glass with water and a red number 17
  • the economy of simplicity

  • March 01, 2010

    by florian

    Last weekend I went to a cocktail party. It was a fun night as parties go, but it was extraordinary in another way. Largely because of the gentle disruption provoked by 17 little red decals, set in Helvetica and glued to our glasses. This was good design in action.

    Caroline, the hostess, assigned each guest a number based on how early we had rsvp’ed, then glued the corresponding numbers onto Ikea glasses. 17 altogether.

    you could easily spot the people closest to Caroline - they were branded by low numbers. #1 was stuck to her own glass, #2 to her sister’s, and on the other side of the room was my last minute confirmation, #17.

    It’s amazing how much information you can glean from a simple string of advancing numbers. When we helped organize the ‘Interesting New York’ conference, we employed the same principle. There we used serial number stickers on the front of the program. The stickers didn’t just make the materials feel more special, like limited prints would, they also gave the attendees a clue if the person next to them went out drinking late the night before (#234), was an early bird (#12), or if the two next to them arrived there together (#78 + #79).

    What had real impact on everyone invited, and not just the overly sensitive communications designer, was that the numbers connected us with our glasses. People would carefully wave them as they talked, too attached to put them down. They went hunting for them when they returned from the bathroom or a smoke break, made the 13 into 31 to avoid bad luck, and later on chugged someone else’s drink, accidentally poured into the wrong glass, to reclaim their property.

    Compare this to a fratboy keg party with unlimited plastic cups. How many half-full glasses would you have to throw out the next morning because nobody cared about the cup, and by extension their drink altogether? When there is a limitless supply, we encounter one of the most destructive forces in numbers: we stop caring.

    I couldn’t let go of the thought and pondered it until much later into the night. If we applied this on a larger scale, I wouldn’t be surprised if we cut the world’s trash output by double digit margins. If we fostered personal affection for the things around us, instead of advocating consumerism above all, we could still keep the economy going by concentrating on making smarter, and more human products. This may run counter to the relentless gold rush of the next financial quarter, but it’s going to make us better people in the long run.

    When we left, Caroline gave us the glasses as a gift. Awesome! Unless she was just too lazy to wash up…

    Either way… cheers!