While the world around us is in a constant state of flux, it’s nice to know that some things never change—until now. Here are 11 common things people are trying to replace or redesign.
1. The Calendar
Civilizations have been tinkering with the calendar for centuries, and some think it's time we do it again. The closest we’ve come to real calendar reform in modern times is the World Calendar, once endorsed by the United Nations. The calendar keeps the 12 months we’ve come to know and love, but moves the days around in order to establish four equal quarters of 91 days each. (The only 31-day months are January, April, July, and October.) This adds up to 364 days, with the apparent last day being December 30.
Nobody would stand for such an abbreviated year, so the World Calendar tacks on one extra day—December W. Oh, it gets weirder. December W also does not exist on an established day of the week (i.e., it doesn’t fall on Monday, Sunday, or any day in between). December W simply is, and is called Worldsday. Leap year gets the same treatment—June W, imaginatively named “Leapyear Day.”
Once their plan is implemented, some proponents of the World Calendar would like the year to reset at 0. (From its website: “The World Calendar will be so transformational as a new beginning in human history that the start date significance will connect with and attach to the event itself.”) If we’re going to go that far, though, I propose we use the “subsidized time” system from Infinite Jest.
2. The Crosswalk
During the design of Disneyland, nobody could agree on where certain sidewalks should be paved. The Imagineers decided to let the public vote with their feet—literally. Grass was planted, and where the park’s guests trafficked most frequently, footpaths became evident. That’s where the sidewalks went. In urban planning, such trails are called “desire paths.”
Jae Min Lim, a designer from South Korea, wants to apply this concept to crosswalks. He observed that when people cross the street, they only follow the striped crosswalk path for so long before deviating left or right, depending on their desired destination. This is dangerous for obvious reasons. Lim’s solution is to paint crosswalks as long arches, keeping automobiles away from that extra space pedestrians are already taking.
While waiting to use the new crosswalk, pedestrians can even enjoy the proposed dancing traffic light.
3. The Zipper
To operate the conventional zipper, you need two hands and fine motor skills. For the disabled and the elderly, this is often an insurmountable barrier. Enter Scott Peters and his invention, the MagZip. While trying to help a family member suffering from myotonic dystrophy, he came up with a basic design. According to ABC News, “six years and more than 100 prototypes later, they came up with a design that worked.” At the MagZip’s base is an interlocking mechanism made of strong magnets that bring together both sides of the zipper. The mechanism is resilient enough to see the zipper through from bottom to top. The magic of the process is that it can be done with one hand and little coordination. Today, Under Armour uses the MagZip in its products, as demonstrated in the weirdest, most melodramatic video on the Internet.
4. The Cardboard Box
Chris Curro and Henry Wang of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering describe the conventional cardboard box as “wasteful, hard to open, and difficult to pack.” They designed an alternative box called the “rapid packing container,” which uses 15 percent less cardboard than a conventional box and requires no tape, making it an environmentally friendly alternative. The rapid packing container is assembled with what they call a “rapid folding jig." Press the cardboard into the jig, and presto: a new box whose design allows sealing with a single recyclable adhesive. The box is also reversible, and can be reused with the label-free side out.
5. The Fire Hydrant
Fire hydrants are less reliable than you might hope, and after 15 years of dealing with the problem, one retired firefighter decided to do something about it. It took 20 years of development, but George Sigelakis has finally unveiled what he calls the Sigelock Spartan—a rustproof, winter-proof hydrant made of stainless steel and ductile cast iron. “This will last 200 years maintenance free,” Sigelakis told Fast Company. The hydrant is also designed to prevent tampering (i.e. kids, a wrench, and the heat of a summer day)—a common cause of conventional hydrant failure. The hydrants can presently be found in 11 states.
6. The Toilet
People who have traveled to some areas of the world know that there is stark disagreement over what, exactly, constitutes a toilet. But even allowing for those significant differences in design, the basic principle is the same: water carrying away waste. The problem with the toilet as it currently exists is that not everyone has a source of water. Billions of people are toilet-less, which is bad news all around. To solve the problem, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held a contest. The rules, according to Wired: “Create a toilet that doesn’t rely on piped water, sewer, or electrical connections. And while you’re at it, fashion something useful from the waste that goes in. Energy and water might be nice. Do it all for $0.05 per user per day.”
Caltech engineers created the winning toilet, which uses solar power to run an electrochemical reactor. The toilet reduces human waste to hydrogen and fertilizer. The hydrogen is then stored in fuel cells that can be used for electricity. Meanwhile, humans also provide the needed materials for the flushing mechanism, with the toilet converting it to treated water.
7. The Stop Light
Two hundred million people around the world are unable to distinguish between the colors red and green. If for no other reason, then, perhaps red and green aren’t the best colors to manage the flow of traffic. Designers Ji-youn Kim, Soon-young Yang, and Hwan-ju Jeont have taken a hard look at the traffic light and think they’ve found a better way. Rather than our current system of three circles, they propose a traffic signal using a triangle for stop, a circle for caution (a.k.a. “floor it before the light turns red”), and a square for go. Rather than memorize light patterns, as the color blind must currently do in order to drive safely, associating lights with shapes will allow for faster reaction times and safer roads.
8. The Pill Bottle
The problems of the standard, cylindrical pill bottle are legion. The tiny type and gibberish labeling can be incomprehensible for the elderly—and the elderly have been known to require a daily pill or two. On that note, instructions to take pills “once daily” can be dangerous if English is not your primary language. “Once” translates to 11 in Spanish. And so on. As medical advances keep us alive longer, redesigning the pill bottle has taken on a new importance. Deborah Adler, a graphic designer from New York, figured out a better way. If you’ve been to Target’s pharmacy, you’ve seen her work—the red, inverted bottle with clean labeling on a flat side, and color-coded bands at the bottle’s mouth.
Adler isn’t the only designer out to end the tyranny of the pill bottle. Julia Manchik has proposed a flat container resembling a tape measure. Prescription information is organized clearly on a flat label, and the dispensing tape keeps track not only of the current day of the course of treatment (answering the nagging question: “Did I take my medicine this morning?”), but also provides a dosage reminder. The containers are even magnetized, allowing patients to neatly stack multiple prescriptions.
9. The Stop Sign
Only a Silicon Valley billionaire upset by a traffic ticket could come up with this one. (He gave a TED Talk on it, of course.) We’re wasting too much time at stop signs, argues Gary Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder fortune. He doesn’t like yield signs, either, because he might sometimes not have the right-of-way. And though he gives roundabouts their due, he has a more ambitious plan in mind. He proposes the Take Turns sign, and yes, he is serious about it. In short, intersections with Take Turns signs operate like four-way-stops, only you don’t always have to stop. Well, lesser-trafficked roads still have stop signs, so they have to stop. Everyone else takes turns. It’s the solution to traffic accidents that we’ve all been waiting for.
10. The Door Knob
Doorknobs are great if you are a young and strapping Army Ranger. For the disabled and the elderly, however, gripping and turning doorknobs can be a painful, if not impossible, task. The city of Vancouver has taken the step of abolishing the doorknob in favor of an even older invention: the lever. A cleverly designed rubber adapter can even be affixed to doorknobs to convert them to this more accessible standard.
11. The Baby Bottle
When industrial designer Daniel Weil redesigned the baby bottle, he first looked at its history. Weil noticed that baby bottles are getting worse at attending to the needs of their target demographic because bottle designs tend to follow larger cultural trends. In the 1950s, bottles fit the profile of the classic Coca-Cola bottle, and at a 35-degree incline could feed a baby very effectively. In the '80s, the mouth of the bottle widened to accommodate baby formula powder. The result: a bottle that looked remarkably like a Coca-Cola can. The feed angle, however, increased to 50 degrees. By 2000, it widened further, now resembling a peanut butter jar and requiring a 65-degree incline, causing discomfort for the baby by allowing excess air into the digestive system. Weil’s redesign retains the wide mouth of the bottle while moving the nipple off-center. This returns the feed incline to 35 degrees. The cultural touchstone of his design? The Starbucks-style coffee cup.