cool ideas

Striking colors and contrasting negative spaces make this a visually exciting graphic.

This logo comes from a package of cigarettes, of all things. The brand name, I believe, is "Bee's Honey Toasted." It first caught my eye several years ago, when an ex-girlfriend bought a pack. I cut the logo out and have scanned it in and posted it here mostly so I could stop carrying the stupid thing around with me.

Stacked cinder blocks with landscape timbers in the holes make for a quick and effective temporary barrier.

This photo shows a clever, inexpensive, and easy way to erect a temporary or semi-permanent barrier using cinder blocks and landscaping timbers. Construction requires no tools. Courtesy of the local Wal-Mart.

The side of this laundry basket is gently curved to make it easier to support the basket with one hand on your hip, for instance while opening a door.

The Hip-Hugger Laundry Basket by Rubbermaid is an intelligent redesign of the classic plastic laundry basket based on careful observation of the way such baskets are actually used in real life. The gentle curvature of the baskets side allows it to be easily supported on the hip with one hand, while the other is used, for instance, to open a door. The curvature also improves rigidity.

A font wherein each character is composed of the 7 tangram shapes.

Although the functional value of a font made from tangram is certainly dubious, it makes for an interesting challenge for the tangram puzzler. My first thought, on discovering tangram, was that it might be fun to make a font wherein each glyph was a perfect tangram, i.e. used all 7 of the tangram shapes. A quick Google search revealed plenty others had the same idea. The example shown here is courtesy of The Font Pool.

This basket was woven in Africa, using traditional coil basketry techniques, out of recycled telephone wire.

This Zuni basket, woven using traditional coil-winding techniques, employs recycled telephone wire for dramatic and beautiful color. This kind of basket attracted a lot of attention when they first came on the scene in the early 1990s. Now, they're pretty much everywhere; a head shop within walking distance of my apartment carries a wide selection. Nonetheless a cool idea. This image is scanned from the 1996 book, Recycled Re-Seen: Folk Art fom the Global Scrap Heap, edited by Charlene Cerny and Suzanne Seriff.

Two manufactured kits for recycling wine corks at home: One makes a trivet, the other a bulletin board. Two homemade trivets from recycled wine corks. Front is bound with hose-clamp after Janssen, rear with stainless-steel wire and a special tensioning tool.

These two products--a trivet and a bulletin board made from recycled wine-bottle corks--are at least the beginnings of a good idea. These particular products are sold as kits: The manufacturer supplies the frame and glue, you supply the wine corks. Manufacturing a wooden frame to encourage recycling of wood seems somewhat wrongheaded, however. A better solution, is Eric Janssen's idea of binding corks together longitudinally with a large hose-clamp to make a trivet. For some reason, Janssen is no longer selling his wine-cork trivets, but I have produced 2 myself--one bound with a hose-clamp and the other with stainless-steel wire--and present them here to get the point across. Given enough wire and/or a big enough hose clamp, even a bulletin board could be constructed in this way, and without having to cut down more trees to do it.

'Yoisters' tool-less joist hanger from

This device is referred to as a "Joist Hanger," but I think a better term would be "Joist Hook," as "Joist Hanger" refers to an entirely different piece of hardware altogether. It's a clever widget: Installation requires no tools, and the more weight you put on it, the harder it clamps down. In this respect, it is similar to Bob Moore's Friction Locking Shelf Clip featured in Papenek and Hennesey's Nomadic Furniture (see below). The joist hook is available for $1.99 from Smoky Mountain Knife Works.

Simple friction-locking clip designed by Bob Moore.

This elegantly simple clip appears on p. 94 of Victor Papanek and James Hennesey's 1973 book Nomadic Furniture. It's design is attributed to one Bob Moore. It allows any regular 3/4" thick lumber to serve as shelves and supports of infinitely-variable height. The more weight you put on it, the harder it grips. The device, alas, is not being manufactured, to my knowledge.

Double-walled glass teacups by Thomas Bargetz and Magdalena Thaler, of Slovakia, appeared in June 1998 issue of I.D. Magazine.

Order hot tea in any Western-style restaurant, and it will be served to you in something with a handle, usually either or . Order the same cup of tea in any Eastern-style restaurant, and it will almost always be served in something without a handle, perhaps or . The Western mind thinks, "The handle is useful; it keeps me from burning my fingers." The Eastern mind thinks, "The handle is dangerous; if the cup is too hot to pick up, it's too hot to drink from." These cups represent an interesting compromise; they have the aesthetic quality of Japanese tea cups, but the insulating utility of Western mugs.

Besides being a cool idea in itself, the cursor stick has a cool clear plastic case that lets you see how its naughty bits work.

This clever gizmo is called the CursorStick. It snaps on and off of a standard 101-key keyboard, converting the arrow keys into a joystick for casual gaming. AMR Computer Parts of Sebastian, Florida, sells the unit (along with a handy "garage" that sticks to your CPU case and holds it while not in use) for about $10.00. It was originally designed in Germany and Czechoslavakia.

Ad copy dubs it 'The other think pad.' A cool idea nonetheless.

This coffee-height table, designed by Keith Kaar Ckayton, features a large refillable pad of paper as the top surface. Draw, doodle, or eat on the thing; a clean surface is only one torn sheet away.

Illuminated doorbell designs by SPORE.

At last somebody has paid some attention to the neglected doorbell. The doorbell is likely to be the first "user interface" that a guest will have with your home. As houses become increasingly cybernetic, doesn't it make sense to make their interfaces more user-friendly? Technically, like any doorbell button, these are nothing but momentary-on switches; you could use them in any appropriate application, provided the current and voltage were within tolerances. For specifications, prices, a list of distributors, and other cool stuff, check out the SPORE website.

Coil-spring bar stool dubbed 'The Intoxicator' by Helix, of Louisiana.

Give up? It's a bar stool. The coil-spring structure of heavy steel rod serves as an integral cushioning mechanism. It also serves as a footrest which, by the simple expedient of rotating the stool, is adjustable to any height you like. "The Intoxicator," as it's called, is available in 18", 24", and 30" sizes from Helix Furniture.

View-master and collection of suggestive tasty images.

Zio's Italian Kitchen of Austin, TX, presents their dessert menu in View-Master(TM) format. Although the idea probably didn't originate there, it is the first place I encountered it. Handier and cheaper than the daily-dessert tray, plus your diners get to play with a cool toy. Custom View-Master reels are available from Fisher-Price.

The flat-folding Zago bin is available in 3 visually and topologically complimentary patterns.

The Zago recycling bin from Benza Design is itself made from 100% recycled cardboard, and folds flat for shipping and/or storage. It is inexpensive, and is available printed with 3 attractive patterns that leave no ambiguity as to its intended purpose. The bins nest together comfortably and nicely solve the unwieldy-recycling-center problem.


Presented here are before and after images of the best piece of billboard modification I've ever seen. I wish I could credit the artist by name. This billboard appears in the 2600 block of Guadalupe St., in Austin TX, on the west side. The after-image presented here is a digital reproduction. For obvious reasons, the original was not left in place very long.

After. (Reproduction.)

The Forever Flashlight, available from Excalibur Electronics.

This is the Forever Flashlight from Excalibur Electronics. It uses a "wobble" generator (basically a bar magnet moving back and forth in a wire coil) to convert the energy generated by physically shaking the flashlight into electricity to generate light. This is not a new idea; wind-up dynamo-driven hand-held appliances such as the Freeplay Radio have been widely marketed since the Y2K scare. The cool thing about the Forever Flashlight, and others like it is that it uses one of the new super-bright LEDs as a light source, which means that, not only does it never require batteries, it never requires replacement bulbs. No part of the unit is openable; the case is injection-molded around the components. It is thus entirely water- and corrosion-proof. You could bury it in a swamp (or a bomb shelter) for 20 years, and still count on it to light up after a vigorous shaking. Because LEDs convert electricity to light so efficiently, 30 seconds of shaking can provide 5 minutes of continuous light. I keep mine in the windowsill; if there's ever a power-out, what light there is will be coming through the windows, making them, and thus the flashlight, relatively easy to find in the dark.

The OXO Uplift Teakettle exemplifies what's great about OXO: Egalitarian design at egalitarian prices.

The OXO Uplift Teakettle is just cool. Instead of having to press a button to open the spout, the handle is designed to act as a cam against the weight of the kettle and the water it contains, opening the spout automatically when you lift the kettle off the heat. Although the improvement in functionality is relatively trivial, this design is noble because it exemplifies the kind of rigorous thinking that can lead to more profound advances.

Shelves suspended from the ceiling.  Hemp rope and pine planks are the only materials.

I built this set of shelves in 1994, based on an idea I'd seen in one of the Sunset home design ideas books, as I recall. They are suspended from plant hangers screwed into the ceiling joists in my old bedroom. The planks are drilled to allow passage of the three lengths of rope. Knots in the rope support each plank. The shelves were in place for six years, and during that time held more than four hundred pounds of books.

This Rashid-inspired popomo flashlight/clock combination, although slightly anachronistic, is a clever example of product integration.

I am a firm believer that good design serves to reduce the number of possessions that own us during our lives. Although battery-operated mechanical clocks are unnecessary, strictly speaking, in this age of computers, most people still like to have a clock beside the bed, although it's unclear, from the ad copy I've seen, whether this design incorporates an alarm. If not, that would be a serious oversight. Still, this clock, which doubles as a flashlight (the light turns on automatically when you pick it up), integrates two of the most common and useful bedside objects, and thereby reduces clutter. The batteries are a weakness and slightly irresponsible, from an environmental point of view (a docking station with rechargeable batteries would better), but the unique combination of clock and light drawing on the same power source provides a compensating benefit: If the clock stops running, you know its time to change the batteries in your flashlight. This combats the possibility of finding the batteries dead when the power goes out. It's not a perfect solution, but it does have a certain elegance.

Non-commissioned public furniture from Tobias Reischle.

This cast-concrete rocking chair, and 5 others like it, were recently installed on the banks of the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The brains belong to Tobias Reischle, industrial designer and current Brooklyn resident, who financed the project himself. Each chair weighs about 200 lbs, which should deter all but the most determined of thieves. A great example of civic-minded design.

Clear vinyl umbrella from lets you see where you're going.

I don't know why there aren't more clear umbrellas in the world. To me, it seems an obvious choice: With a clear dome, you can hunker down as low as you want and still see where you're going on a crowded street. Obviously, a clear umbrella is useless as a parasol (Click here for an amusing and germane cartoon from Jacques Carelman's Catalog of Unfindable Objects.), but who besides old British ladies uses parasols anyway?

A strand of white Xmas lights strung thorugh a length of corrugated PVC pool hose make up this charming 'light snake.'

This is a strand of Christmas lights threaded through a length of corrugated plastic pool hose. The lights cost about $3 at the local grocery store, and the hose about $25 at the pool supply store. The design is based on the Boalum light designed for Artemide by Livio Castiglioni and Gianfranco Frattini during the 70s. To avoid paying those designer prices, Nomadic Furniture recommends making your own out of Christmas lights and a length of dryer vent hose. I went with pool hose, which is narrower, but more substantial. Stringing the lights was actually quite difficult: The female plug had to be cut off the strand because it kept binding in the tube. Each light also had to be bound close to the cord itself with clear tape, to prevent the lights from wedging themselves sideways in the tube while they were pulled through. The actual threading was done by tying a weight to one end of a length of fishing line, and the tip of the strand of lights to the other. The weight was then dropped through the pool hose, and the fishing line used to slowly pull the lights through from the other side.

The simplest way to improvise a pull-switch.  All you need are two wires and a tool to strip them.

This ingenious and arguably infamous little device is called a "loop switch." I read about it in Army Field Manual FM 5-31: BOOBYTRAPS. It is the simplest way to improvise an electrical switch which is closed by the action of pulling. All you do is strip about 4 cm off the end of two wires, and loop them around each other as shown. The wires' insulation prevents the circuit from closing until the two wires are pulled apart and the exposed metal loops come in contact with each other. Although commonly associated with explosives, boobytraps, and other "dirty-trick" devices, there are lots of morally sound applications for such a simple, inexpensive, and foolproof device.

It's a giant coffee cup.

OK, so, it's a giant coffee cup. I think it's neat. If we're going to have injection-molded buckets (trash cans, stools, paint buckets, etc.) lying around all over the place, why not have a bit of fun? This thing is called "Qoffee" and is available from Oriac Design. I would defend it as superior to other homomorphic objects like the screwmorphic salt and pepper shakers because here the pretense does not interfere with the functionality. Plus I like larger-than-life versions of normal objects (The like-minded should check out I've had this longstanding concept for a theme restaurant where everything--tables, chairs, utensils, condiment dispensers--is like 30% bigger than normal. The idea is to make you feel like a kid again. We'd call it "Tiny's."

Ubiquitous wooden pantograph coat rack. 'Variabel' pantographing over-the-door coatrack in stainless steel.

The expanding wooden coat rack pictured at left is a classic bit of nomadic vernacular design: It collapses for storage, transport, or to fit the available space, and allows you to hang a score of coats or hats without putting more than two holes in the wall. Even this drawback is eliminated by combining it with the now-vogue over-the-door hanging technique, as shown at right in the "Variabel" coat rack from Topdeq. Why the metal rack doesn't include hanger-posts at ALL of its joints, instead of just those along the bottom, I don't know. But the synthesis is still a good one.

'Digital Way' street-numbering kit featuring punch-out 8-unit displays.

Here's an idea that bears a distinct conceptual resemblance to my own stay tab alphabet. A stainless-steel blank has been precut along lines that mark off the units of a digital 8-cell display. The consumer punches out whichever cells he need to make the number or letter combination he wants. Executed in stainless steel, like this version from Topdeq, it's a bit pricey and elitist. But there's no reason it couldn't be done in galvanized steel, like those circuit conduit junction boxes you find at the hardware store with the punch-out holes in the side, for a fraction of the cost.

A representative set of the Cy Endfield 1972 Fischer-Spassky commemorative chessmen.

This is a chess set manufactured by notable polymath Cy Endfield in 1972 to commemorate the first Fischer-Spassky match. Each side's pieces interlock with one another to form a solid tube, with inner and outer sections, as represented below, for convenient storage and travel. The eight pawns form the inner tube, with the 8 back-row pieces around them, forming the outer tube. I am considering developing my own variant of this design, with all 32 pieces interlocking in a single hollow unit that is big enough to roll up a vinyl or leather board inside. The original Cy Endfield set was produced in a limited edition of 100, in gold and silver, but like so many of the good ideas produced in the world of high-end product design, it is begging to be implemented on a wider scale, in less elitist materials. The British patent on the design (UK1385889), incidentally, has expired.

The 'white' (silver) Endfield chess pieces assembled in their storage/transport form.  The pawns, invisible here, are contained within.

UPDATE: On June 18, 2003, I received an e-mail from a gentleman named Tim Walters who has discovered that the Endfield chess set was also patented in the United States, and that the patent (US3806128), complete with detailed drawings, can be viewed in .PDF format here. Thanks, Tim!

'Tide' laundry detergent. 'Hebrew National' kosher food products. 'Eggo' waffles. 'Q-tips' swabs. 'Uncle Ben's' instant rice. Ice machine 'Ice.' 'Campbell's' soup. 'Kool-aid' instant beverage. 'Bubblicious' bubble gum. 'Reese's' candies. 'Oreo' cookies. 'Wisk' laundry detergent. 'Nilla Wafers' cookies. 'Fritos' corn chips. 'Oreo' cookies. 'Xtra' laundry detergent. 'Jello' pudding/gelatin desserts. 'Uncle Ben's' instant rice. 'M&M's' candies. 'Pez' candies. 'Eggo' waffles. 'Dawn' dishwashing detergent. 'Oreo' cookies. 'V8' vegetable juice. 'Eggo' waffles. 'Reese's' candies. 'Tide' laundry detergent. 'Hebrew National' kosher food products. 'Eggo' waffles. 'Lysol' disinfectant. 'All' laundry detergent. 'Zest' soap. 'York' peppermint patties. 'Dawn' dishwashing detergent. 'Oreo' cookies. 'Gatorade' sports beverage.

This is an entire alphabet assembled (by artist Heidi Cody) from popular American product logos. I had a similar idea while driving on the highway--I was going to use the first letters of business logos to make up an alphabet or maybe a font called "America." When I looked on the internet, it turned out it had already been done. A spread featuring Heidi Cody's "American Alphabet" appeared on p.17 of the October/November 2000 issue (#32) of Adbusters magazine.

Rotary-folding coin purse, closed. Rotary-folding coin, purse, open.

This nifty doo-dad is a little pocket coin purse I got at the local hardware store for about $1. It attracted my attention because of the clever rotary folding technique it employs to avoid snaps or other closures. The wet-formed leather springs naturally into the closed position. Its form suggests a flower, to me, and reminds me of a similar, circularly-folding party invitation I saw in Michael LaFosse's book, Origamido. Unfortunately, LaFosse's book does not include directions on how to execute the fold in paper. I would love to have an e-mail from anyone who knows how to do it.

A cheap pair of scissors made in China.  Note the incredible way that the handles are integrated with the blades.

Although not a particularly shiny example, this pair of chinese scissors has to be the most elegantly simple design for scissors I've ever seen. Note how the handle and blade of each scissor are integrated as one piece, and how the assembled pair flow together. If not actually dating to the time of hand-forged iron implements, this design certainly evokes it. David Pye, I think, hits on this design in his hard-to-find The Nature and Aesthetics of Design. The same principle is also used in some pricier garden shears (manufactured, I think, by the same company), a pair of which I recently bought my mother.

'Wackeys', by the Hillman Group, are a cool and convenient way to distinguish one key from another at a glace.

Here's a great solution to the problem of identifying keys on a key ring quickly, and with a bit of flair thrown into the design. Kwikset locks, for instance, are the most popular locks in America, and most people have at least two of their standard-pattern key on their key rings. The more keys you have, the more telling them apart becomes a time-wasting nuisance. If you only have two of a matching type, and you pay attention, you can choose one chrome-plated and one plain brass and distinguish the two that way. But if you have three or more, you have to resort to scratched markings, drilled holes, or those colored elastomeric "key condoms" that rarely last more than a month or so in your pocket, if you want to avoid a time wasting trial-and-error process every time you open the door. The Hillman Group offers several different attractive patterns for most of the major lock manufacturer's standard-pattern keys. The durability of the applied pattern remains to be proven, but the idea is a step in the right direction. An even better move would be, besides the bright and varied colored patterns implemented here, to implement various shapes and textures so that keys can easily be distinguished by feel in the dark, or by the blind. Here key designers might take a clue from John Slade's Coulour Indicating Buttons for the blind, which have different polygonal shapes that, when sewn onto clothing, allow the blind to identify the colors of their clothing by association with a particular button shape.

Besides the novelty of the exotic color scheme itself, the packaging for "Wackeys" is innovative in itself. The key blanks are individually bar-coded and come adhered to a matching card label which is designed to fold so that the key blank may be loaded into the duplicating machine without removing the card. This helps prevent key theft and/or pricing/inventory confusion at the point of sale.

The case of the World Time Clock, by Charlotte van der Waals, is dodecagonal, with two representative cities on each side.  The upper face indicates the city corresonding to the time on the face.  Also available in black plastic.

The World Time Clock by Charlotte van der Waals is an example of what rigorous thinking can achieve in a design. There are 12 hours on a standard clock face. Any partiular arrangement of the hands can represent one of two times: AM or PM. By omitting the minute hand, the World Time Clock allows one to change time zones simply by rotating the entire clock, rather than by resetting it. The case of the clock is dodecagonal (12-sided) allowing it to stand on a surface in any of 12 orientations. Each side is labelled with two major cities, each corresponding to two time zones--one AM and one PM--in which the time displayed on the clock face is correct when that side is up. The designer assumes you can tell whether it is AM or PM just by looking around. An ingenious, intuitive, and simple concept.

Apartment-dwellers are familiar with the frustration of carefully laying out their furniture, upon move-in, only to discover that the power outlet they've plugged their TV or clock-radio into is intended for a lamp, and is controlled by a light switch mounted on the wall. Resulting frustrations include accidentaly turning off your TV in the middle of a movie or heated video-game contest, accidentally killing the power to your alarm clock and having to reset the time, and so forth. To prevent such accidents you have two choices: 1) You can rearrange your furniture to accomodate the switched power-outlet (which is a lot of work and infringes on your right to have your space the way you want it), or you can modify the switch so that it no longer controls power to the outlet in question. This, normally, would require tearing the switch apart and shorting it, which, although not terribly hazardous, is really a job for a qualified electrician. What's more, it takes a bit of work to do so.

The switchlock is a very simple piece of injection-molded acrylic.

This simple "switchlock" device I found at my local hardware store sells for $1 and attaches unobtrusively to the outside of the switchplate, using the plate's own screws, to physically lock the switch in the on position, making accidentally shutdown impossible. It is easy to install when you move in and to remove when you get out. A clever, inexpensive, and elegant solution to a common problem.

The switchlock attaches to any standard light fixture, using the fixture's own screws, to physically secure the switch in either the on or off position.

The cover of Canongate's 1999 pocket-sized edition of the Book of Revelations (KJV), complete with mushroom cloud.

I quote from the June, 1998 issue of ID Magazine:

When Pentagram's newest partner, Angus Hyland, was approached with what must surely be the ultimate commission for a book designer, he jumped at the chance. After all, who wouldn't when asked to redesign the best-selling book of all time? The publisher, Canongate, wanted to select and individually package the 12 books from the Bible in a pocket-size format. Hyland realized that in order to appeal to literature consumers unaccustomed to purchasing religious texts, the books, available this September, required a radical image update. Thus, he found black-and-white reportage-style photographs for the covers to reast the stories' image. An atom bomb illustrates Revelations, for example, while a view of a winding road typical of a road movie appears on the cover of Exodus. He reworked the titles using a Univers typeface in Day-glo orange to create a contemporary countenance for each paperback in the series. "They had to become desirable objects, books you could read on the subway without it looking as if you were on your way to some happy-clappy prayer meeting," Hyland explains. The books will cost approximately $1.65 each. (Alice Twemlow)

Besides those mentioned above, the Books of Genesis, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Corinthians I & II (both in a single volume), are also available.

Plant-a-card exterior. Plant-a-card interior.

This card was mailed to me by the good folks at Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company on the occassion of my 29th birthday. It's certainly the coolest promotional item I've ever seen.

The poster is suspended between two horizontal bars.  The top bar is attached to the wall at its center.  The bottom bar hangs freely.

The Posterhänger by Jørgen Møller is the best way to display posters, which are pretentious when framed and mounted under glass, but often of such collectible and personal value that they deserve better than thumbtacks through the corners. The Posterhänger puts no holes in the poster, gripping it instead by the friction of gentle pressure over a wide area, and only one hole in the wall. The top bar hangs from a single nail exactly at its center, so the whole system aligns itself vertically on the wall automatically, like a plumb bob. The weight of the bottom bar keeps the poster smooth and wrinkle-free.

The weight of the ring secures the stack of tissue and the form of the ring allows for the removal of one tissue at a time.

This is the "Toro" tissue ring, designed by Scott Christensen, available through the Museum of Modern Art. It not only solves the tacky cardboard tissue-box problem, it does so substantially (unlike a tissue-box cover, which is only a superficial treatment) and minimally. The weight of the ring secures the stack of tissues in place, while the shape of the ring allows the tissues to be withdrawn from the stack one at a time.

Frank Tjepkema's artificial plant looks kind of like the folds of a giant ear with grass growing from it.

It used to annoy me when I had what I thought was a cool and original idea, only to discover that somebody else had already done it. Now I look on it as a blessing: That's one less cool thing I have to take responsibility for giving birth to. The following entry comes from the written journal of ideas I kept prior to the inauguration of this webpage around the end of 2001:

"Fantastic Plastic Plants" - The technology of artificial plants is wasted on reproductions of actual plants; to choose plastic when you could have the real thing is probably the summit of bad taste. However, as furniture design in the 90s taught us, there's nothing wrong with plastic in and of itself, so long as its not pretending to be wood or metal or stone or anything besides plastic, and so long as recyclability is factored into its design. Therefore, why not make plastic plants that are proud to be plastic? In fantastic colors and impossible morphologies and opacities. Like stuff from Parallel Botany the book: Let leading botanists design sci-fi plants they wish existed, then manufacture them in plastic, with clever "care instructions" stuck in a card in the "dirt." Why not something like the Laser Lily or the Cannibal Mum?

Turns out, by the time I'd written that, dutch designer Frank Tjepkema had already done exactly that. His 1995 Artificial Plant for Droog design, is pictured above. To quote Tjepkema, "Why should artificial plants look like the real thing when the real thing looks really real? Designers: you have the liberty to 'play god' and create new varieties of plants!"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Isn't that the hottest picture frame you've ever seen?

I thought it would be cool to make a picture frame out of actual rulers. I'd gone so far as to gather a bunch of old rulers and start cutting on them before I walked into the Paper Place in Austin, TX, and discovered that Two's Company of Mt. Vernon, NY, had beaten me to it. Pictured here is their "Measurements" photo frame.

Zeer pots for sale at the Women's Development Association in Darfur, Sudan. Photo by Mohamed Majzoub.

In a recent National Geographic article about the history of refrigeration ("How Cool is That?" - October, 2005), Washington Post staff writer Joel Achenbach describes the zeer pot, an African invention which, for less than $2US in local materials and without electricity, can extend the storage lifetime of fresh produce by as much as 18 days. The pot, which is distributed by the Woman's Development Association in Darfur, Sudan, is of staggeringly simple design: Two clay pots are nested with a relatively thin layer of sand between them. The sand is watered twice daily, and the inner pot, which is lidded, is cooled by evaporation. It's interesting to note that, although the technology to manufacture the zeer has existed literally since the dawn of civilization, it is not known to have been produced until recently. Who would have thought there was a profound invention remaining to be discovered using only clay and sand?

Both gibbous and squamous, he.

It was sometime in 2001 that my attention was drawn by circulating e-mail to Jon Hansen's Tales of the Plush Cthulhu, a short and highly amusing HTML-based photocomic playing off H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and starring a lovable, huggable stuffed-animal version of Lovecraft's cyclopean abomination from beyond the stars. (It was indescribable! It was about eight feet tall with black slimy tentacles and a thousand eyes!)

ToyVault's huggable plush rendition of The Dead and Dreaming One.

Anyway. Sales of the featured doll, which is manufactured by ToyVault, Inc., were explosive, thanks in large part to Hansen's comic, and now the company offers a whole line of plush critters from the Lovecraft universe, as well as a menagerie of stuffed monsters, demons, US Presidents, and other bug-bears from various nightmares.

Plush ebola virus. Plush flesh-eating bacterium. Plush bovine spongiform encephalathopy (BSE - Mad Cow Disease) prion.

Then, in 2002, amid various semi-panics over emerging diseases like Ebola, GIANTmicrobes, Inc. began selling plush pathogens at about the 1 angstrom = 1 millimeter scale. Their website is divided into categories like "Calamaties" (including Ebola and the Black Death), "Maladies" (including Athlete's Foot and Giardia parasites), "Venereal" (Syphilis and Gonorrhea), and so forth. I am frankly surprised that they don't offer SARS and Bird Flu yet.

Life-size plush version of the facehugger parasite from Alien/Aliens.

Most recently, there's Palisades Toys' plush facehugger replica from the highly-successful films Alien and Aliens by 20th Century Fox. This one has to be my favorite. It's life-sized, and has a wire armature to facilitate posing. A plush chestburster is also offered.

Morse code structured as a dit-dah binary tree.

This brilliantly simple mnemonic device from the folks at structures the symbols of Morse code as a binary tree. Morse, as most people know, is composed of only two basic elements--the dot and the dash (or the "dit" and the "dah," as here). To use the tree, begin at START, and move right every time you hear "dit," and left every time you hear "dah." When you get to the end of the tree, you're looking at the symbol you just decoded. This mnemonic device rapidly speeds the process of learning Morse code by greatly reducing the "arbitrariness" of the symbol-set.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of mnemonic devices, a wee rant about pronunciation: The word, "mnemonic," is pronounced as "neh-mahn-ick," not as "new-mahn-ick," which is the pronunciation of "pneumonic," which is related to "bubonic" as a type of plague. While a "neh-mahn-ick" device aids in memorizing, a "new-mahn-ic" device, presumably, aids in the spread of disease, and is thus really not very useful.

The Power Squid, an organic alternative to the conventional boxy power strip/surge protector.

The folks at Power Sentry were literally thinking outside the box when they produced this charming, functionally zoomorphic alternative to the conventional power strip, which they call the "Power Squid." Sick of trying to cram all those bulky wall warts into a disciplined rank on your old surge protector? The Power Squid solves the problem elegantly and inexpensively.

The so-called 'Ring Thing' is a bottle opener built into a finger ring.

Stuff Junction's "Ring Thing" is a bottle opener built into a minimalistically-styled finger ring. If you like both finger jewelry and beer, I could see this working out for you. It makes a definite statement, kind of like that gold-plated razor blade your rich lawyer friend keeps on his mirrored coffee table. Seriously, though, the idea of making common tools readily available to the fingers as jewelry is a worthy one, even if in this case the application is relatively trivial.

This beach ball by ACS has been designed to contain approximately 1 mole of gas.

A "mole," in case you don't know, is the unit used by chemists to enumerate atoms or molecules. One mole is Avogadro's number (6.02 x 1023) of indiviual atoms or molecules. One of the remarkable things a person learns in general chemistry is the huge difference in molar volumes between liquid and gas phases. A mole of liquid water, for instance, takes up 18 mL, whereas the same number of water molecules in the gas phase takes up 22400 mL! Another interesting fact is that, because molecules interact so little with each other in the gas phase, all gases have effectively the same molar volume, which, again, is 22400 mL, or 22.4 L, at average atmospheric temperatures and pressures. The American Chemical Society has designed this cool beach ball, which they sell through their member catalog, to contain 22.4 L, or one mole, of gas. It's a great teaching aid and a nifty idea in general.

The kit provides all the fittings; you supply the barrels.

For about $70, the folks at Northern Tool & Equipment will sell you these two kits, by renowned stove manufacturer Vogelzang, which allow you to convert a pair of 30- or 55-gallon steel drums into a wood-burning stove for heating. The basic kit ($40) gets you the single-drum version, and an additional "top barrel adapter kit" ($30) makes it a double stacker "for greater heating efficiency." A neat, inexpensive way to get a modern-looking wood-burning stove, and an even neater distribution concept: sell consumers the parts they need to turn common waste items into useful products.

DWR's pricey MeBoxes feature punch-out 7x11 raster grids at one end.

Though overpriced at $15 each, the MeBox by London's Graphic Thought Facility (available in the USA only through the cruelly misnamed Design Within Reach) well exemplifies what I'm coming to think of as the "delight principle" in product design. As I would phrase it, the "delight principle" goes like this:

To make a successful product, take a mundane experience--mailing a letter, turning a doorknob, brushing one's teeth--and make it delightful.

Here the designers have done exactly that: They've taken one of life's most mundane experiences (packing), as embodied in one of the world's most boring objects (the cardboard banker's box), and made it into an opportunity for childish delight. Nonetheless, the skeptic in me rather doubts that, in the final market analysis, the appeal will justify the $15/box price tag. Even so, the principle is interesting and could be applied to ordinary white banker's boxes without all the expensive branding and color printing.

My fantasy binders made real.

Most designers, engineers, architects, and other folks who pay attention to the way things are made have had the experience of discovering the real-life manifestation of one of their own personal fantasy objects. This is not so much a damn-somebody-scooped-me feeling as a kind of relief coupled with a feeling of camaraderie with the other person who made it--wahtever "it" happens to be--just as we would have. These binders are the first such instance I recall in my own life. When I was a teenager lugging school supplies around every day, I used to dream of indestructible, lightweight three-ring binders made from heavy-gauge sheet aluminum with piano hinges to replace the flimsy cardboard-shrinkwrapped-in-vinyl models I had to make due with. Then, in my early twenties, I was thrilled to discover that they actually exist and can be had for not-unreasonable prices. The model I favor is available from San Francisco's FLAX art supply store.

Pretec's i-Disk 2GB bulletproof USB flash drive.

Following close on the heels of the 3-ring aluminum binders immediately above, this bulletproof USB flash drive from Pretec has to count as another fantasy product experience for me. I only recently started carrying a USB drive, but in the month or so that I've been keeping the habit I've already managed to lose two of them, including one I spent considerable effort in modifying, that I carried in my pocket, and one designed to be worn "securely" on the wrist, that apparently wasn't so secure on mine. I finally realized the only way I could expect to hold on to one would be to attach it to my keys, but up to that point I had never seen a drive that seemed rugged enough to resist prolonged pocket wear and abrasion in the presence of my weighty keychain without being ground to a fine plastic powder. I dreamed of a thumb drive machined from billet aluminum with a knurled threaded cap over the connector, made watertight with a silicone o-ring, and equipped with a hard point for keychain-mounting. I Googled long and hard with phrases like "tough USB" and "ruggedized USB" before I hit on the magic "bulletproof USB" and discovered the Pretec "i-Disk Secure" model shown here. Although not actually machined from bulk stock, the drive has exactly the same form as the one I'd dreamed of, plus a stylish totem pattern etched around its circumference to boot. It's available in capacities up to 4 GB.

This simple cube-shaped timer has 60-, 30-, 15-, and 5-minute settings depending on which face is up.

This inexpensive plastic timer is shaped like a cube and has four settings: 60, 30, 15, and 5 minutes. It has no display; once the timer stops there's no way to know how much time is left until it beeps. The timer is activated by rolling it onto whichever side shows the desired time on the top face, and deactivated by rolling it into the position where the top face is blank. Inexpensive, intuitive, clever, and delightful, this object really represents modern design at its best. Available from whatever works.