Category Archives: Design

Discovering New Opportunities for Urban Design in American Cities

“What a city has to say must find expression in its architecture.” Walter Wallmann, Lord Mayor of Frankfurt/Main

Here in the U.S., we tend to think of our built environment –- our cities and towns — as mostly finished. Sure, we might tear down a few old buildings or add a few new subdivisions around the margins but, in general, the urban fabric is completely “baked” and there are no more opportunities for growth or expansion. This attitude is particularly true when it comes to urban design, which attracts little attention from the average citizen and perhaps even less from the average politician. This is too bad because I think the best days of American architecture and urban planning are ahead of us.

In many ways our country is actually still in pioneering mode. Most of our buildings are strictly functional, made of simple materials and designed to last the length of the loan used to pay for their construction. We build fast and haphazardly. The foundations we dig rarely sit on anything other than virgin soil. We pave over what is essentially prime agricultural land. Our buildings are often the first structures on a particular site in the entire history of mankind. Contrast this with Europe, where relatively new buildings might share space with Roman ruins and parking lot renovations turn into archeological digs. This constant confrontation with history requires a different mindset and leads to different approaches to design.

A recent visit to Scandinavia brought these differences into stark contrast for me. I was walking down a pedestrian street in Stockholm, Sweden and I noticed a pair of concrete barricades blocking cars from entering the area. These weren’t your typical Jersey barriers, however, because they were cleverly sculpted to look like lions – functional pieces of art incorporated into the streetscape instead of utilitarian eyesores. The Stockholm “lejon” barriers were created by artist Anders Årfelt in 1995 as a way to guard pedestrians from traffic while encouraging human interaction. They have since become popular local landmarks.

Lion Equation

What I liked about this solution is that it elegantly combines modern safety features with Swedish history (lions were added to the Swedish coat of arms in the 15th century) and a tradition of stone guardians that can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. Many of the castles we toured during our vacation had stone or marble lions (AKA “foo dogs”) at the gates and so these modern traffic barriers help enhance a strong local lineage.

Although the U.S. has historically made extensive use of similar icons, their popularity has yet to translate into more whimsical — yet practical — uses like the Stockholm lion barriers. This is because the current American approach to public design is limited by a strong cultural reluctance to invest in the community. To put it bluntly, no-frills design is considered a better use of taxpayer money. In these austere times, local governments can barely scrape together enough cash to collect the garbage, let alone pay artists to design something that taxpayers feel is unnecessary.

This line of thinking is unfortunate because there’s a lot of value in making cities more attractive to both residents and tourists. A recent study by the Knight Foundation found that physical beauty and opportunities for socializing helped strengthen the emotional bonds people had with their communities and that higher levels of community attachment were associated with increased GDP and stronger economies. This link between aesthetics and economics was made explicitly clear in the Stockholm example when my wife and I discovered a small shop inside the main train station that sold miniature replicas of the concrete lion barriers as paperweights. I paid a few hundred Swedish Kroner for the memento … money that circulated directly back into the local economy solely because somebody thought it would be a cool idea to make something special. Try doing that with a Jersey barrier!

Two Lions

What Does the Average Biker Dude Look Like?

CNN recently published the mugshots of all of the biker gang members who were arrested after the recent shootout in a Waco, TX restaurant. There were a total of 171 pictures, all in the same standard pose and most in the same standard orange jumpsuit:


Seeing all of these pictures got me wondering if it was possible to create an image that represented the typical gang member. I had seen a technique called “pixel averaging” applied to a series of wedding photos many years ago and I was able to find a tool called ImageJ that helped me with the processing.

It was a fairly straightforward effort … just upload the individual photos into an image stack and then apply a z-filter to each pixel of each “slice” or picture in the stack. The result is as follows:


Despite a wide variety of ages, facial hair, and ethnic backgrounds in the mugshots, the combined image looks like some guy you might see at a weekend softball game. It certainly gives no indication of how dangerous some of these men (and women) can be.


  • Ideas Illustrated LLC Celebrates 10 Years

    I was filling out the annual report forms for Ideas Illustrated LLC a few weeks ago and noticed that my original filing date was May 11, 2004… making today my 10th anniversary! It’s hard to believe that a full decade has passed since my wife and I sat around brainstorming ideas for a company. It’s been a fun ride so far, with a several great side projects, a well-regarded blog, and a lot of new challenges. It hasn’t made me a millionaire but it has put some extra cash in my pocket and probably saved my sanity on more than one occasion. Here’s to ten more years!


    A Force Node Diagram of the U.S. Interstate System

    There’s nothing too complicated about this post. I’ve been interested in creating an illustration of the U.S. Interstate system for awhile but my initial concept of a “subway-style” diagram of the network had already been done. After some recent experimentation with the D3 Javascript library, I decided that it might be interesting to try out a simple force node display using the Interstate’s control cities as the nodes. Control cities are certain major destinations that are used to provide navigational guidance at key decision points along a particular route. It should be noted that not all control cities are actually cities and not all cities qualify as control cities. My starting list can be found here.

    After my initial data collection, I found I had that I had to modify my approach to improve the network. First of all, I had to add some nodes for certain highway-to-highway connections, especially those that occurred in remote areas. I also had to include some cities that had multiple Interstate highways passing through because they weren’t always listed on each route. Finally, I added a few non-Interstate roads where I thought it made sense, including Alaska (which doesn’t actually have any Interstate highways) and eastern Canada, which has a major highway called the King’s Highway or Ontario Highway 401 linking Toronto and Montreal to key American cities.

    Here is the result … click on the picture to get to a fully interactive version.


    The size of the nodes is related to the estimated population of the city/destination and the color represents Census division (plus Canada). You can kind of see a rough outline of the U.S., with the Midwest roughly in the center of the diagram (in orange) and the two coasts wrapping around on either side. Hawaii and Alaska float alone at the edge and the Florida penninsula (in the South Atlantic, in red) protrudes out toward the bottom of the chart.

    Most Popular Word Roots in U.S. Place Names

    My family visited Washington D.C. last year for Spring Break and, during our 12-hour drive, I remember noticing a subtle change in the names of the cities and towns we were passing through. In the beginning, the place names had a familiar mid-western flavor; one that mixed Native American origins (e.g. Milwaukee, Chicago) with bits of French missionary and 19th-century European settler. The names slowly took on a more Anglo-Saxon bent as we moved east, traveling through spots like Wexford, PA, Pittsburgh, PA, Gaithersburg, MD, Boonsboro, MD, Hagerstown, MD, and Reston, VA.

    We have English-sounding place names in Wisconsin, of course, including highfalutin towns like Brighton, Kingston, and New London, but they seem to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of places with syllables like “wau”, “kee”, and “sha” (or all three combined). Many of these town names can be difficult for “outsiders” to pronounce and the spelling is all over the place since they were often coined by non-native speakers who’d misheard the original words. (The Native American word for “firefly”, for example, is linked to variations like Wauwatosa (WI), Wawatasso (MN), and Wahwahtaysee Way (a street in MI).)

    I thought it would be interesting to see if there were any patterns to these U.S. place names or toponyms so I pulled a list of Census Places and extracted the most frequent letter combinations from the names of the country’s cities, towns, and villages. I tried to isolate true prefixes and suffixes by remove any letter pairings that were simply common to the English language and I then counted up the number of times each word root appeared and ranked them by state.

    Top 10 Word Roots by State

    After looking over the top word roots by state, I was interested in seeing more detail so I calculated a location quotient for some of the most common word roots and plotted these out by county. Click on the maps for a larger D3 map.

    Location Quotient for “ton”
    The word town derives from the Germanic word for “fence” or “fenced settlement.” In the U.S., the use of -ton/-town to honor important landowners or political leaders began before the American Revolution (think Jamestown, VA or Charleston, SC) and continued throughout the settlement of the country. (Interestingly, my hometown of Appleton, WI was named for philanthropist Samuel Appleton and is not a true town-based word root.)

    Location Quotient for “boro/borough”
    The word borough originates from the Germanic word for “fort” and has many common variations, including suffixes like -borough/-boro, and -burgh/-burg. Like -ton/-town, these place name suffixes became popular in the 18th century and were used extensively throughout New England and the Atlantic coastal colonies. You can see how dominant the -boro/-borough suffix is in the upper Northeast.

    Location Quotient for “ville”
    The suffix “ville” comes from the French word for “farm” and is the basis for common words like “villa” and “village”. The use of the suffix -ville for the names of cities and towns in the U.S. didn’t really begin until after the Revolution, when pro-French sentiment spread throughout the country — particularly in the South and Western Appalachian regions. The popularity of this suffix began to decline in the middle of the 19th century but you can still see it’s strong influence in the southern states.

    Location Quotient for “san/santa”
    The Spanish colonial period in the Americas left a large legacy of Spanish place names, particularly in the American West and Southwest. Many of the Californian coastal cities were named after saints by early Spanish explorers, while other cities in New Spain simply included the definite article (“la”, “el”, “las” and “los) in what was often a very long description (e.g. “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula” … now known simply as Los Angeles or LA). The map shows the pattern for the San/Santa prefix, which is strong on the West Coast and weaker inland, where it may actually be an artifact of some Native American word roots.

    Location Quotient for “Lake/Lakes”
    The practice of associating a town with a nearby body of water puts a wrinkle into the process of tracking of place names (the history of “hydronyms” being an entirely different area of study) but it was common in parts of the country that were mapped by explorers first and settled later. This can be seen in the prevalence of town names with word roots like Spring, Lake, Bay, River, and Creek.

    Location Quotient for “Beach”
    There is a similar process for other prominent features of the landscape such as fields, woods, hills, mountains, and — in Florida’s case — beaches.

    Location Quotient for “wau”
    Here is the word root that started this whole line of inquiry. It is apparently a very iconic Wisconsin toponym, with even some of the outlying place names having Wisconsin roots (the city of Milwaukie in Clackamas County, Oregon was named after Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1840s).

    D3 Notes:

    Infographics and Data Visualization (Week 5/6)

    I took part in a brief discussion on the student forum after the Week 4 project and it made me realize that I’d been spending so much time trying to create a functional interactive graphic in Tableau that I was missing out on practicing some of the basic techniques of the class. When you combine that with the fact that my favorite attempt was a sketch I laid out in PowerPoint, I decided that I should try to focus on the structure and design of the graphic to see what I could come up with.

    The topic I picked was based on some data that I’d pulled back in May/June that I’d never had a chance to use. This data covered all of the various U.S. breweries and the variety of beers they made. I did some additional research to add some information on beer ingredients (especially water, barley and hops) as well as some interesting stats on beer consumption based on a few fun maps done at FloatingSheep.

    I spent a good deal of time coming up with the basic grid of the graphic, which ended up having a static left hand column for the introduction to each topic and then an interactive map of the U.S. on the right. The interactive portion consists of tabbed sections that allow you to navigate through several subtopics.

    The flow of the of the series starts with an overview of beer production in the U.S., moves to a section on the ingredients of beer, and ends with information on American beer consumption. (I also thought about including some local beer stats for the great State of Wisconsin but that may have to wait.)

    Due to time constraints, these mockups contain sample maps from other sources (here. and here):