The Art of Manhole Covers

Most municipalities around the world view sewage manhole covers as a mundane part of the urban infrastructure. At best, they try to make these heavy metal plates functional and inconspicuous. Instead, cities and towns focus their civic beautification efforts on creating a broad range of public art installations — murals, sculptures, archways, fountains, and the like. But ignoring the artistic possibilities of humble manhole covers is a missed opportunity. These metal plates, typically 34 inches in diameter, are the perfect size for casting images and decorative patterns that relate the culture, history, industry, and flora and fauna of the area.

Although decorative manhole covers can be found here and there in the U.S. and Europe, nowhere are they more prevalent than in Japan, where 95 percent of all cities and town have aesthetically designed manhole covers.There are now more than 12,000 manhole cover designs throughout the country, with new ones being added every day. Japan first adopted the program to make eye-catching manhole covers after World War II as a move to publicize the importance of the country’s new sewer system project. In Japan, manhole covers have become their own art form, and enthusiasts, who call themselves “manholers,” have made manhole sightseeing into a tourist attraction. Hundreds of fans flock to the Annual Manhole Summit in Tokyo, where they can pick up the newest manhole design cards and engage in passionate discussions about their favorite manhole. Recently the group celebrated the high honor of having this unique art form recognized on the cover of the Journal of Sewage.


Lesser Known Design Professions: Film Propping

When people think of becoming a designer, they usually think of print graphics, industrial, digital, environmental, interior, software, etc., but design encompasses a lot more territory than that and has many subsets. This is an interview with Dublin-based designer Annie Atkins who specializes in creating authentic-looking props and graphics for such films as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, Atkins talks about her craft and the importance of paying attention to seemingly insignificant details.


Quiz: Brand Name Origins

Many companies pick brand names for reasons that only they understand. Some names just feel good on the tongue or will look strong on packaging. OXO, for instance, was named by kitchen tool founder Sam Farber, because it was easy to pronounce in any language, spelled the same in any direction – forward, backward and upside down, and fit on any size packaging. This quiz challenges you to match the brand name with the clues below, and then identify the original source for the names.

  1. Founder’s daughter
  2. African animal
  3. Store hours
  4. Danish king
  5. Founder’s name
  6. Buddhist goddess
  7. Danish word
  8. Digestive enzyme
  1. Writing tool
  2. Moby Dick character
  3. Communications product.
  4. German car
  5. A product perfected on its final try
  6. Character in Gulliver’s Travels
  7. Japanese word for danger.
  8. Roman god of fire

Name Origin
  1. P – Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, was the nickname of founder Dave Thomas’s daughter Melinda.
  2. I – Reebok, spelled “rhebok” in Afrikaan, is the word for antelope or gazelle.
  3. D – 7-Eleven was originally called U-tote’m, but in 1946 it was renamed to reflect its new extended hours — 7am to 11pm.
  4. J – Bluetooth is named after the 10th-century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, who united Scandinavia.
  5. O – Bridgestone is the exact English translation of the tire company’s Japanese founder, Shojiro Ishibashi (stone+bridge).
  6. A – Canon is the English pronunciation of Kwanon, so-named by the Japanese camera maker for the Buddhist goddess of mercy. An image of the goddess served as Kwanon’s first logo.
  7. K – Lego is the Danish word for “play well.” Coincidentally, “lego” also means “I put together” in Latin.
  8. M – Pepsi takes its name from the digestive enzyme, pepsin, which relieves gastric discomfort.
  9. G – Sharp described the founder’s first invention of an ever-sharp mechanical pencil.
  10. L – Starbucks takes its name from the first mate on the whaling ship, Pequod, in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It was not a mermaid as suggested in the coffeemaker’s logo.
  11. N – Vodafone is based on the communication company’s voice, data and phone services.
  12. C – Volkswagen means “people’s car” in German.
  13. H – WD-40 stands for “water displacement” and the perfecting of the product on the fortieth try.
  14. B – Yahoo! was coined by Jonathan Swift to describe a rude, noisy and violent character is Gulliver’s Travels.
  15. F – Atari, which pioneered video games, takes its name from the Japanese word for “danger” in the strategy game Go.
  16. E – Arm & Hammer, the baking soda manufacturer, takes its name and logo from the symbol for Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. The name has nothing to do with the famed industrialist Armand Hammer.


@Issue Founder Receives Art Center Lifetime Achievement Award

We are proud to announce that Kit Hinrichs, the founder and art director of @ Issue, head of Studio Hinrich, and former Pentagram partner, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Art Center College of Design last weekend. Congratulations, Kit. We’re proud to work with you, and grateful for your contributions to design.


2018 PANTONE Color of the Year

Pantone, the authority on all things color, has announced that Ultra Violet – aka, Pantone 18-3838 — will be the Color of 2018. Pantone didn’t come up with this pronouncement arbitrarily, although it would seem that funereal black or pukey orange would be more fitting to the times. Pantone color gurus, however, are more philosophical and optimistic – and less snide. The Institute describes Ultra Violet as associated with “mindfulness practices, which offer a higher ground to those seeking refuge from today’s over-stimulated world.” Pantone vice president Laurie Pressman says, “Pantone Color of the Year has come to mean so much more than ‘what’s trending’ in the world of design, it’s truly a reflection of what’s needed in the world today.” Considered in that light, I would nominate “Pussy Hat Pink” or Fire Rescue Red” instead.


Biomimicry: Learning Design from Observing the Birds and the Bees

Noted science writer Janine Benyus, who coined the term “biomimicry” in 1997, has provided convincing evidence that there is a lot that designers can learn from nature. Often times designers aren’t so much innovating new forms and technological concepts as they are shamelessly stealing what the animal and plant kingdoms have worked out over the span of millions of years.Through biomimetics, designers are adapting nature’s best practices into products, systems and processes that are revolutionizing our lives. This video, co-produced by Vox Media (Christophe Haubershin) and 99% Invisible (Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt), explains how biomimicry underlies discovery of exciting new ideas. A highly recommended must-read is Janine Benyus’s book ”Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.”


Birds of North America Poster

Some design feats deserve to be recognized. This “Birds of North America” poster by Pop Chart Lab is such a remarkable accomplishment. The aviary chart features all 740 feathered friends that inhabit North America, from barn owls to bluejays to whooping cranes and California condors. The chart includes both native and introduced birds on the continent, as designated by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It took a team of artists more than 400 hours to draw the birds in intricate detail, organize them by species and arrange them in relative scale. Included on Pop Chart’s poster are some 14 species that are on the endangered list, and that is not counting the 46 million turkeys that will meet their doom this week so we can contentedly consume them on Thanksgiving Day. Above is a picture of a turkey in happier times.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Political Cartoons: No Laughing Matter

Op-ed columnists write copious essays laying out carefully reasoned arguments to support their point of view; editorial cartoonists sum up their take on current events in one iconic, thought-provoking, and often humorous image. A case in point can be seen in Barry Blitt’s new book, “In One Eye and Out the Other.” A long-time cartoonist and illustrator for The New Yorker, Blitt uses analogy, exaggeration, and irony to make people think about events of the day.

Blitt comes from a long line of political cartoonists in America, beginning with Benjamin Franklin who in 1754 drew an op-ed cartoon of a snake sliced into pieces, representing the colonies, with the warning “Join or Die.” In the mid-19th century, Thomas Nast produced more than 160 political cartoons to expose “Boss” Tweed and his corrupt money swindling gang. Other cartoonists do less muckraking, but communicate their point through metaphors, analogies, and symbols, and grab reader attention through caricatures and hyperbole. Political cartoonists go through much the same intellectual process as op-ed writers, but they must rather than elaborate on their point of view, they must pare down complex issues to get at the gist of the matter in a single picture.


Clues to the Disney/Pixar Easter Egg Hunt

Is this a mischievous prank played by Pixar animators when their bosses aren’t watching? Or is it a type of subliminal advertising? Or is it a bonus game inserted into films for the Pixar movie obsessed? For a while now Pixar has been hiding so-called “Easter eggs” in their films, slipping a character from Finding Dory, Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, Ratatouille, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, etc., into a new film release without fanfare or warning. These quick cameo appearances happen so quickly, they may go unnoticed or trigger a faint sense of the familiar. Now Disney/Pixar has released a video montage of characters who were hiding in plain sight. Pixar calls them “Easter eggs,” but the game is more like Where’s Waldo?”


A Tourist Destination Made of Rice Straw

At the end of every harvest season, farming communities around the world celebrate with festivals, parades, and the crowning of harvest queens. (e.g., in 1948, an unknown actress named Marilyn Monroe won the title of Artichoke Queen in Castroville, Ca.) These festivals are usually the most exciting local events to happen all year. Except for folks from neighboring farm communities, they don’t draw many out-of-towners, much less real tourists. But in the rice-growing region of Northern Japan, tourists flock in for the Wara Art Matsuri.

Since 2008, students from Musashino Art University in Niigata City have collaborated with rice farmers to turn the residue rice straw (meaning of “wara”) into gigantic animal sculptures. Made from bundles of rice straw lashed to wooden frames, the whimsical creatures “roam” the barren rice fields to the delight of all who see them. And for a very short-time each autumn, the rice fields of Niigata become a wildly popular tourist attraction.