Hole covers

Manhole_master-19.gifI’ve been collecting pictures of manhole covers  for over a year.

Envelopes – specifically the patterns on the inside of them – got me into it.

3 years ago (according to Tumblr) I started a collection of the security patterns printed in envelopes. I was drawn in by the variation of shapes used in the patterns that were designed to disrupt the shape of letters. A pattern to disrupts other patterns.

So I started comparing the shapes used in envelopes to the ones used to disrupt waves in sea defences.

There were some similarities – like a consistent use of squared, sharp edges. Also, most were formed of small, rigidly regular patterns that were in direct opposition to a bigger and more chaotic pattern formed in in the thing they were trying to disrupt – like a wave or a word.

Manhole covers on the other hand, mimic the patterns of the things they are designed to interact with – like the tread on a tyre or the sole of a shoe – as their purpose isn’t to push something away or disrupt it but to mesh two unfitting things together.

They’re also importantly, signposts for the utilities they cover.

Some are adverts for ease of location and use by the right people – like water mains and fire hydrants. Others, made shortly after the introduction of a new technology though – like telephones or broadband – are as much a protection for that technology as an advert for it.

‘C’ shapes are often used over CATV covers in the UK. And some of the late 60’s telephony covers in Italy may just as well have been Pintori posters for telephones.

They remind me of the stories my dad tells about his job designing church fittings in the 70s. Despite trends for big bold colours and abstract shapes, a balance between invisibility and current trend had to be found when making something that would fit with the sediment of histories in a church, meaning that what you often ended up with was something ‘classic’, or timeless. A bit showier than you’d expect somehow but completely impossible to date.

I’d like to track down the people who designed some of the patterns on manholes. I wonder if their stories are the same as my dads. For now I’m trying to isolate the patterns, understand why they are the way that they are and give them some of the credit they’re due.

Anyway, for now, here’s some of the more interesting shapes.


Finding the unfamiliar

Entering a corporate building you’ve never been in is always slightly odd.

Every component of the place – from the size of the name space in the sign-in book, to the direction of the door handles – seems significant.

Small procurement decisions seem to form a pattern of accidental iceberg-tips that you’re sure, given enough time/knowledge/certainty, would map to some larger structure within.

Or maybe I spend too much time in other peoples offices.

Either way, last week I repeatedly turned the lights off in a large call centre in Peterlee.

I hit (as many do) a light switch I thought was a door release. At that moment, though the lights were out, I was the most visible thing in the room. Stranger. Person in need of assistance.

Unschooled in how to operate the building, I fell into its traps, several times. Each time, someone quickly came to restore normality, turning the lights back on and asking me if I needed help/escorting from the premises.

It was a very efficient way of finding me. An unfamiliar object in the midst of the familiar.




Relative economies of scale II

Without people telling me, I know what they want. The only problem is, when they go away without telling me.

Sue Kirk runs the shop on Eigg – a small island in the inner hebrides.

It has a great selection of local beers, alongside what seems to be a disproportionately vast array of “ambient groceries” (things that don’t go off at room temperature) for the size of the island’s population – which bottoms out at about 90 permanent residents.

Three types of Tahini, 20 herbs, four types of sausage, five kinds of kitchen roll – all in a shop the size of your average east-end off licence. There are however, only one or two of each item – one packet of pork and apple sausages, two packets of rosemary, and two Jars of dark tahini.

Sue can stock what most people on the island want with a reasonable amount of certainty – so long as their tastes don’t change too quickly – but what she doesn’t know is how much they’ll buy.

People often leave the island, for work, to visit family or to do all the usual things that in a larger community don’t have an affect on the shops they use. But with such a small number of people, the affordance for change is small – or as Sue told me “you don’t have to lose very much before you’re losing” so Sue orders small daily deliveries of a wide number of goods, changing the amount and range whenever she notices a change in buying behaviour.

In theory, the faster the supply, the more it can be scaled up or down as necessary, so alongside this short-order method, Sue uses as much island produce as possible. This too is affected by a relative scale though – with the export of goods off the island not as easy as selling to the shop, Sue has to absorb the unpredictability of supply as well as demand. An imbalance in the ease of import and export means that when “everyones hens are laying like crazy” there’s little you can do about it but eat more eggs.

A system never exists in isolation, and with an unbalanced friction in and out of that network, someone has to absorb change, in this case, literally.

This is the second of three short films I made on Eigg as part of Devfort 8. You can read the post I wrote about the first one with Simon Helliwell (the founder of Hebnet, Britain’s smallest ISP) [here](http://text.louisedowne.com/post/relative-economies-of-scale)

Up next: Lucy Conway, founder of Eigg Box on building shared, non-specified space in a place that has little room for casual work-based crossover of expertise, knowledge or interest.

Forget it Jake, its Chinatown

Thinking about Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, again. This time in preparation for a talk I’m giving in at SDNC in Cardiff next week on ‘transformation’.

In the film, ‘The Chinese’, like desert water forced into a pipe, are a euphemism for carefully controlled chaos in LA – omnipotent, unpredictable, uncontrollable forces at work somewhere ‘below’ the city, just waiting to break free.

Only it’s not the Chinese, or water that kills the heroine at the end of the film – its a cop.

A cop controlled by the equally chaotic, ‘senseless’ requirements of laissez-faire capitalism, who can kill under the guise of sense-making: creating order form chaos.

An endless need to map, model, plot and predict the unknown and the unpredictable doesn’t usually result in designers killing people, but design can sometimes feel like an exercise of power that’s been defined by as much ‘senselessness’ as the senselessness it tries to control.