Jessica Helfand’s Reinventing the Wheel is my favorite kind of design book: one part lookie-L@@K-pritty-pictures, the other part explaining what it all means. The book is about information wheels — alternatively called wheel charts, wheel calculators, or volvelles.
Readers my age might remember the circular BAC (blood alcohol content) calculators distributed every three months or so in junior high and high school…spin the wheel to your weight and a certain number of drinks and it calculated how drunk you were. Fat lot of good that did me; I could have done with something a little more useful such as a wheel calculator that determined your attractiveness to girls based on GPA and where your mom bought your clothes (“3.9 and K-Mart? Not looking good…”).
The BAC and Unfashionable Teen Boy calculators aren’t featured in the book, but many other wheels are, including several from the 30s and 40s. My favorites are the Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer (for its complexity), the DeKalb Hybrids “What Your Corn Can Do to Help Win the War” wheel, the Wonder Bread Guide to U.S. Warships, the U.S. Navy Semaphore Signaling Guide (this one is really ingenious), and the colorful hand-made “Cercle Chromatique”, and the surreal Puzzle Pets Letter Wheels.
Helfand has done a really nice job with this fun book. Definitely recommended.
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