A Car that Gets 262 MPG

Volkswagen has designed it, it's called the XL1:

The XL1 represents the car as blue-ribbon science fair project. But unlike other megacars, which are built to maximize speed and power, this one, more than ten years and upward of a billion dollars in the designing, contains not one centimeter of wasted space or poundage. The engineers eliminated power steering because it would have added 10 kilograms. For maximum lightness, the core of its body and chassis is comprised of a one-piece molded carbon-fiber monocoque. The magnesium wheels get wrapped in custom-light Michelin rubber. The windows lower with hand cranks. There’s no radio — the sound system wraps through the Garmin GPS — and no place to plug in your smartphone, because Bluetooth is lighter.

A Better Way to Think About Sustainability

In a recent TED talk for TED2013, design consultant Leyla Acaroglu tackles some persistent sustainability myths and advocates a new way of thinking about sustainability. From the TED blog:

Acaroglu wants you to think beyond choosing a material for your grocery tote. Instead, she encourages us to think about the entire life of a finished product, to think hard about the net impact a product has on the environment. This is life-cycle thinking, not just whether a product can be recycled, but all the parts of its existence: material extraction, manufacturing, packaging and transportation, product use, and end of life.

Electric tea kettles, for example, are an unlikely drain on the environment:

In the UK, 97 percent of households have an electric tea kettle, and 65 percent of tea drinkers admit to overfilling their kettles, boiling way more water than they need for a cuppa. One day of extra energy use from these kettles is enough to light all the streetlights in London for a night. What we need, Acaroglu says, is not better materials for the tea kettle, but a behavior-changing kettle that helps you boil just what you need.

Financial Literacy Solutions, Information-Design Edition

In our latest podcast, “What Do Hand-Washing and Financial Illiteracy Have in Common?” we talked about America's financial literacy problem, a topic we’ve written about before. In the podcast, two Council of Economic Advisers chairmen discuss the role of financial illiteracy in the recession. And economist Annamaria Lusardi and legal scholar Lauren Willis offer their solutions to the problem.

Two designers, Tristan Cook and Thomas Nelson of Humans in Design, also have a pitch.

It's No Major Major Major Major, But …

... this was still a puzzling sign to behold. It's on Lenox Ave. (a.k.a. Malcolm X Blvd.), in the southern end of Harlem:

Did your mind get stuck for a minute when it read those words, or did it quickly skip ahead and fill in a blank? (Danny Kahneman writes nicely about this phenomenon in Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Once you walk a few steps further south, the sign becomes complete.

Planned Obsolescence: A Lament for Quality Amid a World of Junk

Our family recently camped for a week in a nearby state forest where our most trusted item was a cast-iron frying pan. Its thickness distributes heat evenly. Nothing can harm it. The wrong kind of spatula won’t scratch some special non-stick coating.With simple care, it will last for a thousand years. Which reminded me how rare that combination of high quality and durability is today.

Most everything else I own is junk and seems to be designed that way. Here are several anecdotal examples:

In the old days, most Americans rented phones from the phone company ("Ma Bell"). My parents still own one, now over 30 years old, that survived raising three boys. These phones lasted forever. Meanwhile, Ma Bell was broken up in the 1980s. One engineer who worked for the phone company before and after the breakup told me of how the engineers were gathered together and given new ground rules: "It was all well and good in the old days to make phones with gold-plated contacts. But now it’s different. Here’s how to make the newer phones…" I think back on this comment as I watch one phone after another die, often after a few months.