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I ❤️ Reinventing NY: Reid Schlegel’s Hot Dog Cart

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redesigning the iconic NYC hot dog cart

Industrial Designer Reid Schlegel grew up thinking, “If something’s broken, I’ll just go figure out how to fix it.” In particular, he gets “excited about about things that really have never had attention been given to them.” Lucky for him, the world is full of poorly designed things. Someof these things live in plain site among us in public spaces. We pass by them every day without thinking twice about how they came to be — much less think about how they might be made better. But designers like Reid can’t help but think about them. After seeing (and, I presume, eating at) countless New York hot dog carts, Reid decided to come up with a radical new redesign.

Inspiration from Two Top Design Firms

The inspiration for this project came from similar public design challenges. While working at NY-based firm Smart Design, he learned about their contribution to the fabled NYC Taxi of Tomorrow, an attempt to revive and modernize the flagging, disjointed fleets of NYC taxis that fan out across the boroughs but no longer have a singular “yellow cab” look. The firm helped Nissan come up with ideas for a minivan that was strong on functionality, with more legroom, charging ports, and (a first for any NYC taxi) rear-seat airbags.

It’s your job as a designer to exhaustively think through every way you could actually solve something.

But going beyond design concept and into production isn’t always the end result of this kind of well-meaning design rehab. Even though the mayor at the time — Mike Bloomberg at the height of his redevelopment powers — set up the taxi redesign competition to encourage innovation in design, and even though nearly everyone in theory agreed that a redesign was necessary and smart, big design ideas like this still have to struggle through countless committees, bureaucratic roadblocks, and even court challenges. But this one did. It actually rolled off assembly lines and is being piloted today by real-life cabbies. Score one for public interest design.

payphone and taxi of tomorrow
The “Taxi of Tomorrow” lives today, but the payphone of the future is still just a concept.

After moving to legendary Frog Design, Reid learned that they, too, had participated in a NYC redesign project. Also a challenge issued by Mayor Bloomberg, top design firms competed to deliver a next-gen public payphone. It won Best Visual Design in that contest for an entry called Beacon. It’s a sleek, 12-foot-tall tower that provides tons of information and a touchless screen that responds to voices and even gestures — but it also includes advertising to pay for it all. Advertising is always a slippery slope for projects that are rooted in the public domain, and pay phones are hard to justify as a city-wide investment when nearly everyone is already carrying around a smartphone as powerful as a computer in their pocket. It’s perhaps not surprising that the NYC payphone hasn’t happened in real life (yet — it still could), but digital kiosks like this seem a form factor that will thrive in public spaces.

Inspired by the work of both of those agencies, Reid had been banging around the idea of redoing the humble NYC hot dog cart, a long neglected symbol of New York’s massive and bustling street culture. We teamed up with Reid to help realize this ambition to reimagine the humble New York City Hot Dog Cart, and the end result is beautiful.

NYC hot dog cart reimagined
This cart may not be real yet, but it sure looks like it fits in the NYC landscape.

The work started by hitting the streets to do some design research, and that means talking to people. Lots of them. “I would just go out and talk to people as they were buying hot dogs or talk to people who are actually selling them, and this is something that I think gave me a lot of insight into what the paint points are.”

The huge advantage of it over actual physical sketching on paper is that everything is contained in one little object. I can basically throw it in my backpack, and I can bring my entire design studio with me.

As he worked his way through collecting all this research data, one big thing stood out about hot dog carts: They’re a mess when it comes to signage. He wanted to make it not just “easier to use, a better customer experience, a better vendor experience” but a more holistic thing. He could see that a typical food cart ended up disorganized over time as vendors adapted them to fit needs for which the carts were never really designed. “Okay now we’re going to slap this thing on, now we’re going to put this on it, then we’re going to put this on it, and it looks like one giant band aid after band aid.”

Ideation Starts with (a Zillion) Sketches

After research comes ideation. “It’s your job as a designer to exhaustively think through every way you could actually solve something,” says Reid. He’s a marker guy, so he starts ideating on paper with markers, roughing out ideas quickly and mercilessly. The goal is to explore as many ideas as possible. For concept development he moves to SketchBook, where he can use the power of layers to flesh out the themes he’s uncovering. “The huge advantage of it over actual physical sketching on paper is that everything is contained in one little object. I can basically throw it in my backpack, and I can bring my entire design studio with me.” He layers on refinements, tries out different coloring schemes, and takes notes — always lots of notes.

NYC hot dog cart design concepts
Reid narrowed down his ideas to three themed options.

Reid settled on three designs as he sketched deep into the details:

  • Concept 1, called Central Park, is focused on the food. It’s the central element that brings people in, so it’s all about putting the vittles on display.
  • Concept 2 is Bushwick, which leans heavily on usability for the vendor and the artwork displayed on the cart. With this design, the vendor can readjust or “fold out” the cart to create a more sheltered space. The signage takes center stage in this one, with large panels of artwork that could conceivably be used to give each cart a distinct, neighborhood personality.
  • He dubs Concept 3 Times Square which is focused on safety details and relies heavily on rounded edges to prevent accidents. Any industrially produced object that’s going to live in the public sphere has to be rock solid when it comes to safety. Vendor carts can be regulated by city, state, and even federal safety guidelines, and of course all of them need to be considered.
NYC hot dog cart redesigned
Like most industrial design, Reid’s process goes through multiple apps and multiple stages. His gift is that his skills can straddle all the stages.

From 2D to 3D to 3D Print

Then, Reid does something that starts to bring his 2D idea into the real world. He creates CAD-based 3D designs. “I used Fusion 360 to put this idea onto digital paper and actually start thinking about it from every single angle,” he says. “And that’s where I had to really start thinking about the height of the person, where the actual customer goes, how does the umbrella move. That’s the kind of stuff that starts taking an idea that was a sketch and starts making it something real.” Popping out a 2D drawing into a 3D object like this literally lets him see things from a new perspective.

Then, Reid does something that many designers don’t do yet but will be doing more and more as the future unfolds. He goes virtual. Reid places his CAD model into a virtual space and, using a VR headset, walks around and examines it from every angle. Up close, far away, and of course from inside — from the viewpoint of the person who will be inhabiting this cart for hours and days (dear lord, possibly even years). Immediately, Reid notices one important detail. “My grill feels tiny.” Once again, perspective matters. VR adds lots of new ways to look at design models.

Every single time I draw something I make sure there is at least one element that is completely new and that I’ve never done before. If you’re repeating the same stuff over and over again, you’re never going to improve.

It’s tempting to go further and create a miniature scale model of your work, and even that has changed in the past few years. In the past, you might need to hire someone who specializes in sculpting real-world models to have something to bring to show a client as part of a dramatic unveiling. No more. Reid uses a 3D printer in his apartment to make a scale model of the cart — right alongside a miniature 3D vendor guy — to see exactly how it will all look when put together.

The Whole Package? Delicious.

It really goes to show just how much has changed in the design process in just the last few years — and how quickly the design process continues to evolve. Of course, all of the CAD, VR, 3D, and other acronym-heavy technologies still rest on a few important pillars. You have to do effective, thorough research that thoroughly tests all of your assumptions. And you have to draw lots of models. As many as you need, which might be way more than you ever expected. As Reid notes, “Every single time I draw something I make sure there is at least one element that is completely new and that I’ve never done before. If you’re repeating the same stuff over and over again, you’re never going to improve.” Following a solid process like this really shows in the final product. It’s a sharp take and a breath of fresh air for something that in hindsight desperately needed a fresh look. It’s strong and inviting, with plenty of character, and it’s got pizazz. It fits New York City.

Keep Up with Reid

Reid documents some of his ongoing projects on his Behance profile, and you can find him on Instagram if that’s your thing. Even better, head over to his YouTube channel and check out his wonderful Sketching Basics videos.