgeting and aesthetic obfuscation. It’s also unclear how effective such designs really are.
No one knows for sure just how long ago humans first developed “drinking tubes” to aid in beverage consumption, but a Sumerian tomb from around 3,000 B.C.E. contains a pair of ancient clues.
The tomb’s seal features a depiction of two men drinking through a straw. Inside the tomb, a companion artifact was discovered: a golden tube inlaid with precious stones. It has been theorized that this was used for drinking beers, providing a handy way to avoid ingesting solids that would sink to the bottom of these fermented beverages. Other historical examples can be found in various civilians from around the world as well.
In the late 1800s, rye grass straws were a popular variant, but they had some design flaws, including a tendency to break down in liquid. Inventor Marvin Chester Stone was sipping a mint julep one evening when his rye grass straw started to fall apart inside of his drink. Tapping into his experience developing paper cigarette holders, he wound a strip of paper around a pencil and glued it together to form a stable tube. Later, Stone iterated on this prototype, adding durability through a wax coating. He patented this “artificial straw” invention in 1888. Soon, his factory was producing and selling more of these new-and-improved straws than cigarette holders.
But the next big leap in straw innovation would have to wait for nearly half a century, when Joseph B. Friedman bought his daughter a milkshake in San Francisco. Observing her struggles with a conventional straight straw, he wondered if he could improve upon the design. Friedman put a screw inside a straw and began winding dental floss around the tube, tightening it to create ridges. The resulting modification allowed the neck of the straw to be bent like an accordion, making it easier to drink through from various positions. He patented this creation in 1937, but initially failed to find buyers. Eventually, with the help of his sister Betty, he sold his first set of bendable ten years later. Their first customers were hospitals — the flexible straws worked well for patients who had trouble sitting up in their beds. Over time, these straws would become popular with kids (packaged with juice boxes) as well as healthy adults.
Friedman’s patent submission makes it clear that he is combining two extant innovations into a new one: “Applicant has met a problem long existing in the art. A view of any soda fountain on a hot day, with the glasses showing innumerable limp and broken straws drooping over the edges thereof, will immediately show that this problem has long existed. Where we have the conditions where certainly the straw is old, where corrugated tubing is old, and where no inventor, during those years, has seen fit or has been able to solve this problem, whereas applicant did, that situation alone is prima facie evidence of invention.”
Today, straws come in all shapes, sizes and materials. There are candy straws and crazy straws, wide straws and spoon straws. They are made of paper, bamboo, metal and plastic. But Friedman created one of the most enduring and popular types, and not by starting from scratch, but through observation and combination, like many good designers.
Yet the story doesn’t end there, or at least it shouldn’t: paper has given way to plastic straws, designed to be disposable. These create a of waste that takes a really long time to decompose. Today, billions of disposable straws are produced and used and discarded each year. Presumably, there is still room to improve upon this solution.
Already, California has begun introducing legislation that would impose penalties for handing out unsolicited drinking straws to restaurant customers. There has, however, been some backlash about the harshness of these penalties. “It was unexpected,” Ian Calderon, an American politician serving in the California State Assembly, told the Washington Post. “But, hey, we got everybody talking about straws.”
Off the coast of North Carolina, there’s a thin stretch of islands called the Outer Banks. It spans 200 miles. And there’s one part of the Outer Banks that used to be especially treacherous for ships.
Cape Hatteras is known for its choppy seas and strong ocean currents. Since the 16th Century, these waves have caused a lot of shipwrecks — over 1,000 according to the National Park Service. The area has been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
With so many sailors dying, Congress authorized the construction of a giant lighthouse in the late 1700s. It went up in a small town called Buxton, North Carolina near Cape Hatteras.
Since then, generations of people in Buxton have helped staff and maintain the lighthouse. It’s become an important symbol of the community. Businesses are named after it, like the Lighthouse View Motel and Lighthouse Sports Bar and Grill; churches, too, like The Lighthouse Christian Assembly. It is a source of pride, and a vital part of the local culture and economy.
But back in the 1970s, it looked like Buxton might lose their beloved lighthouse. The sea was getting closer and threatening to swallow it up. And people were torn over what to do about it — they could move the lighthouse, or leave it in place and try to defend it against the forces of nature. For the next 30 years, the people of Buxton fought an intense political battle over this decision. It’s the kind of battle we can expect to see a lot more of as sea levels rise and threaten coastal communities around the world.
The battle started with a scientist, who had an idea that almost nobody liked: “let it fall in,” suggested Orrin Pilkey, at the time a marine geologist at Duke University. In his opinion, “nothing is so important that it can’t fall into the sea.”
In the 1980s, Pilkey used to pack his students into buses and take them to Cape Hatteras. He’d explain that the waves were slowly eroding the shoreline.
For decades, different government agencies had been fighting back against the sea. They’d tried barriers to slow the waves. They’d put down a wall of sandbags. They’d even tried an approach called “beach nourishment,” which means pumping a ton of sand onto the shore. But nothing seemed to work.
After decades of failed attempts to stop the erosion, the ocean was getting dangerously close to the lighthouse. And in 1974, Pilkey wrote an academic article about the problem, basically suggesting that every reasonable solution had been tried, and that it was time to give up.
He wrote, “it is difficult but necessary to come to grips with the ultimate result of living with nature at the shoreline.”
And then he started telling the people of Buxton to let their lighthouse go. This did not go over well with the locals.
In 1981, a photographer and conservationist named Hugh Morton started a group called “Save the Lighthouse.” School children across the state raised money in support. The group recruited prominent North Carolinians, like university presidents, business leaders, and politicians.
Some locals like Danny Couch, who became a representative for Save the Lighthouse, advocated for the idea of building a solid concrete wall around the lighthouse. But Pilkey had maps and diagrams showing how sea walls are actually counter-productive and often lead to accelerated erosion.
Then one day Pilkey met an engineer named Dave Fischetti, who suggested a novel compromise: instead of building a sea wall or letting the lighthouse fall into the ocean, why not move it? Even though the lighthouse was 200 feet tall and weighed 4,800 tons — engineers had moved bigger structures.
And this presented an opportunity, to test something that planners call “managed retreat.” The idea is that, as sea levels rise, we won’t be able to to defend every coast with a giant wall. Instead we’re going to have to make plans to abandon certain areas and make choices about what to move out of the way. Pilkey thought that if Buxton could be convinced to move this big lighthouse, it might show that managed retreat is feasible.
So Pilkey and Fischetti, along with one of Pilkey’s students, Dave Bush, formed a group called the “Move the Lighthouse” committee. “We met together a lot and we produced a blizzard of papers,” recalls Pilkey, “documenting things about erosion, things about moving buildings, mainly aimed at the media.”
So now there were two different groups, and both wanted to defend the lighthouse, but in different ways. Ultimately, it would be up to Congress and the National Park Service (because the lighthouse sat on federal land), so each group was trying to convince the government of their plan’s superiority.
The locals were overwhelmingly on one side of the issue. Over 90% of residents polled by a local magazine wanted to keep the lighthouse in place. Hugh Morton said retreating from the shoreline would mean “ceding man’s historic battle against nature.”
People like Danny Couch of “Save the Lighthouse” were sure they would prevail. They were skeptical of outsiders telling them what to do. Some were concerned that the structure might break in transit. Others were worried about compromising its historic value. And, of course, there were local seaside businesses, with views of the lighthouse, that would be directly impacted by a lighthouse move.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, there were lots of scientific committees, commissions, studies, and reports centered on the lighthouse. They all concluded that moving the lighthouse was the best idea, but that didn’t do much to convince many locals. Bruce and Cheryl Roberts were an exception.
At the time, they were working on a book about the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and made an interesting discovery: scientists they interviewed told them that the lighthouse sat on yellow pine timbers submerged in a pool of freshwater. The design had worked for over 100 years, but there was a problem: the ocean water creeping in could erode the beams forming the foundation. “And that was the reason,” recalls Bruce, “that Cheryl and I realized that if nothing else happened, the lighthouse would begin to tip as that wood foundation was eaten away.”
Then, in 1996, two major hurricanes hit North Carolina: Hurricane Bertha and Hurricane Fran. Severe weather like this was becoming more frequent and more intense, creating a new sense of urgency. So in 1997, Congress started planning a potential move. A U.S. Senator from North Carolina and a state senator from the region organized a debate in April of 1998. It was attended by close to 800 people and about a dozen news crews. The crowd was quite clearly against moving the lighthouse.
But a few days later, Cheryl and Bruce got a call from state senator Marc Basnight. He had previously supported the moving strategy but was having second thoughts after attending the meeting. So Cheryl spent over an hour on the phone and explained to him about the foundation, eventually winning him over to her side. He, in turn, urged Congress to act fast, and a few months later, they funded the move.
In a last-ditch effort, the local county sued but lost. It was a stinging reminder that even though it may have felt like Buxton’s lighthouse, it wasn’t. It belonged to the federal government.
The move began on June 17th, 1999. Over 200 journalists swarmed Buxton — because nothing like this had ever happened before. No one had picked up a 4,800 ton lighthouse and moved it over half a mile. People called it “the move of the millennium.”
As the lighthouse inched to its new home, it was again set to stand 1,600 feet from shore — the same distance that it was in 1870, before the sea washed the beach away.
Before the move, the people of Buxton felt something terrible and undemocratic was happening to them — out-of-towners were destroying the heart and soul of their island. The community fought hard, and they lost. But things worked out in unexpected ways. “You know, I look back at this,” says Danny, “after this is all said and done. Was moving the lighthouse the right thing to do? Yes it was.”
So he’s had a change of heart, and he’s not alone. In fact, most people think the move was the best thing that ever happened to Buxton. Danny now thinks of it not as a retreat, but a testament to human ingenuity. In turn, this gives hope to people like Orrin Pilkey, who thinks “moving the lighthouse was a profound event” in our “response to sea level rise.”
He sees it as an example of what we’ll have to do in the future to move buildings, or decide which ones to give up, in the face of erosion and sea level rise. “We have 3000 miles of barrier island shoreline,” he notes. “So whatever happens here is also happening in Galveston, Myrtle Beach, and Jekyll Island Georgia. They’re all going to be asking for money from the feds. We need money, we need to nourish the beach. We want to build a seawall. Well it ain’t going to be there. That’s why retreat is so important.”
By 2100, at least 500 US communities will be at risk from sea level rise, including major cities like Miami and New Orleans, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And then there’s the millions of people in other parts of the world that will be affected too.
And even after all of this, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse will probably have to move again. It might last 100 years at its current location. But some scientists say it could be even less than that.
Urban planners can learn a lot simply by observing where cars actually drive (or don’t) after a fresh snowfall. Author and activist Jon Geeting has been photographing ‘sneckdowns‘ (a portmanteau of ‘snowy’ and ‘neckdowns’ or: curb extensions) in Philadelphia for years, highlighting areas that could be converted from vehicular to pedestrian use. Remarkably, his documentation has done far more than just create general interest — it has actually helped to reshape intersections.
A series of Philadelphia ‘sneckdowns’ documented by Jon Geeting on This Old City
A few years ago, Geeting’s images were used in a campaign to convince the city to modify a confusing and dangerous intersection at 12th and Morris. His observations aided in the the identification of underused road space, which could be adapted to better uses, including:
Shortening pedestrian crossing time
Calming vehicle traffic around intersections
Allowing planners and road engineers to see opportunities
Reducing asphalt surfaces and increasing plant surfaces to improve the absorption of rainwater by the soil, minimizing runoff and floods
Geeting credits Sam Sherman, the former Executive Director at Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp, and his successor, Bryan Fenstermaker, with turning Geeting’s documentation into an advocacy tool. “Sam is one of Philly’s original urbanist agitators, so it didn’t take any convincing from me,” recalls Geeting. “He brought my images of the 12th and Morris intersection to the Commerce and Streets Departments on his own and made the internal case to the city.”
Currently the Director of Engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a PAC devoted to local political reform, Geeting has also written for PlanPhilly, Next City, and other local publications on political and urban topics. He became interested in planning issues while biking the streets of New York City “around 2007, when Janette Sadik-Khan was head of NYC DOT and the city was really aggressively transforming the streets with things like car-free Times Square and the pedestrian plaza program. It was a pretty exciting time to be following this arena of politics.” He also started reading Streetsblog, the founder of which, Aaron Naparstek, originally coined the term ‘sneckdown’ for natural snowy bump-outs.
Geeting is working on two more sneckdown-driven pedestrian plazas with his neighborhood association in Fishtown, but he is not alone in his approach. “The first Philadelphia example of a sneckdown image translating into real change was in West Philly,” he says, “at 48th and Baltimore. Prema Gupta, then at University City District, took some photos of snow formations at that intersection” and sold the city on a redesign. “The intersection now has multiple pedestrian plazas with temporary materials like planters, large rocks, and a painted roadway.”
Of course, not every city gets snow, which can complicate matters. But Geeting’s blog readers have suggested other approaches, too — “a lot of people wrote to inform me that flour or other kinds of powder are a pretty common way for street engineers to test where curb lines should be,” and “sometimes parking patterns are a giveaway too. With one of the pedestrian plazas I’m working on, people frequently use the space for temporary parking, but it’s actually not a legal space.”
Still, putting powder out on a road is a somewhat different proposition. When it comes to sneckdowns, there is, of course, nothing illicit going on — modified photographs are simply leveraged to sell the city on new ideas. But Geeting sees advantages to more guerrilla approaches as well, like those documented by Mike Lydon, author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action for Long-Term Change. Citing Lydon’s findings, Geeting explains that “citizen-led interventions tend to have some staying power, and often aren’t removed even if done illicitly.”
With respect to Philadelphia specifically, though, Geeting notes that the city “now has a process for citizen-initiated pedestrian plazas, which gives people a way to advance ideas even if their local elected official disapproves.” But, he says, “even in places where there is no citizen-led option, making (temporary [and] reversible) changes to streets illicitly can be a good way for citizens to call attention to problems that a city administration may not be aware of, or may be ignoring.”
Interested in becoming more active in your own city? “If you have an idea for a space like this,” Geeting advises, “find a way to test it out temporarily and gather feedback and have conversations with people. Use events like Park(ing) Day or street festivals to do cheap, temporary versions of what you want to do, and gather feedback from people. If you notice an intersection is a problem, chances are that other people probably have as well, and temporarily testing it out is a great way to meet those people, and start organizing for more permanent changes.”
The world is full of icons that warn us to be afraid — to stay away from this or not do that. And many of these are easy to understand because they represent something recognizable, like a fire, or a person slipping on a wet floor. But some concepts are hard to communicate visually, especially in a way that will work for generations to come. 99% Invisible teamed up with Vox to bring you this video about the challenges designers face in developing warning symbols that last:
Take the Jolly Roger, for instance. It was once one of the most feared symbols in the world. It represented death, pirates, and poison. But today? A skull-and-crossbones is associated more with treasure, blockbuster movies, or Halloween than actual danger. Designing something that retains its meaning over time is a surprisingly difficult.
Back in the early 20th century, there was an urgent need for a new kind of warning symbol. At the time, there was no universal standard for communicating the presence of dangerous biological materials.
Laboratories at the US Army used an inverted blue triangle. Those at the Navy used a pink rectangle. The Universal Postal Convention used a white staff-and-snake on a violet background. The lack of consistency put people at risk of exposure and infection.
So in 1966, a group of engineers and designers at Dow Chemical set out to create the best possible icon for biohazardous materials.
They laid out six design criteria. The solution had to be:
Striking in form in order to draw immediate attention
Unique and unambiguous to avoid confusion with other symbols
Quickly recognizable and easily recalled
Symmetrical, in order to appear identical from all angles
Acceptable to groups of varying ethnic backgrounds
Those criteria ruled out simple shapes in use at the time, like those from the Navy and Army, and ambiguous symbols, like the snake-and-staff, which has various medicinal associations.
Charles Baldwin, an environmental health engineer at Dow, sought to develop a visual icon fitting the criteria, “that was memorable but meaningless … so we could educate people as to what it means.”
He and his team showed a set of 24 symbols to 300 people from 25 American cities. There were 6 newly-designed biohazard markers, and 18 common symbols — things like Mr. Peanut, the Texaco star, the Shell Oil symbol, the Red Cross, even a swastika.
Participants were asked to guess the meaning of each one, which was used to assign each one a “meaningfulness score.” A week later, the same participants were shown those original 24 symbols, plus 36 more and asked to identify which symbols they remembered seeing before.
Among the six competing biohazard designs, one stood out. It scored the highest in memorability, but the lowest in meaningfulness. So it was unforgettable, but also a totally blank slate for designers who wanted to give it meaning. It became a national standard.
It’s easy to overlook how much visual communication work this kind of symbol is doing. The design is simple — you only need a straightedge and a compass to recreate it. And unlike most other hazard symbols, it does’t reference an visible object or idea. Yet it has remained iconic for decades, helping people recognize serious dangers that may remain a threat for thousands of years to come. And that raises the question: could the meaning of symbols like this one stand the test of time?
Few people have pondered that question quite like Gregory Benford, a physicist and science fiction author. In the 1990s, he was invited to work on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, or WIPP, a massive storage site for radioactive waste in the southeastern plains of New Mexico, organized by the US Department of Energy.
Benford was brought in to help calculate the probability that someone or something would intrude on the site for as long as it remains dangerous — approximately the next 10,000 years. It turns out, few things (outside of organized religions and ritualized traditions) last that long. A symbol like the Jolly Roger, for instance, wouldn’t work for WIPP — people might not understand it, or think it marked buried treasure.
Since the 1970s, engineers, anthropologists, physicists, and behavioral scientists have proposed different design solutions to the problem.
One idea was to add context to the symbol. By illustrating cause and effect in a three-part cartoon, designers could communicate the danger even if the symbol lost its meaning. But this assumed people would read left to right and understand causality between frames.
So other designers started to focus on creating a warning without inscribed communication, by altering the shape of the location itself. They drew up spike fields, forbidding blocks, giant pyramids — designs capitalizing on natural human instincts of fear and discomfort. Even then, though, designers couldn’t be sure whether these structures would be perceived as terrifying or fascinating.
So without symbols, or basic illustrations, or physical structures, how can a designer effectively communicate a warning? That’s where the more philosophical design solutions come in.
In 1984, the German Journal of Semiotics published a series of solutions from various scholars. Linguist Thomas Sebeok, for instance, proposed creating an atomic priesthood, where an exclusive political group would use its own rituals and myths to preserve knowledge of radioactive areas, like a church. Philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri proposed to genetically engineer bioluminescent cats that would glow in the presence of radioactivity. By creating songs and traditions about the danger of glowing cats, the warning could last as long as the oldest relics of civilization we have: culture.
There’s no definitive solution for warning people far into the future.
But designing clear, inclusive symbols will continue to be a fundamental part of how we keep people safe, at least in the present. We will change, and so will the ways we communicate visually, and our warning symbols will have to change along with us.
Even now, the power the biohazard symbol once had to inspire awe and fear has begun to diminish. Today, it appears on everyday clothing and products, slowly becoming more ordinary than extraordinary.