The Hub Cool News

Urban Death Project

urban-death-projectKatrina Spade thinks “bodies should be composted, not buried,” reports Catrin Einhorn in The New York Times (4/14/15). “Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds,” she says. But she thinks it would be really cool if people could “grow new life” after they’ve died. So, Katrina, an architect, “has designed a building for human composting that aims to marry the efficiency of this biological process with the ritual and symbolism that mourners crave.” She has also formed a non-profit, The Urban Death Project.

The “facility would be centered around a three-story vault … Loved ones would carry their deceased, wrapped in a shroud, up a circular ramp to the top.” The body would be placed “in the core, which could hold perhaps 30 corpses at a time. Over the next several weeks, each body would move down the core until the first stage of composting was complete. In a second stage, material would be screened, along with any remaining bones, and the compost would be cured.” Each body would produce about three cubic feet of compost.

Loved ones “could collect some of compost to use as they saw fit, perhaps in their garden or to plant a tree.” The cost would be “about $2,500 … Beyond the environmental benefits,” Katrina “believes there is a spiritual one: connecting death to the cycle of nature will help people face their own mortality and bring comfort to the bereaved.” Katrina is still perfecting the methodology (the pile has to reach 140 degrees to work) but hopes to build her first facility in Seattle, and develop a template for “locally designed facilities.” “Like libraries,” she says.

Wrap Shrink

saran-wrapSaran Wrap downgraded its brand experience because it was the right thing to do, writes Fisk Johnson, chief executive officer of SC Johnson in The Harvard Business Review (April 2015). At issue was the presence of polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) which provides Saran Wrap with two of its key benefits: “an impenetrable barrier to odor” and “superior microwavability.” The problem is that “when materials containing chlorine, such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and PVDC end up in municipal incinerators … they may release toxic chemicals into the environment.”

PVC was also present in Saran Wrap’s packaging, which was easy enough to change. Creating a PVDC-free wrap was another matter. As Fisk writes: “To provide the odor barrier and microwavability of the original would require a multilayer film,” about the thickness of trash bags. Ultimately, the closest alternative was “less sticky, less effective at preserving foods’ freshness, and a lower-quality product overall.” Fisk decided to replace Saran Wrap with the inferior product, which has since resulted in a significant drop in sales.

The CEO cites something his great-grandfather said in 1927: “The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business. The rest is shadow.” He also recalls that his father had made good on that ethos by banning ozone-damaging CFCs from aerosol products in the 1970s. Fisk sees himself as the guardian of his family’s “good name” and “a legacy built on the hard work of four generations” before him. His Saran Wrap decision, he says provides “a surer sense of who we are as a company and what we want SC Johnson to represent.”

Bingham Plastics

elmers-glueA “wet and slippery” coating is making wasted ketchup a thing of the past, reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (3/24/15). You know the problem: The last bits of ketchup — or mayonnaise or toothpaste — sticks like glue to the bottle. Actually, it’s a problem with glue, too. The result is not only frustration but also waste: “Tests by Consumer Reports in 2009 found that … up to a quarter of skin lotion, 16 percent of laundry detergent and 15 percent of condiments like mustard and ketchup” never make it out of their container.

Each of these products “are what scientists call Bingham plastics.” It’s not that they’re made of plastic but rather that they are “highly viscous” and do “not flow without a strong push.” Dr. Kripa K. Varanasi of MIT became interested in solving the problem after his wife “was having trouble getting honey out of a bottle and asked him, because he was an expert on slipperiness, whether he couldn’t do something about that.” At the time, MIT “was sponsoring a $100,000 contest for entrepreneurial ideas.”

Kripa and a colleague, J. David Smith, decided to enter. Their solution, essentially, was to coat the inside of the container with a lubricant “that binds more strongly to the textured surface” of the container wall “than to the the liquid, and that allows the liquid to slide on a layer of lubricant instead of being pinned against the surface, and the textured surface keeps the lubricant from slipping out.” They came in second, but have now launched a product, LiquiGlide, and attracted $7 million in funding and customers including Elmer’s Glue-All.

Michael Graves

alessi-kettleThe late Michael Graves “aimed to make design approachable at every scale,” writes Julie V. Iovine in The Wall Street Journal (3/17/15). This was true whether it was the Portland Building or the “blue handled Alessi tea kettle with the red bird whistle … While Mr. Graves was often labeled a postmodernist, to his dismay, his classical interests were not really about resuscitating shapes from the past, but more about injecting fresh juice into familiar and appealing forms.” He considered “modernist abstraction” to be “drained of vitality.”

One of his smallest-scale projects was “a paper bag for Bloomingdale’s stamped with the silhouette of an ancient urn.” One of his largest was “a decorated sheath to protect the Washington Monument during a restoration (a design that became as popular as the monument itself.).” Then there was his “prolific association with Target … producing everything from clocks and chess boards to juicers and toilet brushes.”

When he was left paralyzed from the waist down from a spinal infection, Mr. Graves “turned his creative eye to the deplorable state of health-care design.” He re-designed “the look and handling ease of everything from wheelchairs to entire kitchens.” Throughout his career, Michael Graves “remained true to his personal understanding of classical design — extending it beyond the historical with the goal of making the human measure more universal and everyday life a richer experience.”

Device Design

jawbone Big technology companies are snapping up small design firms, reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (3/19/15). “Google, Facebook, Adobe, Dropbox and Yahoo, for example, have all bought design-oriented startups since 2010,” according to a report by John Maeda, a venture capitalist. The primary reason is recognition that design — not just of products but of user experiences — is the crucial competitive advantage. “If you can make this amazing bracelet and the software is bad, you’re going to throw it away,” says John.

The primacy of function over form is spreading because really good apps are highlighting the potential of good user design in new categories. “Let’s say you’re a doctor and electronic medical records are really terribly done as an industry,” says Ben Blumenfeld, another venture capitalist. “Doctors are starting to use iPhones and they’re saying, ‘Wait a second, why doesn’t my electronic records system work like my iPhone apps?’” The potential has been particularly heightened by well-designed apps like Uber’s, which make a hard task easier.

However, “the real design victory is in carefully considering exactly how someone will want to navigate an app, communicate with another person or conduct a transaction. That’s a big shift for the tech industry, which has long prized engineering acumen and product management.” John Maeda says the traditional focus on product design alone is “just surface-driven thinking,” adding: “It isn’t that design is more important than technology or the business model. You need both.”


switchA new generation of technology is reinventing the phone call, reports Shira Ovide in The Wall Street Journal (3/13/15). The issue is that while email can be efficient, it also tends eliminate context and collaboration. “You’ve distilled all the waste out of the phone conversation and what’s left are these really important times when you need to talk to someone in real time, and get some emotion and back-and-forth,” says Craig Walker, founder of Switch, a technology platform that replaces traditional telephone hardware with a web-based, subscription service.

Switch enables users to “dial voice calls via computer, switch devices mid-call, and see documents exchanged with the person on the other end of the line.” It can also ring “conference participants automatically at the appointed time, making 800 numbers and PINS unnecessary.” In concept, this is not new, as Microsoft and others have provided similar capabilities. One difference is that offerings like Switch tend to provide greater functionality at lower cost, “and don’t rely on company technicians.”

The technology is similar to that used by Uber, the ridesharing service, which uses Twilio to power “automated text messages that let customers know a driver is waiting,” for example. At Weather Co., meanwhile, Switch is seen as being “less about cost than about maximizing productivity.” Chief Information and Technology Officer Bryson Koehler comments: “My goal for the organization has been to shift the way we work and really empower our company and our people to work in a mobile, agile, collaborative, next-generation way.”

Hawkeye Improv

hawkeyeAlan Alda is using improv to help scientists “explain their ideas clearly,” reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (3/3/15). Alan is, of course, “the actor who played Hawkeye in the television series M*A*S*H more than three decades ago.” He also “has long held a deep interest in science.” When he was 11, he asked his teacher, “what is a flame?” and was unsatisfied with the answer: oxidation. However, as an adult, hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, Alan found that it was possible to “draw out engaging explanations.”

Over the years, Alan suggested to university presidents that they should “teach scientists how to present their research to the public.” In 2007, he found his first taker: Shirley Strum Kenny of Stony Brook University. Two years later, the school “established the Center for Communicating Science … as part of its journalism school.” The coursework involves having scientists discuss their work while improvising a dramatic role. Alan says this helps the scientists connect with their audience.

“What I find interesting about this is you’re suddenly talking about your work in a way you’ve never talked about it before,” he says. “Not jokes, not cleverness … It’s the contact with the other person.” In other exercises, scientists “threw around imaginary balls of varying weights … tried to explain a smartphone to a time traveler from the past, and talked of cherished photographs while holding up a blank white folder.” Alan has won over many skeptics, and the program is now known as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Fidget Power

slinkyScientists say fidgeting and creativity are linked, reports Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal (3/3/15). The idea is that some “hand movements have an impact on cognitive functioning, improving focus or sparking fresh thinking or faster learning,” according to NYU researchers at the Polytechnic School of Engineering. “The research holds clues as to how people who feel restless or confined by computer work might find physical stimulation and stress release.” Experiments involve playing with Slinkys, ball-point pens and gadgets.

Mitchel Diemer, a study participant, says that simply fiddling with a pen “keeps the wheels turning” in his mind. “If I keep my hand moving, I tend to be more focused,” he says. Other studies tend to confirm the concept. Princeton and UCLA researchers found “that students who take lecture notes in longhand, rather than on a laptop, process the material more deeply and give better answers to conceptual questions.” “The hand can act as a director of consciousness — a tool or agent of the mind,” says Frank R. Wilson, a neurologist.

Different objects can provide different benefits. Playing with smooth stones or beads “that are pleasing or soothing to touch can evoke ‘the timeless ancient human practice of meditative ritual,” says Frank. “Being able to squish something can ease mental and physical strain,” according to Katherine Ibister of NYU. Abbey Hambright, who works in customer service, says playing with a Slinky “helps her resist multi-tasking and sending email during conference calls.” NYU has posted certain fidget gadgets and their benefits at

Barrels of Fun

wood-whiskey-winWood barrels remain relevant only because of what they do for whiskey and wine, reports Wayne Curtis in a Wall Street Journal review of Wood, Whiskey and Wine by Henry H. Work (2/14/15). If it weren’t for the "lucky quirk" that "spirits and wine stored in oak barrels tended to show marked improvement over time," barrels likely would have disappeared a long time ago. Even barrels made of other types of wood — like pine — are known to improve its liquid contents. As a result, "high-quality barrels … remain in high demand."

Thanks to whiskey and wine, the craft remains alive today, although "makers of cheaper wines have embraced workarounds, including the use of oak chips … in stainless steel tanks." However, at one time "the barrel was king, found everywhere and used to ship nails, biscuits, beer, petroleum, whiskey, pickles, coins and pretty much anything that would fit … In 1910, some 91 million barrels were made in the United States. Barrels filled boxcars and boats and horse-drawn wagons and the flatbeds of rudimentary trucks."

They "were ubiquitous because they were both sensible and indestructible." Indeed: "The barrel is a small miracle … something made of wood without nails or glue, which can hold liquids almost indefinitely." The barrel’s design is "essentially a pair of intersecting arches" that "roll along an edge when upright and when on their side only a small bit touches the ground, so friction is minimal." "The barrel is really a container on wheels," wrote Fred Hankerson, author of the Cooperage Handbook, in 1947. It "was the container that built America."

The Aldine Press

aldine-pressGutenberg may have invented moveable type, but Aldus made reading popular, reports Jennifer Schuessler in The New York Times (2/27/15). The origins of paperback books — and the concept of “portable little books” — traces to Venice in 1494, and Aldus Manutius. “It was a moment of upheaval in reading roughly equivalent to our own digitally disrupted age. And Venice was the Silicon Valley of printing, home to dozens of shops locked in cutthroat competition.” The Aldine Press made its mark publishing “the first printed edition of Aristotle.”

This was followed by a “small octavo editions of the classics, books ‘that could be held in the hand and learned by heart (not to speak of being read) by everyone’,” as Aldus himself wrote. An exhibition of 20 “libelli portatiles,” as they are known, is included along with about 130 other Aldine Press books, is currently running at the Grolier Club in Manhattan. Each carries “the printer’s mark, a dolphin curled around an anchor. (The colophon is still used today by Doubleday.)” The “libelli portatiles” were not Aldus’ only innovation, however.

The “first italic typeface … appeared in a modest five words in a 1500 edition of the letters of St. Catherine and soon spread to other Aldines and beyond.” A “typeface devised for a 1496 book by the humanist scholar Pietro Bembo” is “still treasured by book designers for its grace and readability.” Aldus also had his battles with counterfeiters, mostly French, who sold “unauthorized” copies. Unfortunately, these paperback pirates were undeterred by threats of excommunication by the Vatican, which had awarded “special printing privileges” to Aldus.

Kenji Ekuan

kikkoman"Making an object means imbuing it with its own spirit," said the late Kenji Ekuan, as quoted by Jonathan Soble in a New York Times obituary (2/10/15). Kenji’s most famous object is "the instantly recognizable soy sauce bottle — red-capped and elegantly teardrop-shaped." He designed it for Kikkoman "while still in his 20s. It took him three years and 100 prototypes to come up with a final design for his dispenser, which combined a gracefully curving form with an innovative, dripless spout. More than 300 million of the bottles have been sold." (image)

Another of his famous designs was the Komachi bullet train. Kenji’s own spirit emanated from "the devastation of World War II." He grew up in Hiroshima. "Faced with that nothingness, I felt a great nostalgia for human culture," he said in a 2012 New York Times interview. "I needed something to touch, to look at … Right then I decided to be a maker of things." In a 2002 interview, he said: "The path of Buddha is the path to salvation for all living things, but I realized that, for me, salvation lay in objects … Objects have their own world."

Kenji’s influences were also Western, however. For example, he liked to read Blondie comics and once described the Jeep-driving American GIs in postwar Japan, in their crisp trousers as a "moving exhibition." While he "often worked with advanced technology," Kenji "disliked futurism for its own sake." As he told an online design magazine: "When we think of the evolution of design, we might imagine a world where robots are everywhere, but that’s not it … The ultimate design is little different from the natural world." Kenji Ekuan was 85.

Something New

spencer-hapoineuCustomer data can replace brand building with efficient targeting. A Hub White Paper by Spencer L. Hapoienu of Insight Out Of Chaos. Newspaper and magazine circulation has declined by so much that if the shrinkage were applied to the physical paper it would be the size of a matchbook cover. Without all those eyeballs viewing the glorious print ads and visually compelling 30-second spots, it’s gotten much harder to maintain brand share and command premium pricing. In short, brand building is on the decline.

Keep in mind that for most of the last 100 years, brand building is what moved the market, drove business, and created one of the great consumer-driven economies. Consumer packaged-good companies, retailers, advertising agencies, and the media had a beautiful ecosystem that helped create the growth economy that relied on consumer spending for two-thirds of its size. Back in the day, it was said that General Foods makes coffee but Ogilvy makes Maxwell House. (Would David Ogilvy be tweeting now?) Read The White Paper.

Maximalist Shoes

hoka-one-oneWhile minimalist running shoes are losing favor, maximalist shoes are gaining fans, reports Lindsay Crouse in The New York Times (2/17/15). Minimalist shoes are premised on the idea "that the human body was naturally built for running without corrective footwear." Sales of such shoes, which feature minimal padding "peaked at $400 million in 2012." Maximalist shoes, by comparison, feature "chunky, heavily cushioned soles," and some long-distance runners say they protect — even remedy — maladies such as plantar fasciitis."

"My legs felt really fresh after a long run in them," says Leo Manzano, an Olympic medalist. "It’s like running on a cloud." Leo says his maximalist shoes of choice — Hoka One One — cured his plantar fasciitis in a week’s time. Hoka One One "sold more than 550,000 pairs" in 2014. The shoes "cost $130 to $170 each, and its $48 million in sales were up 350 percent from 2013." However, Lauren Fleshman, a championship runner, says she’ll remain a maximalism skeptic until "we know about how it affects the body long term."

Jonathan Beverly of Runners World meanwhile suggests that minimalist and maximalist shoes may have a lot in common: "The benefit of the big sole is actually similar to what the minimal movement did; with both types of shoes you have to keep your body and your center of gravity above your feet … So you’re running with the same posture you would if you were barefoot, but with all this cushioning." In any case, Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy of Runners, thinks that any type of extreme shoe — minimalist or maximalist — should be used in moderation.

Disrupt Yourself

larry-deutschBetter that you disrupt yourself than let others disrupt you. A Hub white paper by Larry Deutsch of Blue Chip Marketing. In Chicago there’s a restaurant called The Southern. It’s exactly what it sounds like — fried chicken, ribs, grits, and all of the other great comfort foods, along with craft cocktails and micro-brews. One of their signature drinks is a bacon-infused Manhattan and if you’re feeling adventuresome you could try the alligator sausage.

The Southern takes the age-old barbecue restaurant experience — a lot of napkins and good ribs — and gives it a high-end, local, sustainable, artisanal spin. Whether this qualifies as innovative might be debatable, but The Southern certainly has brought something fresh and different to what we’ve long known and loved as the barbecue restaurant. The Southern is also showing a disruptive streak by sending a food truck out onto the streets of Chicago. It’s an interesting twist. Read The Rest of The White Paper.


achates-engineThe future of electric cars may be more unevenly distributed than we think, reports Steve Levine in The Wall Street Journal (2/1/15). That’s largely because of "the internal combustion chamber — the workhorse of the industrial age — is proving to be much more than a stubborn technological incumbent." It is "challenging ostensibly more advanced electric vehicles," and the US Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2040, "cars with gas- and diesel-powered engines will still represent some 95% of the international car market."

One explanation is that "US government standards require cars to average 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, up from 25.1 mpg last year." As of 2014, "16.5 million light vehicles were sold in the US" and "the top three were combustion pickups. Just 119,710 pure electrics and plug-in vehicles were sold, 0.7% of the total." This doesn’t include fourth-quarter sales of the Tesla S, but most "observers don’t expect these proportions to shift much over the next two decades." Meanwhile, new "diesel-fuel technology" is in the works.

Among them is the Achates, which "features opposed pistons, which face each other in a single cylinder rather than sitting side-by-side." Its developer "says that it gets 30% better mileage per gallon than current diesel engines — and double the mileage of gasoline engines." Because such engines burn less gas, worldwide consumption could drop from 90 to about 70 million barrels a day, driving down fuel costs. Given the relatively high price tags of electrics, it seems unlikely that combustion-powered cars will "feel real market pressure anytime soon."

Navigate Jacket

navigate-jacketAn Australian designer has created a jacket that helps people navigate, reports Jim Dwyer in The New York Times (2/4/15). The Navigate Jacket, as Billie Whitehouse calls it, "provides haptic feedback — basically, an electronic device in the garment that gives a light tap on one shoulder or the other to steer a person, not unlike a phone vibrating to announce a call." Billie got the idea after watching New Yorkers "step blindly off sidewalks" with their eyes glued to the navigation apps on their cellphones.

The Navigate Jacket was featured in a show called Cloud Couture at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator. Some of the apparel says more about form than function, such as "dresses with cascades of petals … made possible by laser-cutting machines." "It’s very couture, but very easy to manufacture," says Debera Johnson, the Accelerator’s executive director. "You get a tremendous amount of style for a much lower price." The real play, however, seems to be the "new layer of monitoring and tracking" technology enables.

For example, a "Hexoskin smart shirt … monitors breathing, heart rate and other vital signs … Every article of clothing has the potential to be a membrane that harvests data signals from our bodies — pulse, breathing, temperature, blood pressure, pheromones — and send them to … the cloud." Debera thinks "big brands" would "love to" use such technology "to track where you are in time and space, and understand who you’re talking with and what they’re wearing." She suggests that in exchange for such "intrusion … the customer might get a $10 discount."

Doodle Away

daryl-travisThe three essential elements of better innovation. A Hub White Paper by Daryl Travis of Brandtrust. I didn’t know the guy sitting quietly near the back of the room, but I suspected he wasn’t paying much attention. I thought he was doodling. My company was less than a year old at the time and this meeting was important. My friend Barb Ford, the VP of Advertising for Kraft Foods, had given us a chance to present to a few key people.

The presentation went smoothly and there were several questions, but the guy in the back of the room did not say anything. It sure seemed like he wasn’t particularly impressed or interested, but a few weeks later he called. We had a long, interesting discussion and it was obvious, despite my initial impression, that he had been listening very closely.Our journey with Ben has been enlightening and satisfying. Many of our clients who want to innovate better and more often ask, "What’s his secret?" We’ve noticed it seems to come down to three essential behaviors. Read The Rest of The White Paper.


dipjarTechnology is changing America’s culture of tipping, reports Hilary Stout in The New York Times (2/1/15). As a custom, tipping in America dates back at least to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who tipped their slaves (especially Jefferson). In the 1940s, a 10 percent tip was common, but today 20 percent is more typical and iPad checkouts are pushing tips even higher. Some establishments present buyers of low-ticket items like coffee with touch-screen tip options that amount to as much as 25, 50 or even 75 percent of the total.

Usually there’s an option to write-in a tip manually, but this can be awkward. Tip expectations are growing so much that it may get "to a point where they can no longer be counted as ‘add-ons,’ leading employers to rethink pricing and salary structures." Uber, for instance doesn’t allow tips, and Public Option, a new pub set to open in Washington DC "will not allow tipping; its owner plans to pay his workers $15 an hour." Others, like Nick Sullivan, founder and CEO of ChangeTip, envisions a tip system that will "disrupt the advertising model" online.

ChangeTip is "a platform that allows people to send small Bitcoin payments through social media, email, Skype or text to show their appreciation for content creators (or anyone) on the Internet." Most payments are around $1, but this has so far generated $250,000 in tips. Nick thinks this kind of tip has potential to go viral. Another concept, DipJar, lets patrons of counter-service eateries swipe their card to give a preset $1 tip, as a less intrusive alternative to including a tip line on a receipt. The hope is that this will generate more tips.

Below the Waterline

alder-165Brand experience innovation often happens beyond the customer’s view. A Hub white paper by Alder Yarrow of Cibo. Thanks to the remarkably competitive global economy in which we find ourselves these days, we live in an era of imperatives. We must be authentic, we must be engaging our customers, we must be nimble and, above all perhaps, we must be innovative. Innovation tends to be spoken of in reverent tones, and is often used interchangeably with creativity, strategy, disruption, or in any number of ways we characterize the change we are all supposed to be making. The only problem is that few people know where to begin.

It’s fine to say we need to be more innovative, but how? Where? When? Why? Let’s start with why, because the answer is simple. The marketplace requires innovation. In this complex, global economy, the ways in which companies traditionally have created competitive advantage have become increasingly commoditized. Copying the competition has gotten easier and easier. You have a feature, function or service? Guess what? In six months pretty much any one of your competitors have it, too. Remember when delivering a pizza in 30 minutes or having visual voicemail was a source of competitive advantage? Read The Rest of This White Paper.

Jonathan Lamberton

jonathan-lambertonA deaf sign-language interpreter is the breakout star of the blizzard that wasn’t, reports Michael M. Grynbaum in The New York Times (1/29/15). Jonathan Lamberton’s performance of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pre-storm news conference was so unusual it went viral. His "arsenal of rapid gesticulations, vigorous frowns and mime-like smiles" were in "stark contrast to the mayor’s sober mein," and attracted "equal parts awe and amusement." (video)

"That guy nailed it," said Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s Daily Show, after featuring "a compilation of Mr. Lamberton’s more theatrical moments." It was probably the most amusing moment in New York mayoral history since Rudolph Giuliani’s son stole the show at inauguration (video). Jonathan Lamberton wasn’t trying to upstage hizzzoner, though. "I’m not part of the entertainment," he says. "I’m there to facilitate communication."

As a deaf person, Jonathan’s "seemingly melodramatic style … can be easier for some hearing-impaired people to understand." For the hearing impaired, his "emphatic gestures and facial expressions" are "like hearing the subtle accent of a native speaker, rather than someone who has picked up a foreign language." Jonathan’s partner in translation is his wife, Andria, who signs a translation to him, and then Jonathan adjusts "for meaning and nuance."