Slate’s design blog.

April 23 2014 9:00 AM

A Typographer’s Design History of the Unappreciated Penny

Over the past 25 years, Tobias Frere-Jones has created some of the world’s most widely used typefaces. He has taught at the Yale University School of Art since 1996, gives lectures around the world, and has work in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here at the Eye, Frere-Jones is sharing a post from his new blog, a typographer's history and appreciation of the design of the lowly penny.

Every few years, there are calls to retire the American penny (as cumbersome and too expensive to produce), and rebuttals calling to preserve it (for posterity and price stability). I don’t know how or when this debate will be settled. Personally, I would not miss the gobs of metal in my pockets, but I would miss the lettering. And the numbering.

They’re easy to miss when you’re scrambling for change at a shop counter. Or you might just leave them in a dish there if you can’t be bothered to cart them around. But the lowly penny, more clinically known as the “one-cent piece,” has a history of lettering all to itself.

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April 22 2014 5:43 PM

A Public Service Campaign to Prevent STDs in Seniors

To help stem the alarming rise of STDs among people older than 55, designers at international design consultancy IDEO have proposed a public service campaign to encourage boomers to use condoms.

Up In Years, part of IDEO’s semi-annual Designs On platform—which brainstorms innovative concepts on themes including food, global warming, packaging, and now aging—hopes to convince seniors with lowered inhibitions and a lack of concern over birth control to protect themselves.

April 21 2014 4:54 PM

How Clever Design Can Help You Learn Chinese

Learning to speak Chinese is a daunting task. There are tens of thousands of characters that take years to master. But Taipei-born, London-based entrepreneur ShaoLan Hsueh wanted to find an easier way to help teach 200 characters required for basic reading comprehension to her own English-speaking children.

She deconstructed frequently-used Chinese characters into key building blocks, creating a visual road map of the language that allowed non-Chinese speakers to more easily recognize characters and combine them to form compound words and phrases.

April 18 2014 1:15 PM

Gorgeous Easter Eggs From the Master Patissiers of France

Chocolatiers love a holiday, be it Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Easter. The French version of the Easter Bunny is Easter Bells (les cloches de Pâques)—which allegedly fly to Rome for a few days before the holiday to be blessed by the Pope before returning with chocolate eggs for the kids. But you don’t have to hunt very far to find French chocolate and pastry shop windows full of Easter eggs all trying to out-cute, out-class, or simply out-design one another...

Good-looking pastries and other sweets are a modestly priced pleasure in France. But like fashion designers, French patissiers and chocolatiers often put out a signature showpiece that’s more haute couture along with a ready-to-eat collection. Some of this year’s best designs use the egg as a blank canvas and fine art as inspiration.

April 18 2014 10:30 AM

What’s That Blue Asterisk on the Elevator Door?

What’s That Thing is Slate’s column examining mysterious or overlooked objects in our visual landscape. To submit suggestions and pics for future columns, drop us an email.

The InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco hotel on Nob Hill is a legend. Mark Hopkins, Jr.—abolitionist, early Republican, well-known cheapskate, the child of first cousins who went on to marry his own first cousin—sailed from New York to San Francisco in the Gold Rush days of early 1849. Perhaps it was the long sea journey around Cape Horn that inspired him, along with Leland Stanford and others, to build the Central Pacific Railroad, part of America’s first transcontinental railway. Hopkins died before the mansion his wife-slash-cousin wanted on Nob Hill was finished (his final resting place, a 350 ton granite tomb in Sacramento, Calif., wasn’t ready for him either).

His widow lived on Nob Hill for a while before moving back east to marry a guy 22 years her junior. The mansion was lost in the fires after the 1906 earthquake. In 1926, the hotel named for Hopkins opened on the site. Today the bar at the top—the Top of the Mark, formerly the hotel’s penthouse—is as famous as the central-casting fog that swirls around it. First renowned as a farewell spot for sailors heading off to war, today the bar is typically packed with dancing tourists and seated locals, and a nightly crop of guys named Mark celebrating their birthday in high San Francisco style.

Waiting to ascend to this San Francisco landmark on a recent evening, we noticed a small blue star by one of the elevators in the lobby. Surely it had something to do with medical care—just what one might need after a few of the 100 kinds of Martinis served upstairs. But what exactly does it mean?

April 17 2014 12:39 PM

The Design Flaw That Almost Wiped Out an NYC Skyscraper

Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition—about the design flaw that almost wiped out one of New York City’s tallest buildings—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

April 16 2014 9:15 AM

The Ingenious Portable Lamp That’s Lighting Up Rural Mali

Works That Work is a Netherlands-based international magazine about design founded and edited by Peter Biľak. The following story—about Italian architect Matteo Ferroni's mobile lamp design project that is bringing light to rural Mali—ran in Works That Work, No. 2. Ferroni's project is also the subject of an exhibition running until May 4 at the Museo Nacional de Antropología of Madrid.

When visitors come to Africa they can suddenly find themselves “cracked open,” as the British writer Richard Dowden put it. One of the reasons is that life’s basic demands become more immediate: Everyday acts such as work, celebration, and education depend on the availability of essentials such as water, light, and food, items whose acquisition, at least in the vast rural areas, is rarely straightforward.

This was certainly the experience of Matteo Ferroni, an Italian architect who first visited Mali in 2010. In a relationship with a Malian singer at the time, he went with the intention of building an open-air theater near Ségou, 146 miles northeast of Mali’s capital Bamako.

Almost immediately he noticed that villagers did not follow Western sleeping patterns. Instead, they would sleep for many hours during the heat of the day and would often get up to work in the middle of the night, relying on dangerous petroleum lanterns and cheap battery-operated flashlights for illumination.

April 14 2014 8:30 AM

Chic Light Fixtures You Can Make Yourself

In DIY Furniture 2, a follow-up to his 2011 book featuring cool furniture and fixtures you could make at home, Christopher Stuart from Luur Design offers 30 new designs by leading designer-makers from around the world.

It’s a step-by-step guide to building a range of cool DIY household objects from clothing racks to chairs, tables, shelves, cabinets, and an outdoor kitchen, all using materials found at the local hardware store.

April 11 2014 11:29 AM

How I Discovered New York City’s Old Typography District

Over the past 25 years, Tobias Frere-Jones has created some of the world’s most widely used typefaces. He has taught at the Yale University School of Art since 1996, gives lectures around the world, and has work in the permanent collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here at the Eye, Frere-Jones is sharing a post from his new blog about what happened when two of his favorite things—typography and New York City’s history—led him to a surprising discovery about a forgotten part of his hometown.

I love old type specimen books. Any foundry, any period, it doesn’t matter. They will have me hypnotized. But I don’t usually linger at the title pages. Who would, really? All the fun and exciting stuff comes after that: the impossibly small text faces, the spectacular display faces, all the sample uses variously dowdy and natty. So a long time went by before I noticed a trend in specimens from New York foundries, particularly through the 19th century:

These addresses are pretty close together. No—they’re really close. Wait, some of these are less than a block apart. OK, hang on, stop. I needed to figure this out.

April 10 2014 9:00 AM

How Companies Name New Products

Roman Mars’  podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition about naming products—in which 99% Invisible producer Avery Trufelman spoke with Laurel Sutton, co-founder of Catchword Branding, Eli Altman, creative director at A Hundred Monkeys and author of the naming book Don’t Call It That, and catchword namer Alex Kelley—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

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