Design Decoded: Biomimetic Design Means We’ll All Be Living A Bug’s Life

Robo-bee, a collaboration between Harvard University electrical engineers Rob Wood and Gu-Yeon Wei, and computer scientist Radhika Nagpal (image: Inhabitat)

Biomimicry is a design principle that looks to reproduce systems, behaviors, or effects observed in the nature. After all, what we stupid humans have been working on for a couple hundred years –at best!– nature has been developing for eons. In what seems an inevitable twist, scientist are now using science to replace nature with improved techno-nature. Science!

In recent years, bees have been dying and disappearing around the world. Colony Collapse Disorder, as the phenomenon is known, is a threat to the world’s food supply and a mystery that, despite much research and at least two documentaries, remains largely unanswered. In lieu of a solution, a team of Harvard scientists are looking for an alternative. Enter RoboBee, which is exactly what it sounds like: a robot modeled after the performance and behaviors of the honey bee. When complete, RoboBees will fly like bees, operate in unison like a colony, and most importantly, pollinate. But the potential for hive-mind robot insects is much greater. For example, such technology could be used in search and rescue efforts following disasters. Of course, that’s all much easier said than done. But advancements have been made. By looking at the movement of other flying insects, the RoboBee team have so far been able to create a nickel-sized machine capable of basic flight and they hope to see it swarming in five to ten years. This of course means that five to ten years after that, the RoboBee empire will have conquered Earth.

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Design Decoded: The Secret to National Geographic’s Maps Is an 80-Year-Old Font


national geographic map type

A collection of typefaces designed by National Geographic Society cartographer Charles E. Riddiford (image: National Geographic)

With the onset of consumer technology like desktop printing and portable mapping devices, a general interest has developed in two previously niche design fields – cartography and typography. The National Geographic Society has been in the business of both since the days when there were still frontiers to be discovered and explorers had little more than a tall ship and a star to steer her by. In the age of Google maps and GPS, old-school cartography is becoming something of a lost art. It’s easy to take maps for granted but they represent the labor of many surveyors, cartographers and designers. There amount of data represented in both geophysical and political amps is staggering. It’s no easy task to cram the names of all those cities, states, rivers, mountains, parks, highways and airports on maps. When so many different names are written in such a small space, a good typeface can make all the difference. Juan Valdés, Director of Editorial and Research for National Geographic Maps, recently revealed the history of the typefaces used on every NatGeo map dating back to the 1930s.

Before the ’30s, the maps of the National Geographic Society were true works of art. They were painstakingly hand-lettered; the unpredictable nature of movable type was unacceptable to the National Geographic Society, whose exacting standards left little latitude for imprecision and illegibility.

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Design Decoded: Would You Like Arches With That? When Famous Architects Design McDonalds


Photos and drawings of SITE’s floating McDonald’s image (images: SITE: Identity in Density)

Since the late 1960s, when McDonald’s abandoned its iconic, modernist-inspired golden-arched buildings in favor of a separate, golden-arched sign and a decidedly less exciting mansard-roofed structure, it has been rare to mention the words “McDonald’s” and “architecture” in the same sentence. Rare, but not unheard of, as a few notable architects designed some of the franchise’s more exceptional establishments.

But the biggest franchise in the world can afford to take a few risks and have a little fun. In 1983 McDonald’s approached a man named David Bermant to build a new restaurant in the parking lot of one of his Berwyn, Illinois, properties. Now Bermant loved two things: building shopping centers and collecting art. McDonald’s gave him the opportunity to do both. He agreed to let them build with one stipulation – they build something daring.

New York architecture firm SITE was brought in. At the time, SITE was known for bringing a surprising sculptural sensibility to the Best Products retail stores and they brought that same subversive approach to their work for McDonald’s, identifying the standard ingredients, as it were, of a typical franchise –mansard roof, brick exterior, Colonial-style windows, golden arches– and then re-presenting them in a new way. Their design is a subtle subversion on the classic 1980s franchise. All those elements are there, but they’re separated just enough to create the illusion of a “floating” McDonalds. The entire brick level of the mansard roof seems to be separating from the brick structure, which is itself levitating a few feet off the ground, making room for a miniature garden.

Many architects aren’t content with just designing the building – they often want to design furniture, lighting, sometimes even doorknobs and silverware. SITE’s no different, but instead of proposing redesigned plastic benches, they designed a “floating Big Mac” to complement the building. Unsurprisingly, McDonald’s passed on that addition, opting to only construct the SITE design in 1983. Perhaps also unsurprising? The floating McDonald’s no longer floats; when the franchise dulled the design is unclear.

Another significant McDonald’s was built in the 1990s by renowned architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Buena Vista, Florida.

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Design Decoded: The Golden Arches of McModernism



The second McDonald’s every built and the oldest still standing, in Downey, CA. (image: Alan Hess via Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians)

When the ancient Romans marched through arches, it was a celebration of victory, an end to long-fought battles and distant travels. Today, when we march through arches, it is a celebration of globalization, efficiency and Shamrock Shakes. Long before McDonald’s golden arches stood for the triumph of globalization, they stood for the triumph of a hamburger stand and the impact of the automobile on American culture and architecture. In a 1986 article for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, architect Alan Hess explains the origins of McDonald’s famous arches.

Hess writes that in the early 1950s brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald hired architect Stanley Clark Meston to design a drive-in hamburger stand that carried on the traditions of roadside architecture established in the 1920s and 1930s. The brothers McDonald had some experience with previous restaurants and a very clear idea of how they wanted their new venture to work – at least on the inside. Meston described the design as “logically dictated by clear program and commercial necessities” and compared it to designing a factory. Though he didn’t necessarily consider himself a modernist, Meston’s pragmatic, functionalist approach reveals, at the very least, a sympathy with some of the tenets of Modernism. Function before form. But not, it would appear, at the expense of form.

And anyway, the exterior had its own function to fulfill. In an age before ubiquitous mass media advertisements, the building was the advertisement. To ensure the restaurant stood out from the crowd, Meston decided to make the entire building a sign specifically designed to attract customers from the road. Now, many architects have speculated that McDonald’s iconic Golden arches have their origin in Eero Saarinen’s 1948 design for the St. Louis Gateway Arch or Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s unbuilt 1931 design for the Palace of the Soviets. But they tend to read little too much into things. The answer is much simpler.

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Design Decoded: The Story of the First Postage Stamp


first postage stamp

The Penny Black. The World’s first postage stamp (image: wikimedia commons)

“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), meanning “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.

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