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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

12 People Behind Ubiquitous Designs

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Corporate design is its own kind of art form, but the people behind those designs almost never get their proper due. Here are 12 of the people whose designs have left a permanent mark on U.S. culture. 


Julius Samann was a German-Jewish chemist who fled the Nazis and landed in upstate New York. There, he met a milkman who complained to him about the smell left behind when his products went bad. Samann had been studying tree-smells for a while at that point, and that brief conversation inspired him to patent the stench-masking paper pine trees that dangle from rearview mirrors to this day. (The company still exists, and now offers 60 scents.) 


Dan Bluestein, Wikipedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Like Samann, Leslie Buck was also a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Also like Samann, hundreds of millions of people have appreciated his magnum opus—the Anthora coffee cup—without ever knowing his name. Buck had no formal art training—he was a paper cup salesman, through and through—but to generations of coffee drinkers, his design is as much a work of New York art as Annie Hall. The Czechoslovakian salesman chose his Grecian design after realizing that many of the city’s diner owners were Greek and decided to play to their cultural background. The blue cups were called “Anthora” cups—a spin on Buck’s pronunciation of the word amphora, a type of ancient Greek storage vessel. The marketing tactic worked; by the early ‘90s, Buck was selling over half a billion cups a year.


What started off as just a paper cup design soon snowballed into a cultural phenomenon, with everything from pins to cars emblazoned with the design. Until just a few months ago, the corporate Picasso behind this beloved disposable cup remained unknown to the world at large. Then, last May, a Reddit post kicked off a search that led to a woman named Gina Ekiss, a former Sweetheart Cup Company employee who designed "Jazz" for a company contest in 1989. Ekiss's work went unheralded at the time—she didn't even get a bonus—but a generation of kids who grew up sipping Kool-Aid out of "Jazz" cups have since given her the credit she deserves. 



Gary Anderson was a senior at the University of Southern California when he won a contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America. They'd been looking for designs that symbolized the recycling process, to be used on their recycled paperboard products. Anderson's winning entry has since been stamped on millions of recycling bins and plastic products, attaining stop sign-levels of recognizability. "It seems to belong to everybody—and that is fine with me," Anderson said decades later.


Early computer users will recall Kare’s work fondly. As part of the original Apple design team in the ‘80s, the designer was tasked with creating the graph paper designs for the Macintosh's interface. Kane set the template for modern computing, which is impressive, given that before starting at Apple she had never designed an icon


Unless you’re this guy, you probably don't obsess over industrial carpet designs. The exception can be found at Portland Airport International, whose blue-green carpet has inspired Twitter accounts, t-shirts, and a Facebook page with over 14,000 Likes. Designed by SRG Architects in 1987, its color scheme was chosen in response to the muted tones which at the time dominated the airport-carpet scene. Unfortunately for teal lovers around the world, the carpet was replaced last year with something similar, but not quite as aesthetically legendary. 


The Post-It Note was the invention of two people, neither of them Romy or Michele. The two real creators were both employees at 3M: Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver. Fry was looking for some way to bookmark a church hymnal when he remembered that Silver had invented a new form of adhesive that left no residue. He attached the adhesive to a piece of paper, inadvertently inventing the Post-It Note. And so a billion passive-aggressive office kitchen memos were born. 


Wikimedia Commons, iStock // Fair use

Photographer Charles O'Rear was driving through Napa and Sonoma counties in California to meet his future wife when he pulled over to take some quick pictures of a hill in 1996. He couldn't have known, at the time, that he'd just snapped a landscape that would become ubiquitous. That would come later, after he'd licensed his photograph to a service called Corbis. Corbis happened to be owned by Bill Gates, which is how Microsoft wound up selecting his photograph, "Bliss," as Windows XP's default wallpaper.



British-born designer Gerald Holtom was a conscientious objector during World War II, and he was equally aghast at the post-war proliferation of nuclear arms. In his frustration, he designed a symbol that would come to serve as a worldwide symbol for peace. It first saw the light of day in 1958, at a march organized by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War. Discussing the symbol later, Holtom said, "I was in despair. Deep despair. I drew myself: the representative of an individual in despair, with hands palm outstretched outwards and downwards." Nearly 60 years later, our world powers are still well-stocked with nuclear weapons, and Holtom's design can be found on hacky sacks and tie-dyed t-shirts wherever hacky sacks and/or t-shirts are sold. 


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Pierre de Coubertin was a classically-educated Frenchman who proselytized on behalf of the role of sports in a balanced education. It was that belief that led him to organize the modern Olympics, first held in Athens in 1896. He even found time to design its iconic logo, which, in his words, "represents the five continents of the world, united by Olympism." He presented the design to the Olympic Congress in June 1914—about a week before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 


Milton Glaser's designs are inescapable. A not-even-marginally-comprehensive list of his achievements would include the logos for New York magazine, Brooklyn Brewery, and DC Comics. But his true claim to immortality is the famous I Love New York logo, designed in 1977 and since emblazoned on millions of overpriced tourist shop t-shirts. The logo was commissioned by the New York State Department for Economic Development, at a time when the city was making news for its high crime rate. In a characteristically New York move, Glaser sketched the prototype for the design on an envelope during a taxi ride.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Emojis, we had the smiley face. Designed by graphic artist Harvey Ball in 1963, the face was meant to boost the morale of employees of an insurance company. The design only took 10 minutes for Ball to complete, and the insurance company paid him $45 for his time. The yellow smiley was then printed on signs, posters, and buttons that were circulated around the office. The design was a hit and the company pumped out thousands of buttons. Soon the infectious smiley became a popular image seen worldwide. Neither Ball nor the insurance company attempted to trademark the creation, likely due to its simplistic nature. After all, the first smiley depiction dates back to 2500 BCE.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.