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#11 Cleaning the oceans, facemasks and shadows
It’s Design Lobster #11 and this week we’ve got a hygienic theme. Wash your hands and dive in… 🛁
Question: How might we clean the oceans?
Above: System 001/B of The Ocean Cleanup’s plastic collector, launched in 2019.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area of the north Pacific ocean roughly the size of Texas that due to the action of sea currents is continually accumulating plastic debris. Most of this plastic is smaller than the size of a fingernail and at densities that are hard to see with the naked eye, but collectively it amounts to about 87,000 tonnes. At current growth rates, every 10 years it will be about 10x bigger 😳.
In 2012 an 18 year old Dutch design student Boyan Slat made headlines with a TEDx talk where outlined his vision for how to clean up this mess. Boyan had observed the way that plastic accumulated on the beaches during a family holiday to Greece. This gave him the idea to create an artificial shoreline out at sea against which debris would be caught and collected. He pursued this vision single-mindedly throughout his studies and founded a company The Ocean Cleanup after graduating to continue developing the idea. 80 people now work there for him.
The current system consists of a flexible floating arm with a skirt hung underneath to trap plastic (but not fish). It is not powered and instead is propelled by currents and the wind. By using a sea anchor to slow it down relative to the current, plastic waste slowly builds up against the arm which, can then be collected by a support vessel. Several prototypes have been tested over the last 5 years and fully functional version is expected to be launched next year.
As The Ocean Cleanup recognise, collecting discarded plastic is only half of the solution to the problem of plastic waste. Reducing unnecessary plastic use is the other, more important part of the equation. However I still think it’s an impressive application of design to a big problem. Rather than just seeing it as a symptom of the problem, I like the way Slat saw the tendency of beaches to collect plastic as a useful quality that had the potential to be exploited in a piece of design.
Design takeaway: Could something you’ve been dismissing as part of the problem, actually be part of the solution?
Watch a video of the cleanup device in action.
Object: N95 Respirator
Above from left; A patent illustration for a Shapeen bra; one of Turnbull’s original sketches for a facemask; a modern N95 respirator. Credit to Design Museum Foundation for these images.
Squaring off with the hand sanitiser bottle and ventilator as design object of 2020, the N95 respirator has become perhaps the most potent visual symbol of the coronavirus pandemic.
The origin story of this very 21st century icon goes back to the 1950s. At that time the designer Sara Little Turnbull was consulting for the manufacturer 3M, looking at potential commercial applications of a moulded material called Shapeen. Initially interested in the material’s stiffness, Turnbull worked on ideas for gift wrap and supportive bras (see above). But the material had other useful qualities too. When you look at the under a microscope it looks like a maze of sticks. When particles (viral or otherwise) fly in they get stuck making turns. Nevertheless, because there are still gaps, it’s easy to breathe through.
Around that time, Turnbull sadly lost three family members in quick succession so was spending a lot of time in hospitals. There, she had the insight that one cup of the bra design could move up to become a mask on the face to protect against airborne particles. It took until the 1970s for the facemask to be officially recognised as a respirator – ie able to block pathogens – but from then on it became firmly established in hospitals and industrial settings.
I love this story because it demonstrates a restless design intelligence making surprising connections between topics as disparate as lingerie and infectious disease!
Design takeaway: How might elements of your design translate to an entirely different domain?
Learn more about the work of Sara Little Turnbull.
Quote: “Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”
– Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
This short and lovely book was first published in the 1930s. Tanizaki compares Japanese and Western aesthetics, seeing the latter as unhealthily obsessed with light and clarity – cut gemstones, glass and bright electric light. He makes the case for appreciating the beauty of murky, dark and shadowy things as well – patinated metal, lacquerware and even toilets.
It’s a nice reminder to find beauty in things that we might tend to overlook. I think that being generous in how we see things is an important part of designing well.
Keep discovering. 🦞
PS. Watch Gary Hustwit’s documentary on the designer Dieter Rams- free until 14th April.
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