Kearney armory 1
The former National Guard Armory at Kearney, Nebraska, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's not really all that spectacular or unique in its own right -- it probably has or had several twins in other locations, since it was a Works Progress Administration project. But it's a good example of the durability of Art Deco and Streamline as architectural styles. This building, now more than 75 years old, still has a clean, attractive design. 

One of the attractions of Art Deco is that it avoided the gaudy over-decoration of previous styles (that gaudiness being a sin of commission that was committed again in later styles), but it also gave, simply, a "look" to its buildings. Whether in the interest of reducing construction costs or of conforming to the modernist or international styles, many buildings lack any sense of style. They are purely functional -- to a fault.

Form should follow function, to be sure. But that does not mean that a building, set about to achieve a particular function, has to be dull and lifeless.

Kearney armory 2
A building can be thoroughly functional, but still have some life in it. Here, that life shows up in little details, like the three stripes embedded in the concrete above the entrance -- or even the small arch they appear to push into the sky. It shows up in the small indentations that surround the window frames. And it certainly shows up in the rectangular pedestals at the corners and along the long stretches of wall. These "little things", as they might be dismissed, break up the monotony of long, flat walls, and add depth to the shape of the building. They're not excessive -- but they're just enough to give the eye something to enjoy. 

And that's important, because people have been seeing this building day in and day out for more than 75 years. It occupies both physical space over the land where it sits and psychological space in the minds of the people who encounter it daily. It was worthwhile to reward them with something that says the designer cared enough to give them something at which it would be worth looking.

Signs demand quick comprehension

Wayfaring sign at the Houston airport
This wayfaring sign appears just outside the exit from the rental-car garage at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. By definition, most of the people retrieving a rental car from an airport are people from out of town -- so it's at this kind of location that clear wayfaring signs allow drivers to quickly comprehend essential information in order to make safe decisions.

It's pretty clear from this sign that downtown Houston is to the left, and the airport hotel is to the right. But why leave the "Airport Terminals" section floating in the strange limbo? Sure, after a few moments of inspection, it appears clear enough that the terminals are to the right. But not at a split second's observation -- and that's not a good way to treat drivers who have just gotten off (often long, uncomfortable) commercial flights in a new city, and who may easily be disoriented as to which way is north (especially after emerging from a sheltered parking garage with no reference to the sun). 

This sign could be fixed easily...move the right-hand arrow up. Or duplicate it (one each beside "Airport Terminals" and "Airport Hotel"). Or draw a single line between the "Downtown Houston" line and the "Airport Terminals" line. Or add some space in the same location. Or change the background color behind the locations in either the right-hand direction or the left-hand one. 

But this? It simply fails the basic need for swift, unambiguous directional communication.
Platte Valley State Bank - Grand Island, NE
Great features of this bank building:

1. The thoroughly solid look of it. This building looks serious, sober, and permanent.

2. The use of natural colors in the construction elements. The sandy color and the muted brick color aren't trendy, which means they'll probably still look good many years from now.

3. The angled cornice. Cornices don't get their due in contemporary American architecture -- lots of buildings are designed as pure boxes. These cornices aren't very dramatic, but the way the wall angles before flattening into the roof provides a pleasant visual break (and probably hides gutters to carry rain off the roof).

4. The use of cool materials. There aren't a lot of trees around to provide shade, so the use of brick and stone probably helps keep the building reasonably cool.

What might be missing:

1. Windows. It's a bank, after all, so there may be security concerns involved (this particular corner may very well house the safe-deposit vault), but there aren't a lot of points of entry for light anywhere around the perimeter for the people inside to see the lovely sunshine and blue sky of the day.


The Platte Valley State Bank in Grand Island, Nebraska, was designed by Wilkins Hinrichs Stober.

That's the way to get feedback

Bathroom attention switch
Seen in a number of different locations. Should be seen everywhere. Here's why:

1. It provides instant feedback on a matter that requires quick attention. A dirty bathroom quickly succumbs to the broken window effect. A little bit of mess left behind by one user leads others to become a little more careless, and soon enough it cascades into a full-blown disaster. People can't be asked to carefully throw out their paper towels in a restroom full of graffiti and mildew. Someone who notices a mess can use this switch to instantly alert someone with the ability (and responsibility) to clean up.

2. It reaches people at the right level of anonymity. It's like a whistleblower hotline -- the reporter doesn't have to undergo the potentially embarrassing process of reporting the problem face-to-face with an attendant (which inevitably will begin with, "I didn't leave behind the mess, but..."), nor are they required to make any kind of heroic stand by confronting the people who created the mess. In fact, the level of effort required is so low that a person would have to be nuts to not use the switch if the bathroom is, in fact, messy. Nobody has to get the attention of a staff member or wait in line to talk to a cashier. Just flip a switch and walk away. It eliminates the inevitable diffusion of responsibility that can happen when "everyone" can see the same problem -- and thus nobody does anything about it.

3. It communicates the right tone from the top. The presence of the switch alone telegraphs that the management or ownership anticipated even before construction began that bathrooms can become messy, and took steps to keep that from becoming a problem that would inconvenience their customers. When a customer flips the switch, the staff is actually getting a message from management that a priority has emerged.

Bad soap dispenser. Bad!

Clearly, someone failed to think through the position of this soap dispenser. People have already adapted to the bad design by placing paper towels below the dispenser to catch the dribbles, but whomever designed it in the first place should have anticipated that it would cause a mess that couldn't be easily cleaned -- especially considering the lip around the sink is too high for an easy wipe of the counter.

Even without the problem that the soap dispenser is going to perpetually dribble straight onto the counter (rather than into the sink, where it should have gone), there's also the problem that it's too low for anyone with large hands to slide under, and the dispensing nozzle is only an inch away from the bump-out created by the faux granite backsplash. So, every time someone reaches in to get soap to make their hands clean, they're inevitably going to touch either the counter or the backsplash that lots of other people with dirty hands have already touched when they went for their own soap. That backsplash is undoubtedly a little hotspot for bacteria, no matter how good the soap is.

The right-hand arc is played out

Too many swooshes
There's no escaping cliches in logo design. People see something they like and think they can make it their own -- and that applies to logo designers and to clients, alike. But there's a point at which over-use becomes almost painful to behold. The swoosh or arc over the right-hand side of a company's name -- intended to connote what, a broad perspective? radio beams? the rings of Saturn? -- is now officially dead. When five out of 21 signs on an outfield wall use roughly the same effect, it no longer has any impact whatsoever. It just looks tired. Nothing could simultaneously represent a labor union, an insurance company, and a cable TV company, among others, and still mean anything useful.

Nothing about this machine makes sense

courtavenueparkinglotpaymachine1.jpg In how many ways does this automated payment machine in a downtown parking ramp fail to make the grade? Let us count just some of the ways:

  1. No sensible person starts looking for step #1 in the middle of something.
  2. The first-time user probably doesn't expect to be forced into a round-robin experience looking for the next step.
  3. There is no step number three. There are steps 3, 3, and 3.
  4. One of which, by the way, requires that the user insert the credit card upside-down, with the magnetic strip facing up.
  5. The button to request a receipt is between steps 1 and 2 -- but the slip pops out under step #5.
This is, quite possibly, the worst-designed automatic payment terminal on the planet. It should be obvious from the need for a five-step instruction guide (seen on top of the machine) that whomever designed the machine put next to no thought into how the first-time (or even the 101st-time) user would expect the machine to communicate in a clear, concise fashion. If something as simple as paying a parking fee requires following a round-robin layout like this, then something is totally wrong with the design. A parking payment kiosk needs to be quick, intuitive, and easy to use -- or else it's just a way to create traffic jams behind the confused user trying to pay his or her way out.

The phantom toll booth

While there's nothing wrong with toll roads, there's definitely something wrong with many toll booth operations. Requiring traffic to slow from expressway speeds to zero introduces a whole range of problems, since different drivers don't accelerate and decelerate at the same pace. And when traffic designers unwittingly introduce additional confusion into the equation, they're just asking for trouble. Note this photo from a toll plaza. Drivers are being asked to determine, from a distance, into which lane they should drive. The far left is for those with electronic transponders (often called something like "EZ Pass"). The next lane is for those with exact coins. The others are for drivers without exact change, or those who need receipts.

It's not bad enough that the signs are relatively small -- the situation is made worse by including a three-lane gap between "exact coins" and "change/receipts". Three lanes right in the middle -- all closed. That causes anyone who makes a mistake (or who can't read the signs from a long-enough distance) to have to make a dramatic swing across a wide gap of road, cutting into lanes that already have backups.

Worse yet, the only way a driver would know that the three lanes in the middle are closed is to see the red "X" at the top of the sign. You probably find them hard to read clearly in this photo, just as they were in real life. That's because the lane open/closed indicators are surrounded by a lot of other bright lights, and the closed lanes remain brightly lit, even though they're not available for traffic. Anyone who's traveled through a well-lit nighttime work zone knows it's hard for the eyes to adjust from dark nighttime highways to bright light. Asking those drivers to then use bright lights to make decisions that could require crossing three lanes of closed toll booths is nothing more than a recipe for trouble.

This awful approach to signaling drivers where to pay their tolls could be improved by (at the very least) closing the gap between the open and closed lanes, making the open/closed lane indicators wide strips of red or green light (instead of a single "X" or an arrow), and dimming the lights for those lanes that aren't open. By definition, the people using an expressway are oftentimes from out of town and not familiar with local geography. Why make it harder and more dangerous for them to use toll roads than it needs to be?
Anyone who's ever fought with one of those miserable long, single-column carriers for folding chairs will probably break down in tears of joy upon seeing this design. It's a magnificent and elegant solution to the problem of putting a bunch of folding chairs in a compact space. Not only does it offer two complete levels for stacking (itself a stroke of genius), it turns the chairs over and uses the leg cross-brace as a hanging point. This does away with so many shortcomings of the conventional chair trolley that it's almost impossible to overstate what a huge improvement this is. It requires less lifting, stabilizes the stacks by design, and is easier to maneuver without dropping chairs all over the floor while taking a sharp corner. Three cheers for the industrial designer behind this work of art.

Not the way to stripe a parking lot

Sometimes a parking lot isn't sized correctly to fit exactly the right number of cars and trucks, so what does a smart designer do with the extra space? Plant trees? Create a special double-deep row for vehicles with trailers? Whatever the right answer is, the wrong answer is to just create a third row between two other rows and draw boxes around each of the spaces. It's bound to confuse anyone the first time they see it, and inevitably someone will end up making the mistake of parking in that "middle child" set of spaces and end up completely boxed-in. How about tearing out the extra row and planting a few trees for shade instead? Or shifting all of the rows over by 10 feet and creating an extra pull-in row (for buses and RVs) perpendicular to the rest at the edge of the lot?