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The wonderfully erudite Colin Bisset often explores the design of common place objects and here is his offering on the Post-It :

“It’s virtually impossible to imagine the contemporary office without at least a few sticky Post-It notes stuck on the computer monitor.

The Post-It note has injected its sunny yellow colour into the dullest office environment for over 30 years and would appear at first glance to be an item with a clear design brief. It was, in fact, the result of a happy accident.

In 1968 a chemist called Dr Spencer Silver, working for the American 3M company, was developing adhesives that were strong enough to hold two materials together without it being a permanent adhesion. Calling himself a ‘molecular architect’ he was looking for something called ‘peel adhesion’, which basically meant an adhesive that had mobility, the ability to be re-used.

Constituted from tiny individual spheres of glue (a word that Silver disliked due to its clumsy connotation of boiled-down animal bones), this new adhesive was reusable, maintaining its stickiness no matter how many times papers applied with it were attached and re-attached. No one could quite see how this might be useful, although the possible notion of using it in an aerosol can as a spray-on glue seemed a likely outcome. But Dr Silver was so taken with this new adhesive that he gave seminars about it throughout the company whenever possible—which is how Art Fry, a colleague at 3M who had worked on the development of sticky tape, came to remember it.

He was looking for an alternative to paper bookmarks for his Bible and the hymn book which he used while singing in a church choir. Ordinary paper bookmarks had the irritating habit of slipping out of place. Remembering Silver’s invention, he used a dab of the new adhesive on a piece of scrap paper and found it enabled a bookmark to remain safely attached to a page without causing any damage to the thin paper of a hymn book when it was removed.

Just large enough to write on, and in yellow paper because that’s the only colour that they had in stock, they became almost immediately ubiquitous, the brilliance of the item quickly spreading by word-of-mouth.

After experimenting with different densities of this new adhesive, his ‘eureka’ moment came when he stuck a note to a work colleague on the front of a report which was then taken off, written on and re-attached before being returned to Fry. The idea of using it as an office essential was quickly appreciated by those around him at 3M but customer research showed that the commercial world was not very interested in something that was solving a problem they didn’t appear to have noticed. 3M decided it was worth launching.

In 1977 they marketed it quietly in four American cities but it was received with a distinct lack of interest. Realising that people needed to actually experience it, they re-launched it in 1980, giving out samples this time.

Just large enough to write on, and in yellow paper because that’s the only colour that they had in stock, they became almost immediately ubiquitous, the brilliance of the item quickly spreading by word-of-mouth so that offices and homes around America became showcases for its many uses.

Even with the utopian vision of a paperless office, there will still lurk a single Post-It note, even when it’s only attached to the office fridge reminding people of the need to buy more milk. Endlessly copied and now available in different colours, shapes and sizes, the mark of 3M’s success lies in the fact that the name Post-It has remained the term commonly used for all sticky notes, in much the same way as Hoover became a by-word for all vacuum cleaners around the world including those not made by the Hoover company.

Of course a paperless Post-It note is now available, easily attached in the virtual world but nowhere near as much fun as the original mini-masterpiece and its astounding adhesive.”

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