Michael Bierut | Essays

To Hell with the Simple Paper Clip

If there's one design cliché that has come to really irritate me, it's this one: answering the question "What's your favorite design?" with an answer like "The simple paper clip." Or the rubber band. Or the stop sign. Or the Post-It Note. Or any other humble, unauthored object from everyday life.

To me, this is like answering the question "What's your favorite song?" with "You know, is there any song as beautiful as the laughter of a child?" It's corny. It's lazy. It's a cop-out.

I do admit, it's a tempting cop-out. We've all done it at one time or another. In the New York Times Magazine's design issue five years ago, they put the question to a bunch of well-known people, some designers, some not. A few people named objects that were actually designed, although, oddly, the designer was not always named: the Pie Watch (named by Leon Wieseltier, not credited to M&Co.), the Braun Travel Alarm Clock (named by Martha Stewart, not credited to Dieter Rams,). And, okay, even I myself went on the record for the Beatles's "White Album" without crediting Richard Hamilton.

But more frequent were the hymns to those damned anonymous objects, sometimes industrial in origin like the Sylvania half-frosted light bulb (chosen by Richard Gluckman), or sometimes humble like chopsticks (chosen by Frogdesign's Hartmut Esslinger). Or how about...beads? That's right, just beads. "Beads focus and concentrate esthetic attention," we learned from Nest's Joseph Holtzman. "One becomes supremely aware of color, shape and especially surface."

Ah, the humble bead! On some level, I do see why designers in particular like to dodge this question. On one hand, you can be honest, select as your favorite something that you yourself designed, and look like an egomaniac, which you probably are. The alternative is to pick something someone else designed, and thus give aid and comfort to a competitor. Tough choice. Wait, how about...the humble white t-shirt, designed by absolutely no one? Perfect!

The white t-shirt and 121 other objects are on currently on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art, in an exhibition that will either be the last word on the subject or start a new orgy of paper clip fetishization. "Humble Masterpieces," on view through September 27th, was organized by the first-rate curator (and unrepentant Post-It Note fan) Paola Antonelli, and includes the Bic Pen, the whisk broom, the tennis ball, and bubble wrap. "Although modest in size and price, "Antonelli observes, "some of these objects are true masterpieces of the art of design and deserving of our admiration." And now, thanks to MoMA, so are many of their designers: Antonelli and her staff have diligently researched the names of the creators of these seemingly authorless objects. So we learn that Scotch tape was - what, designed? invented? discovered? - in 1930 by Richard G. Drew (American, 1886-1956). And it's all sparked a lively discussion on the Speak Up website where people are posting their own nominations.

Antonelli points out that MoMA's commitment to finding the sublime in the everyday has a long history. The museum's landmark "Machine Art" show in 1934 exhibited industrial objects like springs and ball bearings. The undeniable beauty of these objects must have been a revelation to audiences used to Victoriana and ersatz Streamline. The intention, I think, was to create a bracing demonstration of how form following function could lead to enduring, honest solutions, unencumbered by the fussy hand of the stylist. But what is the effect on the 21st-Century museumgoer who is confronted with a display of Legos, Slinkys, soy sauce dispensers and M&Ms? I wonder.

At any rate, now that MoMA's put its imprimatur on the whole idea, perhaps we can finally move on. All these things have now gotten their rightful due, and it's time to turn our attention to other worthy subjects. So if one of these days you're challenged to come up with your own favorite design and you just can't come up with one, take the easy way out: just pick something designed by me.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Product Design

Comments [17]

Michael - Thank you for your refreshing sarcasm... no, really! I've always hated lists, and I've always hated articles which were nothing but lists; a.k.a. listicles. Compiling activity strikes me as more about comfort than anything else - no criticism or thought required. And like you, I view this recent MoMA exhibition with skepticism.

But look on the bright side, at least they're not doing a show on motorcycles.
M Kingsley

Just a side-note: the paperclip is hardly 'unauthored'. It's designed in 1899 by Johan Vaaler. I've seen it in quite a lot of exhibitions on Scandinavian design. It's only as humble as you want it to be.

Ah, the humble inventor of the humble paper clip! According to The Origin of Things: Sketches, Models, Prototypes, "there is another clip that bears closer similarities to the current papercip. It is the so-called 'Gem', which is anonymous and undated, but certainly older than Vaaler's patent." Writer Henry Petroski wrote about it in an article called "The Evolution of Artifacts" in the Sept/Oct issue of American Scientist. The Gem is a double loop, whereas Vaaler's clip was a single loop.

To further clarify things, MoMA attributes the (British) Gem design to (American) William Middlebrook.
Michael Bierut

It always seemed to me that people who answered the paper clip were just trying to be a smart ass and say some thing that others did not think of as designed. As if they had a higher concept of what design was. I think you'll stop hearing this answer when people stop wanting to sound smarter then other people, even if they don't succeed.
Stefan Hayden

I agree on the whole issue of "trying to be a smart ass" with Stefan, but I beg to differ on account of the stop sign. It had to be "designed" by someone, with its unique shape and special typographic quality...?
Also, in Israel (I'm not sure about other countries), stop signs have "hand" icons on them, unlike the American "STOP". It simply doesn't look as "humble" to me as, say, a paper clip (with every respect to said paper clip).
Meir Sadan

As long as Petroski has been mentioned, also check out his book "The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are." It is a definite must read for all industrial designers and for anyone interested in how culture shapes design. Who wouldn't want to read a book explaining the historical context and ramifications of the fork?

Regarding 'the humble inventor': there's a big statue (of a paperclip) in Oslo celebrating Vaaler.

Also, the paperclip used to be a symbol of resistance in Oslo during WW2.

I really don't see why a paper clip is regarded as 'non-design'; it's as much designed as Hamilton's White Album.

Richard Drew also "invented" masking tape, and has been immortalized in the second skin of the AIGA/LA website by Arlo Jamrog. : )
Tom Dolan

I have never been able to define my favourite anything--song, book, movie, design, person--and am always paralyzed when asked. Favouritism is so in-the-moment. "My god i love this pen!" "What a great chair!" "This is such a brilliant song!" ... and then it's gone. Any listmaking has always been fatally flawed by omissions--the worthy tarnished by the worthier. For me, I like to leave these things in the moments of happiness they bring me ... ready to be rediscovered the next time 'round.

BTW, i can't hear the word "paperclip" without hearing Andy Rooney's whiney drone, embarking on a litany of reasons why he hates the paperclip.
Oh my aching head...
marian bantjes

In one respect this smart-ass answer has always irritated me. I mean how often do you hear music critics and musicians name John Cage's 'four minutes, thirty-three seconds' in their top 10's? (OK, so I have seen it done, and usually sitting next to 'Metal Machine Music' *cringe).

But occasionally I do see some validity in these responses. Most of these articles appear in weekend newspaper supplements and other middle-of-the-brow publications. Is there anything that wrong with pointing out to a public mostly ignorant of the diversity and impact of design, that these simple objects were also at one point considered as much as their treasured iPods or PalmPilots?

On the other hand, when these lists are published in media targeted towards designers, you wonder why the responses aren't a little more considered.
Nic Hodges

The implication of the question is really "what's the best?" -- which is a modernist idea that appeals to designy types, the idea being that with a good set of criteria to a design problem you can whittle away at the form and come up with an ideal or universal soution.

A myth which Jan Tschicold rejected in his 1949 mea culpa, identifying the totalitarian affinity of such methodology.

It depends on the consciousness directed at the everyday, everywhere object. An aesthetic awareness, activated by the grandiose ecclesiatical vibe of a major public musem, will find the sublime; but a political awareness sees injustice and inhumanity.
To Hell with Helvetica.

nick shinn

The best design? me.
Thanks: God, mom , dad and the reproductive system.
(Taking the egotism a step further.)
ben weeks

For more fascinating information on the design of the simple paper clip...

Jerry Kuyper

this is really neither here not there, but i do remember in one of my design seminars with gordon salchow someone used the paperclip as an example of good design. it was dismissed because of the variety of ways it can be "improved" with the appication of rubber, paint or any other sort of performance enhancing devise.

i withhold judgement.
jay colvin

Henry Petroski's latest book, Small Things Considered, throws even more light on the stuff he already illuminated in the work already cited. Michael is dead on in labeling as "Temptation" the instinct to claim humble things as favorites. It irritates me too, and I too plead guilty, having once chosen the frisbee for a design show built on that temptation (Tibor chose the gadget shoe salesmen use to measure feet). But, as with cliches generally, many of these are rooted in what's genuine. Only with time do they take on reverse pretentiousness. In ID magazine's first year, the editors gave five dollars to each of five designers and charged them with assembling a good design show in 24 hours. Raymond Loewy picked a whisk broom, a lipstick, a golf ball, a ball of twine and a roll of Life Savers. Eliot Noyes also selected a golf ball and, for good measure, a tee. Paul Rand went for a ball of twine, a dentist's mirror, a jeweler's clamp. The most interesting and most wittily defended were Saul Steinberg's picks: a shop hat ("You always find good design in work things"), Confederate bills ("It amuses me to spend money to buy money"), and a Louisville Slugger baseball bat ("This is the best bat").
Ralph Caplan

Most simple things have a complex developmental history. Velcro was ten years from inspiration to market; post-its, an accidental side-effect of another invention.

Like the light bulb, paperclips have had many manifestations. The most prolific is not always an example of the best (except in nature), but often symptomatic of other considerations (economics, for example). It behooves graphic designers to read more and blog less, thus relieving the "golly-gee" tendency of the professionally myopic.

By the way, the foot-measuring instrument referred to is called a Brannock device, invented and still manufactured in Syracuse, N. Y.
david stairs

read neil gershenfeld's new publication FAB and we designers will not have to concern ourselves with minutiae. the mass market segment will be designing and producing their own products in "fab labs" in their own homes.
lorene gates spears

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