Ubiquitous Icons: Highways 101

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If you listened to the show for a while, you know that we’re big fans of icons and symbols and signage, and one of the main places you encounter those is on the road. So, in our ongoing ubiquitous icon series, we’re taking to the highways.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I’m thinking we should call this one “Highways 101.”

Roman Mars:
I like it. Highways 101. That’s Kurt Kohlstedt. He’s our digital director and co-author of the book, “The 99% Invisible City”. One of the things Kurt does is, he checks our inbox for listener-submitted ideas, combs through all of them, and earlier this summer, a 99pi fan named Daniel wrote us about a strange stop sign that he encountered while traveling. And you started digging into this story.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. So, his emails started like this. “A couple of years ago, we took a trip to Hawaii, and my wife became obsessed over a few blue stop signs we saw in the parking lots. The signs were the size and shape and use the same lettering as normal red stop signs, but they were bright blue.”

Roman Mars:
So, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I had never seen this either, either in images or in real life. So, I started looking into why some were blue, and that turned out to be pretty easy to figure out. But it got me wondering something a lot more fundamental, which is, why are the rest of them all red?

Roman Mars:
Why are they red?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right?

Roman Mars:
Exactly.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Why is that such a thing in the first place?

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And that got me into, of course, digging into the whole history of stop signs.

Roman Mars:
Of course, of course. That’s the only way this is going to go with you.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. It’s just my nature. And as I was looking into this, this one figure kept popping up everywhere I looked, a guy named William Phelps Eno, who in the early 1900s became known as the “Father of Traffic Safety.”

Roman Mars:
Huh. Okay, so what do you have to do to earn that title, the Father of Traffic Safety?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So, Eno was born way back in the 1850s. And if you think about it, 1850s, he’s in New York, this is a New York without cars. So of course, it’s a New York without stop signs.

Roman Mars:
Without stop signs, totally, yeah. The roads back then were kind of this open space that was shared by carriages and pedestrians, and they moved all around. It was a lot different.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right, right. There was some attempts to do some traffic management and stuff, but it was all kind of ad-hoc and people standing in the street, and it wasn’t very organized. It only got worse, right? As more technologies evolved, and more and more people were on the streets, and cars started showing up. And it just was increasingly clear that this was a mess, and it was going to need some kind of regulation.

Roman Mars:
And so, was Eno some kind of road expert? Is that what he was working on?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, that’s the thing. Not really. He came from this family real estate business, decided it wasn’t for him. It wasn’t his passion. His passion was traffic. So, in 1900, he writes this article, and it’s not entirely clear in hindsight if he realized what he was doing at the time. But he basically was writing a treatise that would lay the groundwork for everything he would do for the rest of his life. So, in the end, he would come around to inventing and evolving all different kinds of traffic innovations, things we take for granted today, like rotary junctions and pedestrian crossings.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So, he really earned that title, the Father of Traffic Safety.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Absolutely. Once his ideas got some traction in the U.S., he began helping other cities create traffic plans, and some really recognizable designs trace back to him, like roundabouts at Piccadilly Circus in London, and around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And he was even inducted into the Legion of Honor by the French government after World War I.

Roman Mars:
For traffic?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes.

Roman Mars:
That’s how he got that. Wow.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
He essentially got France’s equivalent of a knighthood for traffic design. But if you think about it, from their perspective, his traffic designs helped get French troops to the front lines, which in turn, helped them to hold off the Germans during the war. France is pushing like 60,000 troops towards Verdun to hold the German advance towards Paris. It was all made possible by this guy’s traffic planning.

Roman Mars:
And so, was Eno the man who invented the stop sign?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, that’s the thing. I kind of fell down this rabbit hole of looking into him. But one thing I realized along the way was that I was never going to find the inventor of the stop sign.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Because it’s one of those things that has existed in various forms for a while now. But it’s safe to say that Eno played a really big role in popularizing stop signs and yield signs and that kind of signage infrastructure. And that’s why his name comes up so much when you’re looking into these things.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Also, put this in context, right? Stop signs back then, they weren’t what we think of as stop signs today. Their designs varied from place to place. One of the first ones that popped up in Detroit in, I think it was 1915, had black lettering on a white background, presumably for contrast. So, they really came in all these different shapes and sizes, and there was no sort of one person you could say, “Aha, that guy made the stop sign.”

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, I think that makes sense to me that there would be a need for stop signs and therefore, they would be invented in multiple places and multiple times. So, when did they sort of get this octagonal shape that we attribute to them? When did that happen?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So, that one actually does have a specific answer. And the answer is 1923. That’s when the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments decided to standardize the shape.

Roman Mars:
That’s a very specific answer.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes. Yeah. And it was a pretty good idea to make it a nonstandard shape – something that would stand out – but there was actually more to it than that. They had this idea that they could create an association between geometry and safety.

Roman Mars:
Explain more what you mean there.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, they believed that the shape itself could communicate something, like part of what the sign was trying to do could be achieved through the shape of that sign.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So, we’re not talking about just associating a rare shape with a specific meaning. They actually, there’s some kind of theory behind eight having a meaning that ties to stopping.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes. And this was a huge surprise to me and-

Roman Mars:
Because it sounds like nonsense.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It sounds, right… It sounds sort of occult almost, right?

Roman Mars:
Totally.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But I found it, I found this out through this New York Times magazine article by Hilary Greenbaum and Dana Rubinstein. And I’m just going to have you read this excerpt, for context, that explains why the Highway Department Association recommended different shapes for different signs.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Here it is. “The recommendations were based on a simple, albeit not exactly intuitive, idea: the more sides a sign has, the higher the danger level it invokes. By the engineers’ reckoning, the circle, which has an infinite number of sides, screamed danger and was recommended for railroad crossings. The octagon, with its eight sides, was used to denote the second-highest level. The diamond shape was for warning signs. And the rectangle and square shapes were used for informational signs.” That is just wild.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It really is, right?

Roman Mars:
I mean, there’s so many questions I have about this. And one of which is, does a circle really have an infinite number of sides?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, yeah. So, I’m thinking back to grade-school geometry. And I’m like, I think that there’s something to that. I think it’s like-

Roman Mars:
Yeah, if you take the tangent of each point and therefore, it has an infinite number of sides, but I don’t think people perceive it as having an infinite number of sides.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
No. I don’t think-

Roman Mars:
I think they perceive it as having one side.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. It’s not like we look at a circle, a square, and a triangle and we say, “Aha, right. Three, four, and infinite.” It never in a million years occurred to me that there was some grand geometric theory behind U.S. stop sign shapes. But if you think about it, if you start to unpack it and you look at signs around you, you can sort of understand what they’re getting at, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It’s like, well, yeah, rectangular signs often tell you what exit to take or something. There are circles at railroad crossings, sure.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, but there’s also armbars at railroad crossings, because the circle is not quite enough sometimes. There’s also Xs and bars and all kinds of other things. So, I get that there’s a theory behind it. And if it has some kind of basis in semiotics, I’m willing to entertain that notion. So now that in 1923 in Mississippi, they established the shape, how did they come up with the red background?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, that might seem like the simpler decision. That one actually took a while longer. At the time, yellow was often used, in part just for material science reasons. They couldn’t get a really good reflective, durable red, and so yellow showed up well at night. So, for decades, that was the general standard. And then in the 1950s, they made red the official standard.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so, yellow because you can make kind of a matte yellow and it contrasts really well with black, for example, and it looks really good at night. But until you get that shiny red that you see on a stop sign, red is not a very good stop sign color.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And if you think about when you see a red stop sign at night, it is really shiny and really reflective. Also, by that time too, we’ve got stoplights and other signage, and red has really got this built-up association of being a thing telling you to stop. So, making them red just kind of fit with the grander scheme of everything else that was going on at the time.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, and it’s a warning color in nature. I suppose yellow is too, but yeah, it makes sense. So, how does this get us to those blue stop signs in Hawaii that Daniel found?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh, right. That’s how we come full circle, or full octagon as it were. And it turns out the blue-painted stop signs are actually exceptional on purpose. You usually find them on private property, places like store parking lots. And the reason they’re blue is so they won’t be confused with other official government red signs.

Roman Mars:
That makes sense. So, they’re intentional fakes because they don’t want it to seem like it’s a sign maintained by the city or county. So they’re like mall cops. They have a badge, they might have a gun, but they’re not actual cops.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, right. Whether you actually decide to pay attention to what the sign is telling you is a little bit up to you, but it is really clear what it’s trying to tell you, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, that’s one of the things I think that’s so great about the stop sign is that, with the shape, the word ‘Stop’, and the color, you can really take one or two of those elements, and at this point, it’ll convey the meaning. Like if you had a red octagon with no word “Stop” on it, I think people would generally stop.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. Or if you saw an octagon from behind, you’ll know that that’s a stop sign.

Roman Mars:
The other people have to stop, yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Well, that’s a good sign. So, they were onto something in Mississippi in 1923, and they figured something out. That’s so cool. Well, there we go.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And I actually have another blue sign for you.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
This one is actually not so much of an exception as the rule.

Roman Mars:
So, a blue sign, but not a stop sign. So, which one are you talking about?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So, the ones I’m talking about are these big rectangular, super recognizable ones that if you’ve ever driven between cities, you have seen one of these. They’re those big blue signs that tell you which businesses are at which exits.

Roman Mars:
Oh, yeah. When you’re traveling, these are the greatest signs ever, because this is where you get to check out if there’s an In-N-Out Burger on that exit, or you have to keep going, because there’s nothing good to eat.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. They’re super easy to recognize. You know what they look like, you know what they’re telling you. And they’re generally called specific service signs, and there are actually three different types of them. One of the ones is the one that you just mentioned, which is the main line sign, and that tells you where to get off for what. Then there are these smaller ramp signs that you see when you drive up the off-ramp. And then there are these smaller trailblazer signs, and all of these are designed to route you to the exact place you’re trying to get.

Roman Mars:
Right. And so, I’ve always kind of wondered how those signs work. I mean, who gets to be on them? Because not every business at the exit is on one, and they really do serve as your guide to the road. So, how does that all happen?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They’re pretty standard-looking from state to state, but the details of how they work can vary quite a lot. But the big idea is that businesses have to meet certain criteria to get a spot on these signs. So, for example, they may need to be open a certain number of hours per day, and days per week, and weeks per year. They might have to have a certain minimum capacity for patrons, a certain number of seats and bathrooms, a certain number of parking spots. And these requirements can get really specific like restaurants in Kentucky have to be open and serve water from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM.

Roman Mars:
Oh. Okay. Wow. Okay. So, that’s actually really great, so that you’d know that there’s a basic level of service. And so, do you get on the sign if you meet those requirements basically?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, it depends. It depends in part on demand. In some places, businesses have to get at the back of a line basically, and wait to get their spot on the sign. They also have to develop versions of their logos that fit within the dimensions of the box, which are of course standardized on the sign. And then, depending upon the location and the size of the sign and the type of sign, you might actually have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to get a prime placement on one of these.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So, it really is like a paid advertisement after all.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It is, but there’s some more nuance to it too. In Oregon, there are discounts for nonprofit organizations that want space on the sign. And in California, some of the sign revenue gets set aside and put towards creating and maintaining rest areas, which is a really nice public service.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Some of us are just geeks, and we like learning about these things. But for people who are on the road a lot, this is really useful information, right? You know when you look at the sign, if you know the rules for the state, you know what to expect from the stop, that the businesses there will offer certain things and be open at certain times and be within a certain distance to the exit. And all of that’s really handy if you’re somebody who spends a lot of time on the road.

Roman Mars:
Right. And if you’re really thirsty in Kentucky, you know if you see a restaurant on that sign, you can pull over and get a drink of water.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
That’s right. But only for 14 hours a day.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
So, we’re going to pull off the freeway and the big blue signs onto kind of a rural route highway for our next ubiquitous icon. This is really kind of not so much an icon as it is an object that became an icon, and it is the mailbox. And it’s the specific kind of mailbox. It’s that metal, flat-bottomed, rounded-top, little red flag on the side. If you’ve lived in the U.S., you’ve definitely seen one of these. You raise or lower the flag if you have outgoing mail. I mean, this thing is truly ubiquitous.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And even if you don’t live in the U.S., you know what they look like because you’ve seen them in graphic format, you’ve seen them in pictures. These things became a digital icon a long time ago. But in terms of the physical box, well, it’s a pretty simple and elegant solution, but it grew out of this really long history of problems that the United States Postal Service was having. And it didn’t actually come out until 1915. But to understand it, we have to go back another half-century or so to 1863. And that’s the year that the USPS introduced free city delivery.

Roman Mars:
So, I think of the U.S. Postal Service as having universal access, so that you get mail delivered no matter where you are. We did a whole episode about that sort of thing.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. Right. But universal access doesn’t mean universal access to mail at your front door. And that was the sort of key innovation that created a little bit of a rift between city dwellers and people who didn’t live in cities.

Roman Mars:
Oh, so people who lived in cities because they’re close together, they got their mail delivered to their door. But people who lived out in the country did not get that luxury.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. Right. And it makes sense, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They can go door-to-door much more easily in the city than they can in the country. And so, this was a big boon to people who were living in cities. But if you think about when we are in the 1800s, most people aren’t living in urban areas at this point. They’re all spread out. And so, the standard practice was that they would go to their local post office if they wanted to pick up or send mail.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Which is why you see all these really beautiful little rural post offices around. I subscribe to a Twitter account that just shows you pictures of them. But I really love them.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I love it. No, me too. I love these tiny little post offices of all shapes and sizes. But of course, if you’re thinking about it from a practical standpoint, all of these people living out in the countryside aren’t totally thrilled that they’re paying the same postage rates as people in the city, but aren’t getting the same level of service, right?

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
They’re not getting this door-to-door service like city dwellers are.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I can imagine them getting pretty upset with that. So, how did this tension eventually resolve?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So, finally in 1896, the USPS starts testing out rural free delivery. That solved some problems and created others. Because suddenly, farmers and other people living outside of cities were just cobbling together mailboxes from whatever was handy, like lard cans and feed crates and cigar boxes. And basically, they just would take anything that was box-like, and pick it up and mail it to a post.

Roman Mars:
Wow. I love it.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I do, too. Honestly.

Roman Mars:
I mean, I can imagine that being a bit of a pain because you have to figure out if you’re a postal carrier like, is this thing nailed to a post a mailbox or is it something else? Or is it a peach basket for basketball, for example.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right, right. And every one, they might open differently. There’s no standardization here. So, the USPS ends up having to impose standards, and they started requiring boxes be purpose-built for mail, that they be made of metal resistant to snow and rain, have some kind of flag or signal to indicate that there’s outgoing mail inside, and of course, that they be high up enough that they could be reached from vehicles. And on top of all of that, they also had to meet certain size dimensions because of course, mail has to actually fit in these things.

Roman Mars:
So, that pretty much describes the mailbox we’re talking about. So, what if you didn’t comply? What would happen if you just kept your lard can posted up?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, you got a warning, and that warning was that your service will get cut off if you don’t get a compliant box. And then you got instructions as to where you can get a compliant box, and there were a dozen or so models that the USPS had vetted and said, “Okay, these are suitable for mail.”

Roman Mars:
Okay. That sounds like a good start. I mean, if it’s not too onerous or too expensive, at least they have a few options.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah. It was a step in the right direction, but it also caused some other side effects, one of which was a conflict of interest. Because suddenly, people would ask their mail carriers, “Well, which box should I get?” And companies figured out, “Oh, hey, we could pay these mail carriers a commission to suggest our box.”

Roman Mars:
Oh, no.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So, suddenly there was this kind of perverse incentive for mail carriers to hawk different boxes, and that wasn’t going to work for the USPS.

Roman Mars:
Totally. Oh, they’re taking kickbacks. Oh, I’m so disappointed.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, right?

Roman Mars:
Okay. So, what did they do to solve that problem?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, basically in the end they said, “Okay, no more of this kind of picking out from a list” or whatever. The USPS just turned inward to somebody who was already on staff, a guy named Roy. And they said, “Roy, make a box.” And he made a box. Not just any box, he made one that was basically open-source, a design that any company could legally take and make. And so, this took the competitive aspect out of the equation. So, there were still different companies building the boxes, but there wasn’t any real incentive for somebody to recommend one option over the others, because they all had the same design.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool. And so forward-thinking of the time to make it open-source. So, how did Roy come up with this perfect mailbox design that’s become the icon of today?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, in a lot of ways, he built on what was already there, these guidelines that the USPS had set out. But he also focused on making them simple and cheap so that anybody could afford one. So, his box has this arched top to prevent snow and water from accumulating. And the curve shape also made mass production easier, because it turns out, wrapping a curve is easier than precisely bending metal. Then there’s that classic front latch, which helps protect the mail inside. So, in the end, he took all of these criteria and he made this thing that was functional and durable and inexpensive and used as few moving parts as possible.

Roman Mars:
Like he just followed the brief and was a great designer, it sounds like.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, yeah.

Roman Mars:
That’s fantastic. So, I tend to see these more out in the country. And I’m sure I’ve seen them in cities too, and especially in suburbs. So, they really weren’t just for rural delivery. They really became the mailbox.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And that’s in part because of this open-source aspect. Because the design had no patent, any company could just make them. And because they worked well, a lot of companies did just that. It also didn’t hurt that the USPS mandated that people use these boxes in rural areas for a while. It wasn’t until the late ’70s actually, that they started to relax the restrictions and let people use a variety of box types.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Because I definitely have seen other ones. It’s just, I just see this one a lot. And that’s really outstanding. That’s explains why. Well, I mean, I guess one of the reasons why it’s been so re-inforced is that this design has definitely gone digital. I mean, you see a profile of that type of box, the rounded top, the little red flag, you know what that means. That means mail.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Oh, yeah. Yeah, there’s even an emoji called “Closed Mailbox with Red Flag”. And it is absolutely, super obviously based on that classic design that was made over a century ago.

Roman Mars:
That’s so great. So, do we know Roy’s last name?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I believe it’s Joroleman.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I’m not sure I’m pronouncing that entirely right, so we might want to check that before we air it. But yeah, I believe it is-

Roman Mars:
Or we could just go for it. Kurt, let’s just live a little.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I just like the idea of Roy the mail guy sitting there designing his box.

Roman Mars:
Our hero for today is Roy, who worked at the USPS and made that mailbox that we all know and love.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Let’s all raise a little mail flag to that guy.

Roman Mars:
Absolutely.

Roman Mars:
When we come back, another thing that you’ve definitely seen along the highways and freeways, those little dots that light the way. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So we’re back with another story, and this one we actually included in the book, “The 99% Invisible City,” so actually you know it ahead of time. It concerns those reflective markers that you see along the side of roads or between lanes. There’s lots of different kinds. There’s lots of different places around the world that they exist. But the most interesting character we discovered who worked on a very early version of these was a British inventor named Percy Shaw. And with a lot of great origin stories the details of Percy’s breakthrough, they kind of vary depending on who’s telling the story. But they all have this one thing in common, it started with him driving along a narrow road on a foggy night in the early 1900s near his hometown of Halifax.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
As his brother told the story, Percy was coming home from one of his usual haunts, a local pub, but as he drove around this sharp corner he saw the reflective eyes of a cat alongside the road, and because he saw that cat he avoided driving his car off of a cliff and crashing. And probably dying.

Roman Mars:
Normally, Percy didn’t rely on, you know, good fortune and cats crossing his path to stay on the road. He relied on tram lines in the road, they were the metal reflection from the tracks of the trams. He would use those to orient himself on the road, but they had been ripped up and so he was stuck kind of squinting through the fog and that’s when it came to him, that he would invent a way to solve this problem for himself and other drivers and not rely on cats.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And it was very much in his nature. Percy had always been a fixer and a tinker from a young age. He actually left school at the age of 13 to help his family make money, and he ended up starting a paving business, and then finally in 1934, he patented this device that would reshape the roads of England and then eventually go global.

Roman Mars:
So, his design involved a pair of reflective glass beads embedded in a cast-iron frame. These retroreflective cat’s eyes, they redirected the light back towards the cars with minimal scattering, so you really could see them. They stood out in the dark night. And they were really sophisticated, like the metal part protected the glass, but it also lowered when cars drove over them, both for safety reasons and to create a noise. They alerted the drivers with the noise. And probably my favorite detail though is that these little rubber wipers were added later, so basically when the housing got pushed down the glass would wipe up against the wipers, so the device was self-cleaning.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
All of this is really sophisticated, so it may be obvious, but Shaw didn’t invent these overnight, right? He tried out all these different designs and he iterated on them, and one of my favorite parts of the story is how he approached this design development process. So instead of getting approval and having authorities sign off on him testing them out, he just went out and started adding his various prototypes to local roads.

Roman Mars:
The good old days. I mean he did own a paving company, so-

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right.

Roman Mars:
… he just started ripping up the roads, and he would try out different designs, good old Percy Shaw.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. He was perfectly suited to doing this, just not quite legally allowed. But even then he had another problem too, which is that once he got this design together he couldn’t seem to find buyers until the Second World War came along. Suddenly there were wartime blackouts because of air raids, so nights are darker than ever. Drivers have been instructed to add dimmers to their headlamps and do other things to reduce their visibility on the road, so accidents are happening, and the government responds at first by painting white lines on the roads and on posts to help people see at night. And then suddenly Percy, who’s been asking to get an audience with the government to see if they’re interested, has these cat’s eyes that are just perfect, right? They use illumination from cars to light up, so they don’t have an independent source of light that would attract attention from the skies, and the next thing you know the government is buying like 40,000 of these things a week.

Roman Mars:
And to some extent, this is where the design spread internationally. The other places, they also came up with their own different solutions to fit their regional needs – like here in California, which is a huge state and there are lots of climate ranges, there’s like hot and sunny places, there’s cold and snowy places – you need to use different markers in different places in different times. And some reflectors are recessed into mountain roads, for example, so they don’t get scraped up by plows. There’s lots of things you have to work on, and so these things have been iterated and have different origins depending on where you are in the world.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And if you think about Percy’s cat’s eyes too, that was one of the things that made them work so well in Britain. Britain is foggy and rainy, so these wipers were particularly useful, so in a way, they were sort of… You know, they could be universal, but they also were very site-specific as a solution. But no matter where you go, there is this type that’s more common than any other. It’s basically just a trapezoid, right? It’s got a ramp up on one side, a sort of flat top, and then a ramp down on the other side.

Roman Mars:
Right, so you can see it in the two different directions, depending on which way you’re going down the road. And it’s not just the trapezoid shape that’s used in a lot of different places. A lot of the colors are pretty common too, so here in the US, for example, it’s really common to have white reflectors to divide lanes and yellow reflectors on the edge of the road, but also there’s some variations there too. So you can have greens and blues. They indicate things better on the side of the road, so pull-off spots for cops can have a different color, and like locations for fire hydrants to signal firefighters are also a different color.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. And I love the fact that you don’t typically notice the color differences. Like you see the reflectors, but some of them are like cued in to tell different groups about what they can find. Then there’s this other neat function that they can serve too. Because of their trapezoidal shape they can have different colors facing different directions. For example, a reflector can have white on one side and that tells you you’re going the right way, and then it can have red on the other side, which lets you know that you’re going the wrong way.

Roman Mars:
You’re pretty much going the wrong way.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah. And you should probably just stop your car, maybe turn around slowly.

Roman Mars:
If there’s one lesson from this show it’s that if you see red maybe stop, or consider stopping.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Maybe stop. Blue also sometimes, but not always. Yeah. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
So in the book, we go over all these different details and we talk about different designs that we find in different places, but we really tell the story through Percy Shaw.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And in the end, Percy became something of a local legend in Halifax. There’s this plaque affixed to his old house and his design won a bunch of design awards, but he never really seemed to care about all that stuff. He did travel for work, but he preferred to mostly stay close to home. One of the few ways that you can actually tell he had become this kind of rich and influential guy was this Rolls-Royce Phantom, and people would tell stories about him riding around in it, driven by his chauffeur, and often just traveling to and from his favorite pub along those very same roads that inspired him to create this thing that made him famous in the first place.

Roman Mars:
So there you have it. This is one story of over a hundred that we have in the book, and in “The 99% Invisible City” we have illustrations of all these things too, including Percy’s cat’s eyes and a variation called Botts’ dots, which are really common in California, and those trapezoidal reflectors that we talked about as well.

Roman Mars:
This is definitely the kind of story you can expect from the upcoming book in general. We talk about specific designs and places and characters and all the ideas and lessons and histories that are specific to a place, but also have global implications and global meaning.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Exactly. And while you’re waiting for your copy of said book, I’ve also been writing a bunch of articles about how the book was made and have been answering a lot of questions people have. I’ve been gathering some process materials from our illustrator, Patrick Vale, and our designer, Raphael Geroni. I’ve been assembling these into some neat surprises and sort of behind-the-scenes pieces about how we made the book, because of course we’re a design show, so we’re not only interested in talking about design in the book, but we’re also interested in talking about the design of the book.

Roman Mars:
And some of the process, the iterations that Raphael went through when he was working on the cover, for example, are super fascinating. I even forgot some of the different versions that he did. And the pictures of the drawings, they’re so cool. You should definitely check them out. They’re all at 99pi.org, and if you want to order the book directly you just have to go to 99pi.org/book. All right. Thanks, Kurt.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Thank you so much, Roman. It’s been a blast.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt with help from Emmett FitzGerald. Music by Sean Real. Delaney Hall is our Senior Producer. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, Christopher Johnson, and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is basically in our houses and apartments all around the country but in our hearts, will always be in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

We are a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.fm. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can preorder “The 99% Invisible City” at 99pi.org/book. We still have a few signed copies and a few coins available. Check out all the details at 99pi.org/book. And for all your other 99pi needs, look no further than 99pi.org.

  1. Kirk

    A red stop sign might be “bright” to most people, but to the colorblind, like myself, it is a bad color to use because it tends to blend in with foliage that might be near it.

  2. Cole

    I’m more than a little surprised to hear your astonishment that the shape of road signs corresponds to the type of information they provide. This is a standard lesson in any driver’s education course and license test

    1. 99pi

      The surprise wasn’t about there being uniformity/repetition (connecting shape to meeaning) but about the specific theory of ‘more sides = more danger’

  3. Binabik

    I once heard the story, that the shape was chosen simply to distinguish it from other signs even when, for example, it is covered with snow. The other sign that has a shape that is unique (at least here in Germany) is the “respect the right of way” sign (sorry, don’t know the exact translation), being a triangle pointing downward. These are the two signs that can lead to serious accidents when you cannot recognize them. I find this quite convincing and have great respect for this kind of foresight.

  4. Tyler Groff

    I really enjoyed the piece on stop signs, but I was a bit disappointed on the history of the color red. “While red was often associated with stop and thus a logical choice…” Why was red associated with stopping?! if yellow was the common color for stop signs, why didn’t yellow become associated with stopping?
    Anyway, I’m interested in knowing how red and stopping came to be associated together. Thanks for any insights you can add!

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