Redesign the World

A quick look at some ideas for improving the world via design, and why they aren’t very good ideas.

One of the habits of my brain is looking at the design of things in the world and trying to improve them. It does this as a thought experiment; I seldom attempt the actual inventions it comes up with. But it’s fun as a mere thought experiment. So today I thought I’d throw some of my (unworkable) designs out here just for posterity.

Before that, though, I should be clear that designs aren’t always about replacements. Sometimes they’re just recognitions of the problems that replacements should solve, with either existing alternatives or unknowns being the replacements.

Doors and Keys


One of the things that’s bothered me over the years has been keys. You have these little fixed bits of metal, and they are supposed to provide you secure access to their corresponding locks. But if you lose them, you’re calling a locksmith. If you break one, you’re calling a locksmith. And then you have to carry them around and match them to the correct lock.

The solution will be electronic locks of some sort, but my favored solution was universal keys that could open any lock. They would have interchangeable teeth with varying numeric or alphabetic annotations, and so even if you never visited a building nor had direct contact with the owner, they could say, “key number 3F8JLM42” and you could set your key and get in. The other benefit would be that it would make re-keying locks a much simpler matter, as if keys were easily changed, the locks could be too.

The necessity of universal locks/the inertia of existing systems means this idea would take a long time to institute. Even if there were a spectacular example of this idea, before it would be instituted electronic locks would win out. The other major downside is that easily-changeable locks doesn’t mean often-changed locks. It’s a common vulnerability for office buildings and the like that use doors with keypad locks that people can guess the lock code by the wear on the keypad.

You also hear stories about people returning to visit such buildings years later, and on a whim they try the old code only to find out it still works.


Every summer when you go outside, you’re losing a bit of energy in the cool air escaping/warm air entering. Same thing in winter, the cold gets in and the warm gets out when you break that door seal.

Large buildings recognize this; they have what I’ll quaintly call airlocks. According to Wikipedia: Airlock: Similar mechanisms, they are also used in buildings holding wealth to slow thieves, and in aviaries to prevent the ingress/egress of species.

But the question is, how difficult would it be to add some semblance of an airlock to other doors during frequent use? How much energy could be saved? If they were common enough, it wouldn’t be very difficult or expensive. But for the most part, the buildings that should have them do and the ones where the savings don’t warrant the feature lack them.

Screen Grid References

Screens could have grid references along their sides (or added via software), so that someone can say, “click the red icon at C3” (where C is the horizontal and 3 is the vertical). As a practical matter, there may already be some screens that have these where they’re really needed, and most people aren’t spending too much time telling others where to click without just pointing to the spot.

Cellphone Booths

People don’t complain about people talking on phones all over the place as much as they used to, but probably because they know it won’t stop. But there used to be phone booths because the lines were wired. Still, there would be some opportunity to have booths set up for people to use for mobile conversations without disturbing others. There could be other benefits built in to these booths, such as signal boosters, or dedicated screens, keyboards, and mice for using them as work stations. Wireless providers could give discounts on usage from these booths.

But the convenience of being able to use the mobile device wherever you are probably outweighs any desire to stand in a booth. And people seem to be gradually adjusting to the expectation that everyone around them is talking to someone that’s not there.

Calendars and Time

Good luck with these. You could have the greatest idea ever, but these are so entrenched in the cultures of the world that they are extremely hard to change. I guess we can say the various places that enact Daylight Savings schemes have crashed a barrier, but the feature of those schemes is that they’re periodic and only require minor adjustments (and yet they are harmful (in that they serve no benefit and cause a loss) and do receive resentment).

But they are fun to think about.

Pushing the Envelope

Most inventions only push the envelope (the phrase arrives via aviation, where it means roughly to exceed the known flight parameters of an aircraft). Those that break the damn thing into pieces and use them with mortar to build a mosaic pattern must have large benefits.

Even the big changes mimic the old where they can. That’s why the varied icons on computers are largely analogs of the real world. Radio buttons are based on the old car radios and light switches that allowed you to press any button causing the others to become unpressed.

The default terminal width comes from punched cards (Wikipedia: Punched card: IBM 80-column punched card formats and character codes).

The design of compact fluorescent lightbulbs owes itself to the need to fit in the standardized, legacy bulb sockets.

And so on. We continue to make adaptations based on existing technologies. It does make things easier, but harder too. People get used to particular patterns of reality, and inertia prevents bigger changes from happening quickly. This gives rise to problems like wide-spread obesity. To problems like climate change. To vast overspending and undercoverage in health care. To entrenched corruption in government and banking and other institutions.


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