New York City goes through a billion gallons of water a day, transported 125 miles from upstate reservoirs to city dwellers. But getting water is the easy part. Once we turn off the faucet or flush the toilet, just as much water must be treated by NYC’s 14 wastewater plants every single day.
Even on this scale—and maybe, especially on this scale—every drop counts. The New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) developed an expansive list of guidelines for engineers, architects, and plumbers to share best practices in efficient water use (and wastewater management). But how could they share this massive amount of information in a way that people would actually read? The DDC tapped Pentagram to create Water Matters: A Design Manual for Water Conservation in Buildings.
"In our first meeting with the DDC we listened intently to all the engineering consultants in the room. That’s a tricky thing do if they are talking about dry urinals," design lead Eddie Opara tells Co.Design. "The DDC initially wanted the book to be an 80-page spiral-bound document. After that meeting we knew it had to be a bible."
Indeed, the final product is a tome of water management that took three years to complete, but rather than presenting the information as an ugly wall of text, it’s full of colorful, eye-addictive diagrams—gorgeous pipe workflows reminiscent of tube map chic—that are even peppered with the occasional joke. "I often find the book of this nature cold and devoid of personality to want to even pick it up," writes Opara. "We chose the diagrams as an accessible entry point into the book’s reams of data. The DDC allowed us to superimpose ourselves into key diagrams, to add a sense of reality and add a degree of humor; one designer is on the toilet, another in the shower, washing their hands, washing their car, and also taking a pee."
In doing so, Pentagram used design, not the confines of topic or format, to dictate tone. What could have been "banal information" became "lively." What I should be yawning at, I’m jonesing to flip through.
Water Matters isn’t just a waste-management textbook; it’s a beautiful waste-management textbook that’s not afraid of a bit of toilet humor. And those two points make all the difference.