Category Archives: Design

Battle of the NRA Eagle Emblems


Graphic of NRA Blue Eagle, ca. 1933; Records of the National Recovery Administration, 1927-1937. National Archives and Records Administration. Via Slate

Nope. Not that NRA. Apparently there was a National Recovery Administration set up during FDR’s New Deal to aid workers in collective bargaining and the creation of wage standards. The organization’s emblem–an eagle clutching a gear in one set of talons and lighting bolts in the other–would be displayed by participating businesses to show support for the power of American Industry. From Rebecca Onion’s post on Slate:

Wasn’t the government afraid that people would confuse its new logo with the National Rifle Association’s? Although the NRA that’s now a household name was formed back in 1871, in the 1930s the organization was still a relatively obscure educational body, sponsoring rifle clubs and youth programs. In 1934, the National Rifle Association instituted a legislative affairs division, beginning its transformation into the lobbying superpower that it is today.

Must admit that I rather like the graphic logo of the New Deal NRA. I’m afraid it makes the National Rifle Association’s eagle emblem look rather dated in comparison…


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Visualizing The Impact Of Guns

Number of Gun Deaths Since Newtown 5-28-13

“How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown?” Interactive map created by  Slate and @GunDeaths visualizing the toll firearms have taken since Dec. 14.

In Un-Selling The Gun a couple of weeks ago I touched upon the problem of conveying the impact of firearms on the individuals and communities they effect. Humans aren’t always very good at understanding data. In fact, some studies have shown that comprehending specific amounts above the number 3 is still a relatively new skill. And that’s where charts, maps, visualizations, and narratives come in handy. People will go to some interesting lengths to compensate for the limitations of the human brain.

In addition to emotional, first-person stories, gun policy activist Arkadi Gerney once used a “murder truck” (his nickname) to display the number of Americans murdered with guns since the Gabby Giffords shooting.  In his piece on The New Yorker‘s website, he wrote:

On the morning of February 16, 2011, when Mayor Bloomberg launched the truck on a national tour, the digital display read “1,311.” Omar Samaha , whose sister was murdered at Virginia Tech, would captain what was officially called the “Fix Gun Checks” truck on a journey across America.


Image of the “Fix Gun Checks” truck via HuffPo

But the truck and Gerney’s best efforts still didn’t result in the gun control legislation that he’d hoped to pass. Maybe the bare number by itself (well, with a spokesman and his heart-wrenching story) wasn’t enough to get the message across.

Slate has a similar yet perhaps more powerful project called “How Many People Have Been Killed by Guns Since Newtown? in which every individual killed is represented by an icon showing whether they were an adult or child, female or male. The graphic is also sortable by age, gender, and date and is accompanied by a the same data applied to a map of the U.S. and filterable by location (screenshot at top). There’s something about the human shapes that really stuns. Maybe it’s a sense of scale? I can mentally place these people in relationship to my own body, to the scale of an individual person. And then pull out to a macro view of the country or city. This micro/macro pairing just works for me. It’s graphic without being gratuitous. Simple and but not sanitized.

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 9.36.07 PM

Speaking of data, there was quite a kerfuffle a few weeks back over the release of a Pew Research report demonstrating that the number of gun deaths has been going down since a peak in the mid 90’s. According to Pew:

Despite national attention to the issue of firearm violence, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is lower today than it was two decades ago. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, today 56% of Americans believe gun crime is higher than 20 years ago and only 12% think it is lower.

Maybe we’re just better at understanding the gravity of these numbers? Perhaps it isn’t that we think crime is statistically increasing. Rather, increased access to information, personal stories, and illustrative data design lets us understand just how bad gun violence is. Perhaps our awareness of firearms-related deaths is increasing even as the actual number has been decreasing?


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TrackingPoint Rifle: A Gun With Agency?


Image of the TrackingPoint rifle from manufacturer’s website

When I came across the story of the TrackingPoint rifle on NPR, “A New ‘Smart Rifle’ Decides When To Shoot And Rarely Misses,” I was really looking forward to untangling the moral implications of a gun that fires when it “wants.” Based on the headline, I thought that the rifle had an auto-lock-and-fire functionality along the lines of a camera that won’t shoot until all variables are within optimal levels. Or a military drone making surgical strikes.

If this was true, the technology would be a huge leap in the direction of seceding personal moral authority to a potentially deadly machine and I was totally jazzed and anxious about what this might mean for the future of guns and gun control and the concept of objects-with-agency. However, the story is slightly different. And slightly less controversial when we get into the details. According to NPR’s Mark Dewey:

The rifle’s scope features a sophisticated color graphics display. The shooter locks a laser on the target by pushing a small button by the trigger. It’s like a video game. But here’s where it’s different: You pull the trigger but the gun decides when to shoot. It fires only when the weapon has been pointed in exactly the right place, taking into account dozens of variables, including wind, shake and distance to the target.

So, as long as the target lock is correct, the gun provides a visual indication of optimal aim. Yes, it dramatically improves the accuracy and (by implication) the deadliness of the rifle. However, the shooter still makes the decision to fire. It is still a human brain that sends the signal to the hand to depress the trigger and initiate the mechanical effect of sending a high speed projectile from the barrel.

Video highlighting the TrackingPoint’s features, from manufacturer’s website

One of the more interesting features of the rifle sight is that it can stream video of the view to a nearby device. I’ve been planning to write a post about Paul Virilio’s War and Cinema and this technology fits perfectly into Virilio’s theories about the emergence of new ways of seeing from the destructive impulse of military and war technology.

I can foresee the creation of a non-gun product made of a camera mounted on a rifle-like object that turns the world itself into a first-person-shooter video game.  The user takes aim and “shoots” real life targets but the device’s computer detects accuracy/points and records it for sharing on social media. The social cache and pride in taking out a 22-point buck could be achieved without actually killing one.

Does such a product already exist?

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How to Kill People: George Nelson on Designer Weapons

How To Kill People ImageNelson, George. “How to Kill People: A Problem of Design.” Industrial Design. 8, no.1 (January 1961), pgs 45-53

In 1960, industrial designer George Nelson spoke out against society’s passive acceptance of violence and the designer’s role in creating weapons. He created a television episode for Camera Three titled A Problem of Design: How to Kill People. It is is one of the relatively few instances that a designer has publicly discussed weapons as designed objects.

When I first learned of the show, no copy was known to exist. However, the magazine Industrial Design published a transcript of the episode in its January issue of 1961. I have the great luck to be acquainted with Ralph Caplan who was editor of the magazine at that time. So one spring morning, I biked down to the Upper West Side apartment that he shares with his wife Judith. I left with their hardbound volume of Industrial Design issues from 1961 and also the impression that the television spot hadn’t been well received. Ralph didn’t consider the show to have been very good, I think.

But reading the transcript, many of Nelson’s points resonated with me. After giving a historical overview of weapons design (from rock to axe to spear to bow and arrow, etc) he brings out a revolver and describes it thus:

 “Again we can see the close relationship between handsome form and superior functioning. The cylinder shows exactly what it is. The hammer, an interesting decorative accent, also explains its function without words. The shape is more sophisticated. There is even a smooth indentation in the handle to increase the user’s comfort. There are also carry-overs of traditional elements: the trigger is not new, (we saw it on the crossbow), the gun sight is not new (we can find it on primitive blow pipes). A great step forward, but esthetically we paid the price.

Never again will we have the glorious craftsmanship of the armorer. The exquisite detailing, the preoccupation with nature, the pride of ownership. The elegance of form and intricate decoration.

Firearms introduced a new tempo into design for killing.”

It is a little strange for Nelson to say that the invention of firearms killed the “exquisite detailing” of weaponry because any visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will show that we had centuries of beautifully handcrafted and detailed guns. I think that Nelson’s point of aesthetic demarcation was the advent of mass produced firearms – the point when the technology for killing and the technology for manufacturing these tools for killing created a new class of weapons. This is the point when firearms became mass consumer products.

And the whole point of Nelson’s show is to critique society’s passive acceptance of war and violence and the role that designers play in making killing easy. He says:

“…to function successfully, to produce works of art, designers must have society’s approval of what they are doing. Design for killing is interesting because war occupies so much of our attention, and receives our unquestioning support. The great advantage of the designer in this area is that nobody cares what anything costs. This attitude has been prevalent from the siege of Troy to the bombing of Hiroshima. And it’s this kind of attitude towards money that has always attracted creative people. This is the reason, probably, that the design of beautiful and efficient weapons has progressed continuously, without serious interruption.”

One wonders what Nelson might have to say on the subject of drones—one of the more recent innovations in killing technology. I’m sure, also, that one could identify a sort of “drone aesthetic” to many of these new tools.

“Modern design has a sleek deadliness unmatched in all recorded history.”

Nelson, George. “How to Kill People: A Problem of Design.” Industrial Design. 8, no.1 (January 1961), pgs 45-53

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