Lately, there's been some national discussion about shutting down the postal service.  5.5 billion dollars in the red as of this November, the USPS faces massive legacy costs, declining usage, and competition from private carriers like FedEx and UPS.  Both legislators and private bloviators think that the agency is a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy.  In keeping with the conservative desire to privatize everything (including wars), many argue that the private sector can deliver mail and packages faster and cheaper.  

I spent a lot of time in post offices this winter mailing packages for my Etsy store.  Anachronistic as this may seem, I also use the mail to pay some of my bills, send personal thank-you notes, and mail portfolios to certain firms.  The retail postal locations I have been to in Chicago have been terrible.  Just the other day, on a random Tuesday morning, the wait was over a half-hour for no reason other than understaffing.  Only two people were serving a counter that had six registers.  The transactions take awhile, because the computers look to be fifteen years old, and several of the debit-swipe stations were covered in tape, out-of-order.  Tape, in general, is a recurring theme all over, holding together countertops, cabinets, cubicles, and trashcans.  Light bulbs are out, floors filthy, carpets torn (and taped), and location after location is out of basics, like stamps and boxes.  

Abandoned post office, Mojave desert.  From Matthew High's photostream.  

No wonder the Postal Service is struggling,  Chronic profit problems have led to endemic cuts, which have led to understaffing and deferred maintenance, which has led to bad service, which has led to less business, and the cycle continues.  I would argue that the Postal Service doesn't need to be disbanded -- it needs a re-design.  The difference between a FedEx/Kinkos -- brightly lit, with bold graphics, clean floors, and bustling staff -- and a post office is stark.  

I faithfully use the mail because it is cheaper than FedEx or UPS.  It is also less hassle -- no forms to fill out, no extra charges for irregular packages, just put an address on and go.  If you really think about it, the whole endeavor is a minor miracle.  It is not the best business model -- but, for a fixed price, you can send a letter or package anywhere in this gigantic country!  If FedEx or UPS had to move to a fixed-price model, and deliver to every home in America, they would quickly run into profitability and reliability issues.  

Without the mail, wouldn't get sweet packages like this, from the inimitable Amos Kennedy.  
People seem to regard arguments in favor of the Post Office as some sort of anachronistic, old-man-ish defense of typewriters and collecting stamps and the taste of envelope adhesive fresh on the tongue, but really it is a defense of the civic institutions of America.
Small rural towns, like Greensboro, my former home, really need the mail.  Newspaper articles and talking heads routinely dismiss the mail by pointing out that everyone pays their bills online, and reads magazines on their iPad.  This is simply not true.  Broadband has not penetrated a lot of far-flung corners of our society.  None of my students at YouthBuild, in Greensboro, had a computer -- just phones.  Social security checks, media, communication, and packages all move through this lifeline.  

Greensboro, Alabama, post office.  From courthouselover's photostream.  
So, back to the re-design.  For starters, the Postal Office has a pretty killer logo already.  It is fast, patriotic, and reaches a beautiful, yet readable, level of abstraction.  However, they don't use this logo well.  Flat-rate boxes, postal trucks, and even postal uniforms could be bright and bold, covered with the bullet-nosed eagle head, wrapping the edges of the boxes and trucks.  Postal delivery cars, slab-sided tin boxes out of some eighties nightmare, could provide a national stimulus program by being replaced with a fleet of American-made plug-in hybrids.  Since most urban postal routes probably don't cover a huge amount of driving miles, these delivery cars might go the whole day purely on electric power, saving the environment and operating costs.  Updating the computer system would allow postal branches to integrate self-service kiosks -- a sort of mail ATM -- that would let customers perform a lot of services themselves, helping the Post Office reduce labor costs.    Introducing a bonus system might incentivize better service amongst employees.  Building out mini-branches -- the Starbucks model -- with self-service kiosks, limited window hours, and package drop-off, would make using the Postal Service much more convenient.  Simplifying rates -- fifty cents an ounce, flat, for everything, would make it easier to understand costs and streamline the checkout process.  

The Postal Service is more than a package delivery system.  It is an arm of our democracy. Design it better.  


Posted: Visualizing US expansion through post offices. from Derek Watkins on Vimeo.

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