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The Globe and Mail

I designed the Canada Post community mailbox, but send your hate mail elsewhere

Ross J. Slade is a semi-retired Canadian design consultant based in Umbria, Italy.

I designed the Canada Post community mailbox 34 years ago. Since that day, my creation has been maligned.

Over the years, I have watched in horror as the box I designed with only the best intentions has been horribly mismanaged in its growth. The boxes that are now plaguing Canadian communities were never meant to multiply like mushrooms – they were designed for a maximum of three units at any one site. Decision-makers removed the rigid base that provided reasonable access, unit protection has been removed, and they have been placed on the ground – seemingly thrown from trucks. They have created walls of them. And now, insult to injury, they have replaced them with a U.S.-sourced unit that has corporation graphics applied to it.

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Back in 1981, a task group at Canada Post was formed to solve the growing problem of delivering to new and suburban communities. Letter-carrier service was no longer financially viable: anything but a very densely populated area doesn't have enough households to justify the expense. As new communities were created, a more cost-efficient delivery system was needed. That is where I came in, as the sole industrial designer at the corporation.

Given our weather conditions, a box designed for Canadian needs would have to be developed. The security of mail and the safety of these proposed mailboxes in wintery conditions were other important factors influencing the design.

The hardware was on legs with a clear area underneath, so snow from passing plows would clear passage under the units and not build up against the front. It also meant dodgy individuals could not hide behind them.

Issues arose during the full implementation of these mass produced units in the initial four communities. Some marketing type, without consultation, renamed the new thing the SuperMailBox. Talk about asking for trouble.

My intention was that the brown colour and a raw aluminium front that the boxes would blend into the environment - the raw aluminium protecting itself and going a dull grey with age. Unfortunately the Quebec manufacturer was precluded by law from sandblasting the finish of the raw casting as specified and used steel shot instead - so the initial models rusted.

The box I had spent more than four years developing was by then considered important enough to involve an engineer. I was less than happy. The engineer's solution, without consultation, was a hurried application of a special 3M coating to protect it rather than find an alternate blasting material for the desired effect, the front of the box was doubled in price overnight. Design thwarted by terrible execution would be an ongoing theme.

I left the corporation in 1986, having enjoyed one of the best jobs I ever had. I set up my own design company in Ottawa and was successful at that. I retired here to Umbria, Italy, in 2005.

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I do not mean to sound bitter: Mismanagement happens all the time to a designer's initial product. One hopes that a product is improved over the years, and that has not happened in this case.

To consider that some people are forced to use barbecue tongs to aid in the retrieval of post – how else to get letters that are stuck at the back of the tiny, narrow space – is beyond laughable. The headaches caused by these poorly designed and executed mailboxes are an insult to the designer – and a major humiliation to the present decision makers at Canada Post.

As the designer of a functional unit created for the Canadian public, I need you, reader, to know that this is not the fault of the original design, but the travesty of decisions to implement a foreign product that was not made for the Canadian climate and needs. It will merely continue as a reminder of postal failure.

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