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Rubber Stamps

Technology, for all its virtues, has put a barrier between humans and what we make with our hands. For centuries, creating beautiful typography required chiseling tiny steel blocks—the very best type-makers could carve about two letters a day. Now, you can make a font just by clicking your mouse.

These clever letter-making stamps aren’t exactly chiseling steel, but they’re not just fiddling with software, either. Instamp is a set of alphabetical rubber stamps and ink pads from Japanese designer Yuzo Azu. Unlike the ones typically found in libraries and grade school art classrooms, they let you create an infinite number of custom typefaces just by adjusting the angle and pressure of your hand. Instead of giving each letter a flat face like you’d typically find on a stamp, flat faces found on stamps, Azu rendered each sans serif letterform as a slightly rounded, supple surface, making each responsive to even the slightest change in gesture. The project was among the winners of a design showcase organized by Lexus; sadly, there’s no word yet on if or when you’ll be able to buy the stamps.


Best in Small Business Branding

In the foreword to the gorgeous new book Start Me Up!: New Branding for Businesses, from Gestalten, designer Anna Sinofzika mentions of the idea of a “curator-consumer.” You’re likely familiar with this type of shopper (heck, in some form or another you probably are one): A curator-consumer is someone who prefers Marvis toothpaste over Crest, Mast Brothers chocolate to Hershey’s, and Mrs. Meyers to Dawn.

It’s a great time to be a curator-consumer, because never before have so many aesthetically neglected industries been given branding and packaging makeovers. It’s not just bougie chocolates and cleaning products either. As the book shows, these days, you can also pick a roofing company that has a well-designed logo and business card, or a dermatologist with smart branding and great-looking forms for you to fill out.

Back in the day, editor Robert Klanten says, “If you’re a roofer, a barber, a nail bar, or you produce wooden toys, your visual output may be very, very sad and sort of low key, or based on stock photography.” That’s changed over the last 10 years, as people have left office jobs to pursue smaller, more personal businesses. And when they do, “they want to express themselves,” Klanten says. “They may not make as much money, but they’re devoted to what they do.”

Start Me Up! is a sign of the times. The book covers small businesses all over the world, and in all manner of trades. There’s a bakery in London, a kitchen knife company in Tel Aviv, an acupuncture and homeotherapy practice in Barcelona, and a cotton handkerchief seller in Nara, Japan (among many others).

It doesn’t matter how niche the micro-industry—it’s clear that the ballooning number of entrepreneurial projects in the world make for fierce competition. Businesses need to speak to customers holistically, and one way to do that is through notepads and gift boxes. These types of branded materials even show up in non-creative fields, like physical therapy or head hunting. There are plenty of cleverness and visual puns to be had, but a lot of the companies seem to share a spare, squeaky-clean aesthetic, which Klanten says might be part of creating a sustainable business: “People tend to create something that seems to guarantee visual longevity. Whatever they do, they try to be authentic, reliable.”

Mirrored Collage

Instagram’s last standalone app, Hyperlapse, made it possible to take striking steadicam-style videos on your smartphone. It was an awesome creative tool and an impressive technical achievement. So it would be understandable to be a little bit, well, underwhelmed to hear that the latest creation to emerge from the Instagram laboratory is… an app for making photo collages. Thankfully, it’s cooler than it sounds.

Layout, available today for the iPhone, lets you painlessly arrange smartphone shots in all sorts of configurations. It’s far from the first app to do this, but a handful of thoughtful details make it especially easy to use. Beyond those, it has some novel features, like the ability to flip images within compositions to create surreal mirrored shots, that make it an interesting creative tool in its own right.

Why build a collage app in the first place? For one thing, they’re popular. According to Instagram, one in five users already stitch photos together with some application of the sort. There’s something satisfying about packing small things snugly into boxes, something any fan of the Container Store knows well.

As Instagram’s designers saw it, though, existing collage apps left room for improvement. For example, upon launching these apps typically give you a slew of grids to choose from. Layout displays your pictures right away instead. This decision was based on a simple insight: People want to pick photos and experiment with different ways to combine them, rather than being forced to pick a grid and and then shoehorn pictures into it. The app further facilitates quick experimentation with a split-screen design, which lets you you swap photos, resize them, and adjust your composition without jumping through a bunch of different menus.

The app doesn’t let you put borders around individual photos within a composition—a choice made in the name of a cleaner-looking final product. As one of the app’s designers explained, they wanted to avoid the “scrapbook-y” look that some kitschier collage apps embrace. You can post your compositions to Instagram or Facebook, or just save them to your camera roll; you don’t need an Instagram account to use the app.

The Louvre’s Pyramid

At a glance what could New York City’s Times Square and California’s The French Laundry restaurant possibly have in common? One is a paved hellhole filled with leering Elmos and Guy Fieri’s namesake kitchen and bar. The other is a rustic cottage tucked away in the Napa Valley that is led by chef Thomas Keller and has three Michelin stars.

The answer: The two sites share an architect. That’s not a coincidence. A few years ago, architecture firm Snøhetta was chosen to reimagine Times Square as a pedestrian-friendly urban center. “The reconstruction of Times Square is all about how people coalesce or move past one another in a complex urban setting,” says Snøhetta principal Craig Dykers. “Thomas Keller saw that some applications of that that could be applied to a kitchen. It’s an intense working environment.”

That’s why Keller hired Dykers and Snøhetta to overhaul the kitchen and garden at The French Laundry. Space is at a premium in the 20-year-old kitchen. For instance, there are just 31 inches of space between different cooking stations—that’s less than three feet of shared countertop for chefs preparing between nine and 20 courses on any given night. Even the acoustics are cramped: during research, while shadowing the staff at work, the Snøhetta team noticed that the chefs and wait staff tend to face away from each other while talking, which muffles food orders and instructions.

A Useful Smart Bag

OUR PHONES MAKE life easier, but that hasn’t stopped us from creating all kinds of hacks to make them partner better with our brains. We take snapshots to remember our coat check number. We use screenshots to show friends conversations we had with others. Sometimes, I’ll listen to music while walking not because I want the jams, but because I’m expecting a call, and keeping headphones in is the best way to not miss it.

These shortcuts work because they eliminate the taps involved in typing out a thought in Notes, or free you from fumbling for your phone in the zippered pocket of your backpack (or is it in the main compartment?) HiSmart, a new bag from Chinese design company Lepow, is built around that idea of streamlining interactions. It’s no Birkin, but the satchel shows how today’s bags might benefit from some smarts of their own.

Qifang Dai and Ray Lei created the HiSmart bag to make life easier for commuters. It can transform from backpack to messenger bag, but either way, the marquee feature is its strap, which hosts the HiRemote. The silver disc features two Bluetooth chips that communicate with an app on your phone, even if it’s buried deeply within your bag. The remote has a simple interface: ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ buttons control music volume and let you skip tracks. A triangle button answers or ignores calls. A circular button handles the extras, like dropping a pin (to remember where you parked, say), recording notes with a built-in mic, and taking pictures.

“This is the first true smart bag,” Dai says. “A smart wearable is not limited to just watches or fitness trackers. It can be more than that.”

There are plenty of practical perks to embedding technology into a bag. Dai notes that the HiSmart bag lets the wearer use both hands: “Some functions even smartwatches can’t realize. When riding a bike, you can’t answer a call and talk to the watch.” If you have your bag, but not your phone, the bag acts as an automatic Find My iPhone-type of sleuth. The picture-taking functionality is especially clever: You set your phone down, back up, and just tap a button on the bag’s remote. The strap could spare the world an untold number of selfie sticks.

We’re used to hearing about the smart home and how connected functionality will soon embed itself in all our appliances. We’re also told that technology will move onto our body. HiSmart shows a combination of these two trends that might actually be useful. It’s taking a few things we do with our smartphones and putting them in a slightly more convenient place, moving interactions off the screen to a more natural site. Even if the HiSmart doesn’t appeal to you, a Smart Strap for your favorite bag might.

Lepow is raising funds for the HiSmart bag onIndiegogo. Each bag costs $200.

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