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Oranges as Design Objects

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 21, 2012 10:06 AM

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Smithsonian magazine has just launched a great new blog, Design Decoded, by the writer Sarah C. Rich -- and Rich has started things off with an absolutely incredible history of the seedless mandarin orange. It might seem odd to write about a citrus fruit on a design blog. As Rich shows, though, the orange is one of the most deeply designed products in the world. It's "the iPhone of the produce aisle."

It's impossible to summarize Rich's account of the seedless orange here -- it stretches over seven blog posts. But oranges, she shows, have gone on a long journey. Today, they're specially bred to have easy-to-open, "unzippable" skins, and marketed to kids as a healthy snack. New varieties are given special, consumer-friendly names like "Cutie" and "Tango" ("agricultural scientists have found that the public prefers two-syllable words—something familiar, positive, and indicative of the fruit’s best traits"). Oranges have been an occasion for inventive graphic design; some of today's most forward-thinking citrus growers are even using unmanned drones to monitor the water consumption of the orange trees, with the aim of ensuring that all the oranges come out the same size, with perfectly smooth skins.

What does the future hold? Probably even more innovation, leading to even more perfectly designed oranges. "What would the produce aisle look like if every piece of citrus were palm-size, unblemished, and the same deep, glossy shade of carnelian?" Rich asks. "Or if we manipulated the spherical fruit into cubes for more space-efficient shipping?" Those might seem like crazy questions, but we might be only a few years away from finding out the answers. Much more at the Design Decoded blog.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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