Thank You for Not Smoking

Elizabeth Gundrey—who in the 1960s edited the British consumer advocacy magazine Which?— complained that “entire industries came to thrive on the dropped stitches of incompetent designers.”

cover of Which magazine

Cover of Which? magazine, 1957.

Gundrey identified myriad products that, not having been designed well enough in the first place, gave birth to additional, corrective designs to make up for their inadequacy. She railed against sinks with “grids at the drain-hole” that “let through bits which will clog the pipes,” resulting in the sale of “little cages” to stop them. And “because the recess in the sink rim, intended for soap, does not drain but just collects a lot of horrid slime, ingenious minds have worked out innumerable gadgets—spiked, magnetic, ridged—to keep the soap out of its own puddle.”

Because rotary dial phones weren't designed properly, Gundrey observed, a trade developed in special dials, amplifiers, shoulder rests and wiggly spirals to keep kinks out of the cords. As for cars, she reminded her readers that, “Never was there any mass-produced product which demanded the immediate collection of so many barnacle-like extras.” True, anyone walking into an auto accessory shop at the time found it crammed with an inventory of devices that existed only because steering wheels were uncomfortable to hold, seats uncomfortable to sit on, and seat covers so resistant to sliding butts that drivers bought seat covers for the seat covers. (My father scoffed, “They hire designers to do car interiors. Why should I cover up their work to preserve it for the next owner?”)

A caution sign alongside a sign from the London Underground

Signs compensate for faulty designs such as steps with no rail (left) or train-to-platform distance (right).

I thought of Ms. Gundrey a few weeks ago when I noticed a sign in a store warning customers to “Watch Your Step.” The cautionary note was clearly intended to make up for the fact that the steps were not equipped with a rail. It occurred to me that not only products are made necessary but signs are, too, to correct design oversights. That is, failures of product design or social design frequently call into play ad hoc compensatory graphics to undo or limit the damage. The same concern for customers, or anxiety about liability, that inspired “Watch Your Step” produced the “Mind the Gap” warnings that remind London Underground passengers that the train's doors don't quite reach the platform's edge. American subways and trains have the same problem, but tend not to call attention to it—and even if they did they could never have come up with a message so quaintly charming, a phrase that has found its way onto T-shirts.

Door handles with the words pull above them

Doors with mixed messages (photo: Monceau)

I once lived in an apartment building designed with door handles that looked good but gave no clue as to whether they were to be pushed or pulled. This was a case that cried out for the old fashioned kind of information architecture, in which the architecture supplies the information. Since there was none, hand-lettered “Push” and “Pull” signs were supplied by the doorman, whose day job plainly was not calligraphy. There is more at stake here than aesthetics and convenience. Clarity of ingress and egress can be a matter of life and death. On-site accounts of the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire report that because the only doors that were not padlocked opened inward, panicked workers trying to escape couldn't open them because of the even more panicked workers pushing at their backs.

A no menus sign on a building door

A “no menus” sign (photo: rsguskind)

The recklessness of the architect who specified the door handles in my building was compounded by the fact that, once people managed to open the front door, it failed to swing fully closed—no small matter in a cold climate. The solution was a hand-scrawled shirt cardboard reading “Please close door”—another design intervention executed by the freezing doorman.

Rarely is such impromptu signage factored into the design of anything. The doorways on my street are festooned with “No Menus” signs, directed ineffectively at the bicycle deliverymen from neighborhood restaurants. Automobiles parked on the street used to display window notices claiming “No Radio,” resentfully informing thieves that everything of value had already been stolen. It was a New Yorker's way of saying, “I gave at the office.” Those signs have vanished, a tribute to manufacturers providing radios that cannot be stolen, and in recognition that these days a car's most valuable commodity is in the gas tank anyway.

A handwritten sign listing items not in an owners car

A sign to ward off theft (photo: Paul Lowry)

Perhaps the most irritating aspect of visual intrusions is the placement in a design of a strong graphic element over which the designer has no control. No matter how elegant a Manhattan restaurant interior may be, the effect is destroyed by an ugly placard announcing: IT IS UNLAWFUL FOR MORE THAN 584 PERSONS TO BE SEATED IN THIS SPACE. Such messages are mandatory, but the graphics are not. Sometimes, though, they can be resisted by design rebellion. When CBS headquarters in New York was being built, design director Lou Dorfsman's what-to-do-in-case-of-a-fire sign was rejected by the Fire Commission because the type was too small to meet specifications. Dorfsman retaliated by designing a sign that did satisfy all the Commission's criteria for height and width, but that he had shrewdly rendered illegible—his point being that Gradgrindian measurements did not in themselves guarantee the desired result.

A no smoking sign

No Smoking symbol sign 

In one of her favorite anecdotes, Ray Eames described the Eames's similar resourcefulness in designing their celebrated case study house in Pacific Palisades, California. Frustrated by the requirements for municipal approval, she and Charles slyly submitted a design that met every specification of code, while nevertheless permitting some elements (I seem to recall a staircase) that the code makers had intended to forbid. When the plans were finally approved, an exuberant Ray Eames called the Commissioner and said, “I want to thank you for finally approving our house.” “Oh, we didn't approve your house,” he replied. “We just decided that it wasn't a house.”

A no pee sign on a shrub

A wee request (photo: jschumacher)

Often the violation of beauty is grudgingly supplied by the very people who have made a design beautiful. On a spring day in the residential blocks of New York City one can pass scores of gardens, tree wells and meticulously attended shrubbery, with their Edenish qualities diluted by a series of petitions to “Please Curb Your Dog.” The plea implies that the author is a victim or expects to be and that the reader is the kind of dog owner who has to be beseeched into decent behavior. Recently, some of the signs have become increasingly plaintive and desperate (e.g., “These Pansies Were Planted Lovingly by Our Children. Please Respect Their Work”). But efforts to block someone's anticipated incivility are extremely difficult to phrase gracefully. The building I live in now has a garden flanked on the outside by long rows of bushes. Workers from a nearby nursing home have made one particular stretch of sidewalk their venue of choice for taking smoke breaks, and they drop all their butts into the bushes, even though there is a trash can nearby. “There ought to be a sign,” someone has suggested; but I question the efficacy of a sign. Some situations are just not amenable to design.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.