Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
So years ago I was talking to John Marr. He’s the guy who first uttered this bedrock 99PI mantra.
John Marr: Always read the plaque.
Roman Mars: And we were talking about the show, and he said, “You know what you should do a story about? It’s one of my favorite places in San Francisco.” So I went to the address, and I checked it out. And I kid you not, he sent me to a gas station on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. He told me to look around and discover what was weird about it. In almost every respect it’s a normal Chevron gas station. It has a blue awning, and the red and blue Chevron logo on the sign, but the sign and awning don’t say Chevron, they say Standard. As is in Standard Oil, the massive oil monopoly broken up in the early 20th century by the Sherman Antitrust Act. One of the independent companies created by that breakup was Chevron. And for some reason, even though this gas station is a modern Chevron station in every way, it’s called Standard. If you all the station they will answer the phone saying, “Chevron” and the attendant cannot tell you why it says Standard on the sign, I’ve tried. But a trademark lawyer, like Amanda Levendowski, can.
Amanda L: A trademark can be any word, name, symbol, device used by someone who has, the keyword here, “bonafide intent” to use the mark and commerce; and they’re using that word, symbol, device to identify the source of their goods or services.
Roman Mars: That phrase, “bonafide intent,” means that if you want to keep a trademark, you have to use it.
Amanda L: In this particular case when Standard Oil was busted up, the Standard Oil trademark still retained a lot of goodwill and value.
Roman Mars: And if for whatever reason down the line, Chevron wants to take advantage of that value, the name Standard has to be used.
Amanda L: And it has to be used in connection with whatever the underlying goods or services are. So they couldn’t just print pamphlets that occasionally used mixed Chevron/Standard branding, and say that they were still using it for oil and gas.
Roman Mars: They have to prominently use the Standard name in conjunction with oil and gas services if they want to keep it. So that’s why there’s a Standard gas station, that for all intents and purposes operates as a Chevron station in San Francisco, and 15 other locations in the US.
This week you should do a story for researching and presenting short design stories requested by our listeners and see where that path takes us. And in the spirit of the exercise, we’re starting with what I think is the most requested design topic of all time. Here’s our Digital Director, Kurt Kohlstedt, talking with me about desire paths.
Kurt Kohlstedt: As the name suggests desire paths are these unplanned routes people just really want to take. And they’re shaped by repeated use. And I think part of it is that they’re found everywhere. You can just see them all over the place. And the most common type that you see are shortcuts, which are often just visible as rough dirt trails through grassy areas in cities.
Roman Mars: So most commonly when you think of desire path, imagine a circuitous or maybe like a 90-degree turn in a sidewalk. And then, there’s this like 45-degree dirt path that cuts across and creates a shortcut. And that’s the most common idea of what a desire path is. Those people want to take the shortest path. But desire paths are not always a shortcut.
Kurt Kohlstedt: In fact, sometimes they end up being a longcut. And this can happen for all kinds of reasons. In some places, there are superstitions about walking under utility poles, and some people end up taking this long way around, and you can see that marked in the dirt. Or like, when there’s a slope going down to a crossover underneath a road. And normally a biker would bike down that hill and then bike back up the other side. But often, there’s a way to just take the grass, and go off to the side. And it ends up being a longer path, but they don’t have to go up and down the hill.
Roman Mars: Right. So it’s still like a shortcut in the sense of energy.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Right. It will take them less work ultimately, but it also is just kind of weird because it bows out to the side. And that’s not how we normally think of these things. We normally think of them as just like, yeah, the short way across.
Roman Mars: So these can be really frustrating as an urban planner because a lot of the reason you design things they way you do is to use the built environment to shape the behavior you want. But desire paths can also be illuminating because they can really show a designer how to make their design work better for people.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Right. Sometimes they frustrate the plans of urban planners and trail makers, but other times these people can actually evaluate the behaviors that people have naturally, and use that to inform their designs. So for example, college campuses have been known to map out a basic grid of sidewalks, but then leave some sidewalks unpaved and just sort of see where people walk to fill in the gaps. And then, they come back in and they pave that based on the natural behavior of those people walking. And in Finland, park planners have been known to watch and see where people walk after a big snowfall. So there’s sort of a blank slate and people cross the park. And they just trace their paths then use that to inform a year-round pathway for that park.
Roman Mars: Oh, that’s so cool. Which actually reminds me of my favorite form of snow-based desire path, the Sneckdown, which is a portmanteau of snowy and neck down. A Neckdown is actually hard to picture. It’s like a part of the curb, but if you can imagine a straight street and then, like a little bit of a bump out of the curb, an extension of the curb, is called a Neckdown. So how do the people use a Sneckdowns, in particular?
Kurt Kohlstedt: So like those Finnish park planners that are evaluating where people walk after snowfalls, urban planners can use Sneckdowns to evaluate where cars drive after a snowfall. And more specifically, they can look at where they don’t drive. So, when the fresh snow covers the road, drivers seem to follow a narrower path. And then, other cars follow in that narrower path, which leaves a lot of area, actually, untouched. And this results in what is effectively a temporary curb extension, and can also form sort of traffic islands in the middle of the streets where cars just don’t go.
Roman Mars: But then, did they ever take this information and use it for other parts of the year when it isn’t snowing?
Kurt Kohlstedt: That’s really the key is, urban planners can evaluate where people don’t go and use that information to advocate for curb extensions and traffic islands where they don’t currently exist. And the argument is pretty straightforward. I mean, if the cars don’t need to go there in the winter, why do they need to go there at all? Right?
Roman Mars: Right. Right. That’s smart. I like it. It gives you like, a little sandbox to play in once the snow falls and all of a sudden you realize that you have this opportunity to re-plan your city in these little tiny ways.
Kurt Kohlstedt: A lot of this analysis is really kind of lovely. It’s like people go out and they take pictures and they make videos, and then, they trace over these places where the cars don’t go. And suddenly, it becomes very clear the cars don’t actually need that space.
Roman Mars: One of the reasons why desire paths and Sneckdowns resonate so much with our audience, and not because they’re urban planners, is because they’re this great metaphor for design, in general.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yes. And a lot of people use them in usability design. And think about them in terms of interface design, so a really common tactic is to not just decide, “We’re going to make this thing this way and people are going to have to use it this way.” But instead, to actually look at how people are already using something and then take that and give it a more official way to work. So for example, on Twitter, @s and #s, those weren’t built in with Twitter. Users evolved those over time. And then, Twitter eventually said, “Oh. Well, if users are using them, we’re going to support this usage and evolve what they can do.”
Roman Mars: I never really thought about that, that @s and #s were basically desire paths created by the user.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Digital desire paths.
Roman Mars: If you want to take a deeper dive into the # or octothorpe, as I prefer to call it, Avery Trufelman did a whole episode about its origin. So if you turn in your hymnals to episode number 145 you will find it.
Many story suggestions we get come through Twitter because I’m on Twitter a lot. And we get a lot from emails, too, but this suggestion came to Senior Producer Katie Mingle in person.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. So this was after our recent live show that we did in LA. A fan came up to me and he was like, “Nice job. Also, I have a story idea for you.” So I was like, “Lay it on me.” And he started telling me about it and it was like about electrical current, clocks, and this time in Southern California when people had to make this big switch. I don’t know. I didn’t absorb that much of it at the time. But it did sound neat. It did kind of sound up our alley. So I went back, I started looking into it and, basically, the story starts back in the late 1800s when the Los Angeles area and sort of surrounding other towns in Southern California, were starting to get their first power plants. And the main motivation at the time, was to bring refrigeration to the citrus growers.
Roman Mars: So they could put oranges inside of refrigerators.
Katie Mingle: Exactly.
Roman Mars: Yeah.
Katie Mingle: For cold orange juice.
Roman Mars: Of course.
Katie Mingle: And so, back in these early days of electricity, there wasn’t a national standard for what frequency of current these power plants should deliver us.
Roman Mars: What is an electrical frequency really mean? And what are the options that you have to work within when it comes to electrical frequencies?
Katie Mingle: Okay. Now, the part of the show where I explain electricity. No, I don’t want to actually do you the complete disservice of talking too much about the physics of electricity, but the way I understand it is that electricity basically comes into our homes in waves of alternating current. And you can actually think of them like pulses. And the number of pulses per second is the frequency of the current. So if you’re on a 50 cycle system, or like a 50-hertz system, the pulses are coming at 50 a second. And then, 60 hertz would be 60 a second. And 50 and 60 are sort of the two most common frequencies.
Roman Mars: And why would you use one instead of the other? Like, what determines whether or not you’re going to use one of the other?
Katie Mingle: They’re both fine. They both do all the things we need them to do. And you can deliver current at lots of different frequencies. But if you slow it down enough, like say to 30 hertz, when you screw in a light bulb, you apparently can actually perceive that pulsing and it sort of is perceived as like a flicker in the light bulb. So in the early 1900s Southern California, so like Los Angeles, Burbank, Pasadena they all start getting on this like 50-hertz system. And meanwhile, the rest of the country is getting on a 60-hertz system, for the most part, and there’s some exceptions.
Roman Mars: Right. And so, right now that’s not that big a deal, in the early 1900s, but eventually, this grid is all gonna meet up. And that would not be good to have two different systems.
Katie Mingle: Right. And so, it starts to become a problem. And one of the things that becomes a problem is manufacturers had to make different products for people in Southern California because anything with an electrical motor, that was designed to work on a 60-cycle system, is not going to work as well on a 50-cycle system. And one of the things that definitely didn’t work as well was electric clocks. So if you had a clock that you got in New York City, and then you moved to LA and you plug in your clock, it would actually lose 10 minutes every hour.
Roman Mars: Whoa.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. And that is because electric clocks actually use those pulses of current to keep track of the time. You know, some clocks have pendulums, but keeping track of those pulses of current is the way that electric clocks know what time it is, or when to move the second hand. And at that point, electric clocks were really popular. Like, a lot of people had them. They’re not quite as common anymore. So, yeah, clocks were a problem, other things with motors. And then, in the 30s California started to receive power from new Dams, like the Hoover Dam. And this power was coming into California at the wrong frequency. And then, the power companies would have to convert it, and the conversion process was difficult and expensive. So in 1936, the city of Los Angeles decided to switch all their customers to 60-cycle current. And then, in 1945 the Southern California Edison Company decided to switch everyone else in Southern California over to the 60-cycle current.
Roman Mars: And that must have been crazy because you’re talking about every appliance that plugs into a wall is now being run at a sub-optimal frequency. And therefore, you have to change everything along the way.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. It was nuts. It was a huge undertaking. Like, they weren’t just like, “Okay, sorry, throw out your stuff.” They sent crews into people’s homes to retrofit their washing machines. They sent people into factories to make sure all the machinery worked right. And it was hundreds of thousands of customers. I think nearly a million customers.
Roman Mars: Wow.
Katie Mingle: And then the power companies also had to change all their own equipment, all the electric meters. And then, for clocks, you could actually go and drop your clock off at something called a clock depot. And there were just like rows, and rows, and tables of clocks being worked on. And sort of men sitting there working to make your clock work. It was the good old days.
Roman Mars: When you had this big infrastructure project and then everyone just got to work and made it work for everybody.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. Like, I have no idea how many people they employed for this, but it sounds like quite a few. So by 1948 all of Southern California had switched to the new system. And the final tally was like 500,000 clocks and almost 400,000 lighting fixtures, 58,000 refrigerators. And if you think of how the population of LA exploded in the following years, it’s so lucky that they decided to take this on when they did. I mean-
Roman Mars: Because like you couldn’t possibly do it now.
Katie Mingle: No. No way! And that’s sort of why you’ll never see an international standard for electrical currents. So you may know if you’ve traveled to Europe that you have to buy a little adapter because most of Europe is still on a 50-cycle system. And they’ll never change because it would just be-
Roman Mars: It would just be too much.
Katie Mingle: It would just be too much. And I think the United States and Mexico, and most of Central America, and maybe South America are 60-cycle. And Japan is actually, I think, the only country that still uses two different frequencies in their one country. So basically, one half of the country has 50 hertz and the other half is using 60 hertz.
Roman Mars: Well, that must be such a pain.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. It actually was a really big problem after the Fukushima accident because a big portion of the country lost power. There was a tsunami, and they were trying to send power from one part of the country to the other, which is a fairly common thing that we do but they couldn’t do it. You can convert from one frequency to another, but it’s hard to do it in really big quantities. And so, every so often in Japan, actually, there will be this little movement that bubbles up that’s like, we should all be on the same frequency. And then, it just really quickly dies because one side is like, well, we’re not gonna switch. And the other side’s like well, we’re definitely not gonna switch either. And then, that’s the end of that.
Roman Mars: And so it stays the same.
Katie Mingle: And so it stays the same. And yeah, we just can thank those early pioneers in LA that were like, let’s go ahead and do this before things are just out of control.
Roman Mars: Yeah. Thanks, those guys. And thanks to Jay Kennan for suggesting the story for us.
Katie Mingle: Yeah. Thank you, Jay Kennan.
Roman Mars: And you talked to a couple other people that you wanna thank?
Katie Mingle: I talked to a horologist named Ken Reindel for this story. I thought the story was actually going to be more about clocks than it ended up being. So I learned all about how electric clocks work. Anyway, he was great. He helped me a ton. I asked him if he’d heard S-Town, he said no. Of course, I immediately sent him a link. And then, I also talked to an electrical engineer named Daryll Henrich who was also really, really helpful.
Roman Mars: So for a long time, Kurt Kohlstedt has been obsessed with European-style tilt and turn windows. Really ever since he was a kid living in Byron, Germany. I can’t really explain them in the audio, but they’re really functional and worthy of his design obsession. So, Kurt wrote about them recently, on the website, and several readers shared and appreciated his design obsession. And to some, they were completely new. And then, there was a bunch of Europeans who were just confused because they didn’t understand that these windows weren’t already everywhere.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Half the readers were astonished these things exist and wanted to have them, and the other half were shocked that anybody would think that they were shocking. Because they were totally ordinary, everyday window designs for them.
Roman Mars: So this web article prompted a bunch of our audience to send in suggestions for other clever regional design solutions that we should also do a story about.
Kurt Kohlstedt: One of the things that somebody suggested, right off the bat, which I was instantly fascinated by, are these things called, Finnish dish drying closets. They’re also known as dish drying cabinets.
Roman Mars: Okay, so I’m going to try to pronounce it. It’s astiankuivauskaappi. Aastiankuivauskaappi. That’s what it’s called.
Kurt Kohlstedt: That’s what it’s called. Astianku- I can’t do it.
Roman Mars: Astiankuivauskaappi.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yes.
Roman Mars: Okay, so go ahead.
Kurt Kohlstedt: So the design has a pretty simple premise. If dishes can dry themselves in storage, there’s no need to dry them manually. So instead of having a drying rack next to the sink, you put your dishes away in a cabinet above the sink. And this cabinet has special shelves with slots, so the water falls down through each level. And it lands ultimately in the sink or on a sloped surface, which then drains into that sink. And as a nice sort of design bi-product, this ends up cleaning up clutter in your kitchen, so you don’t have this annoying dish drying rack, that’s always half full of dishes, sitting next to your sink.
Roman Mars: So your dish drying rack is essentially, the same cabinet you put your dishes away in.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Exactly. It’s a one-step process. You just take the dishes, put them away, they dry themselves.
Roman Mars: I love it.
Kurt Kohlstedt: It’s so beautifully simple.
Roman Mars: They should do that everywhere. That’s for sure.
Kurt Kohlstedt: We should have those everywhere.
Roman Mars: So this regional design masterpiece was suggested by Anton Hegmen.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Now, that he lives abroad, Anton says, “I have to dry my dishes on a rack that sits on the counter like a barbarian.”
Roman Mars: It’s true, Anton. I agree with you. We are barbarians. So you wrote an article about that one. It was a huge hit. And then it caused people to send in other little regional design solutions.
Kurt Kohlstedt: And suddenly, I had a lot of regional design solutions to work with. And one of the first ones that came out was this Kotatsu table, which is a Japanese furnishing that doubles as a heating fixture.
Roman Mars: So picture a really tall coffee table with a quilt over the sides that you put your legs under.
Kurt Kohlstedt: And underneath these tables, there’s a small space heater. And this top layer of the table, it’s a little hard to picture, but just like two panels sandwich this blanket. So you have a surface that you can set things on, but you also have this blanket or comforter extending out on all sides. Instead of sitting around in an arc facing a fireplace, you can actually sit around in a circle and face each other and pull up sections of this cover, and then sort of interact around this central heating element.
Roman Mars: Why is this a Japanese thing?
Kurt Kohlstedt: They’ve historically been really useful in Japan specifically because home insulation is often sparse. And whole-house heating can be difficult and expensive. And then, traditional Japanese clothing also lends itself especially well to this form of space heating because warm air can flow up through the folds of a spacious kimono, and then out the neck and armholes. I mean, that’s sort of what I like about it. It has a lot of very specific reasons that it comes out of Japan, but a lot of those aren’t necessary to it functioning either. A lot of those things would work for really any place or culture.
Roman Mars: But the way that it’s optimized for a kimono suggests that it didn’t used to be electric heating elements underneath.
Kurt Kohlstedt: No. Historically they came from a food-cooking system that was in the floor. So they had these charcoal burning food cookers in the floor, and this morphed into a system where they would try to use that to heat the home. And then, eventually, in the modern era, this sort of more dangerous, prone to fire solution was replaced by an electrical heating system.
Roman Mars: Right. Cool. What are those called again?
Kurt Kohlstedt: Kotatsu tables.
Roman Mars: Kotatsu tables. So these would be great everywhere as long as you didn’t burn your legs. Is there any instance, did you read about anything about people burning their legs on this thing?
Kurt Kohlstedt: Oh, yeah. There are advisories that say like, “Don’t fall asleep under your Kotatsu table.” Like, it can definitely lead to injuries and things.
Roman Mars: So it’s not a perfect design solution.
Kurt Kohlstedt: It’s not a perfect design solution, but you also just shouldn’t sleep under tables, in general, probably. So like …
Roman Mars: Especially not hot tables.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Especially not hot tables.
Roman Mars: So it’s really important to use the Kotatsu table as described. But that is not like our next design solution, which one of its powers is the versatility of this object. It’s called the Hills Hoist.
Kurt Kohlstedt: The Hills Hoist is effectively the opposite use case. It can be used for everything that it’s not designed for.
Roman Mars: So describe the Hills Hoist.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Basically, it’s a rotating clothesline that has a central metal pole that sticks up from the ground, like the trunk of a tree, with smaller clothes lines supports that branch out from the top. And then, this thing sits in backyards, and it spins slowly in the breeze drying clothes on a series of lines that just sort of circle that central pole.
Roman Mars: And where is the Hills Hoist from?
Kurt Kohlstedt: The Hills Hoist was developed in Australia, and pioneered by this guy in the 1940s who was coming back from the war and decided to, basically, build his own backyard rotary clothesline. And it wasn’t the first of it’s kind, but his really took off. It became a commercial success, and now, that company sells millions of the things every year.
Roman Mars: This is not just a thing for drying clothes in your backyard. This has become an iconic design that’s really tied to Australia.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah. One of our listeners wrote in with a really great, very detailed, explanation of its role in Australian culture. And, basically, as she explains it, it’s this kind of critical fixture of the suburban, Australian dream. You get this quarter acre lot with a beautiful backyard, and in your beautiful backyard, you have this Hills Hoist. And it’s sort of an incomplete picture without that iconic thing.
Roman Mars: But unlike the single use case of the finished cabinet or even the Kotatsu table, You see pictures of Hills Hoists being used as things that kids hang on and spin around, and pinatas, or whatever. Like, anything that you can hang something and want to spin it, the Hills Hoist is the perfect solution for you.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yeah! And there’s a great YouTube video out there of these guys who hooked up lines to the thing and a motor and have it spinning super fast. And like, they’re whipping kids around on a water slide on the ground. And if there’s like a wedding or a holiday party, you decorate your Hills Hoist. There’s a drinking game where people hang bags of wine from the thing and spin those around. And one of the things I kind of love about it, is that for every stage of your life there is some activity that you do, whether you’re a kid who’s swinging on the thing, or somebody who’s much older and sitting in the shade structure that you put on top of the thing, everybody has some use for this.
Roman Mars: Right. So if you combine the ubiquity of this object with the boredom of sitting in your backyard, you will get some kind of creative solution for something.
Kurt Kohlstedt: Yes. Yeah! And I mean, that’s the thing. It’s this big thing and it’s there. And so, inevitably, people figure out new things to do with it besides, you know, hanging clothes.
Roman Mars: So, hats off to the Hills Hoist. It’s something special. Thanks to Alissa Stevens for letting us know about the Hills Hoist. If you want to see pictures of any of these, or if you have a regional design solution from your home country or state, we’d love to hear about it. You can reach us at 99pi.org.
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kurt Kohlstedt, Katie Mingle, and me, Roman Mars. The rest of the team is Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Taryn Mazza, Sean Real, Avery Trufelman, and Sharif Youssef. We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row in beautiful, downtown Oakland California.