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A Bold Vision for the Future of the Postage Stamp

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Of all the assumptions we make in this age of apps and startups, the biggest may be that the best way to create something great is to destroy what’s come before. Why fix something when you can, with a just a few rounds of VC, disrupt the heck out of it?

That’s a problem, says Sean Madden, the executive managing director at the design consultancy Ziba. “Where do we apply design right now? What problems are we going to solve?” he asks. “We’re interested in finding what sucks and fixing it. That’s different than just grabbing onto the next new thing.”

To that end, Madden tasked a design team with solving a problem hiding in plain sight. They hit upon one you might be looking at now, if you’re at your desk: The envelope or package that’s been sitting there for days because you don’t have something crucial to sending it. There are myriad reasons your packages sit around -- you don’t have the right postage, or an address. But those silent little to-dos merely serve as nagging reminders of how much other stuff you have to do.

In response, Madden’s team created Signet, a system that could radically overhaul how we use the US Postal Service. At its core, it is a digital stamp and an app. If you want to send a parcel, you’d simply stamp it with a device that uses a laser to etch it with your name and a unique identifying pattern. After that, the USPS would pick up your package; from there, the app would prompt you to provide the name of the person you’re trying to reach. Don’t know their address? No problem: You could provide it in the app, or the service would ping the recipient on their phone, requesting info about to send the package—or defaulting to any address they might already have listed in the app. Once the addressee is entered and the package arrives at a sorting center, it’s re-stamped with the addressee’s name and another unique identifying pattern.

This sounds simple, but introduces a number of changes to the whole shipping process: At no point does one piece of information prevent the shipping process from beginning. If you want to ship sometime, you simply stamp it and drop it off anywhere. What’s more, shipping a physical package becomes less about knowing the address beforehand, and simply about knowing who it is you want to reach. The whole point, according Madden, is to eliminate something called a dependency: Where sending a package once depended on knowing a slew of information, with Signet, you only need to know a name. As Madden says, “I’m convincing that you can’t have innovation without removing a dependency somewhere.”

Flipping the Question on Its Head

When Martin Cooper invented the cellphone at Motorola in 1971, his idea began with the simple insight that telephones were attached to places. They were rooted at a home or desk, for example—and it was simply by coincidence or mutual agreement that the right person was at that location when the call was placed. The cellphone was meant to make telephones about reaching people, not places.

That insight was one inspiration behind Signet. And the Ziba team realized that the USPS is uniquely situated to be an arbiter of contact information. It already does that, it just doesn’t go about it in the right way. “We kind of always assumed that the USPS was dying. But it turns out they do $65 billion in revenue a year, shipping 160 billion pieces of mail,” says Noah DiJulio, an interaction designer on the project. “But what hasn’t changed is that the process hasn’t taken cues from how devices have let us master other areas of our lives.”

That said, the design itself was taken from older cues about the objects around us. The etching device was designed to be made of wood and brass, two materials that gain a warm patina with use. The spirograph-like mark it produces alludes to the guilloche patterns used in money and stock certificates—a functional way of creating subtle variations that distinguish one stamp from another, but also a semiotic way of alluding to security and safety.

While the functions seem futuristic, the beauty of the idea, Madden insists, is how it simply relies on infrastructure that already exists. The USPS already has mail carriers and stations. Its operations already are highly automated. The most tangible change would replacing physical stamps with these unique, etched identifiers that would help dynamically route a package. Otherwise, a piece of mail flows through the system just as it always did. The main difference is that the transaction is broken up, and made transparent at each step along the way. It is the next iteration of the package tracking that already exists via UPS or FedEx.

According to Madden, “Already having the infrastructure to drive such a change is far more realistic than any startup trying to think about what happens between my porch and your porch.”

--- Cliff Kuang, Wired

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