A System of Warnings

Josh Porter recently wrote about some design principles he uses. As Josh notes, people often confuse design with art. Art is a form of personal expression, while design is about use.

The designer needs someone to use (not only appreciate) what they create. Design doesn’t serve its purpose without people to use it. Design helps solve human problems. The highest accolade we can bestow on a design is not that it is beautiful, as we do in Art, but that it is well-used.

I think one of the most recognized and perhaps important designs of the past twenty years or so is the Nutrition Facts label. Instantly recognizable and packed with information, yet concise and easy to read and use. It’s not glamorous, but it works so well that we barely even notice it. It’s great design.

While nutrition is certainly an important subject worthy of a thoughtful design, I recently stumbled upon a design project that is intriguing, difficult and important. In the desert of Southeastern New Mexico lies the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an undeground radioactive waste repository. Not a pleasant place. During the planning stages of the facility, a panel of experts were tasked with designing a 10,000-year marking system. It’s an intriguing design problem. The resulting report is an astounding, powerful and oddly poignant document (excerpts here, huge .pdf version of the full report here). They developed an interesting system here; note, they didn’t just create signs, the entire site (from the physical layout to the words and imagery used) was designed to communicate a message across multiple levels, with a high level of redundancy. It’s not just a warning, it’s a system of interconnected and reinforced warnings. The authors also attempted to anticipate a variety of potential attacks as well. What is the message they wanted to convey? Here’s a brief summary:

  • This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it!
  • Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
  • This place is not a place of honor… no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
  • What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
  • The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.
  • The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
  • The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
  • The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
  • The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
  • All physical site interventions and markings must be understood as communicating a message. It is not enough to know that this is a place of importance and danger…you must know that the place itself is a message, that it contains messages, and is part of a system of messages, and is a system with redundance.

As James Grimmelmann notes, this is “frightening, apocalyptic poetry.” I find the third bullet to be particularly evocative. The assumptions the authors had to make in working on this design are interesting to contemplate. They’re assuming that the audience for this design will be significantly different, perhaps not even human (in any case, the assumption is that something bad has happened and we’re no longer around). Again, this is an intriguing design problem. I think they’ve done a pretty good job thinking about the problem, even if some of their more exotic designs didn’t make it into the final system.