Drinkable Book combines sanitation manual
and filters for contaminated water


A team of American scientists and designers have collaborated to create the drinkable book, using a combination of typography, nanotechnology and specially-designed filter paper.

Launched by communications group DDB New York for charity WaterisLife, the Drinkable Book is a sanitation manual with pages that double as water filters. It was created by researchers from American institutions Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Virginia.

The book's pages contain unique technology, invented by chemist Dr Theresa Dankovich, which can help decrease the bacteria count of contaminated drinking water by more than 99.9 percent.

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New-York-based typographer Brian Gartside was brought on board to help shape the book's aesthetic.

"At the moment, this is by far the most exciting project I'm working on," he told Dezeen. "The process of designing the book itself was unlike anything I've done before, simply because of all the variables that were beyond our control."

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Historically, WaterisLife faced serious challenges when it came to providing both clean water and useful information about sanitation to communities in need, but The Drinkable Book appears to tackle both issues simultaneously.

Each page gives 60 days of safe drinking water, while an entire book can provide up to four year's worth.

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A single page can be broken into two 4.5 by 4.5-inch filters; the top one is printed with hygiene information in English, while the bottom is translated into the relevant local language. Up to now, they have printed a run of books destined for Kenya, which are written in English and Swahili.

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"The end goal would be to produce books/filters for each of the 33 countries that WaterisLife works in, but we had to start somewhere," Gartside said.

Choosing the final ink to print with required special consideration, as many contain chemicals that could be harmful when ingested.

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"Most commercial printing inks are either petroleum or rubber based, and contain nasty chemicals that you really wouldn't want to ingest," said Gartside. "Even modern soy based inks are often only 20-percent soy, and aren't something we'd want people drinking," he said.

The ability of each page to convey a clear and succinct message was very important, which meant a simple and restrained type strategy was needed.

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"It was my first time typesetting in Swahili, which was a bit of a challenge," he said. "A lot of words in Swahili tend to be really long, so getting decent typeset pages took a bit of doing." A 3D printer was used to create filtration trays, which proved to be a "huge hurdle" for Gartside and his team.

"Fortunately for us, we had a great ally in Peter X Ksiezopolski at xweet, who helped us translate our vision of an all-in-one filter container into printable files," Gartside said.

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Jamie Mahoney, Director at Virginia Commonwealth University's Bowe House Press, also played an important role in securing the food-grade ink use at the printing stage.

Gartside's team now faces the task of scaling up production to commercial level. "Right now we're making as many books as we can, but at the moment the sheets are being treated by hand, which limits our, capacity," he told Dezeen.

"We're hoping that the launch of this project can be used to raise funds for mass production, both of the book, as well as the filters themselves," Gartside said. "We'd like to be able to translate it and get this book into the hands of people in all of those places — At that point, the impact could be massive."

  • Oyster

    Great idea, but where do they put the tons of used filter papers that contain all the chemicals and bacteria? In the river?

    • Sue_DeNimm

      Well part of the book is education to move their trash away from the source of water to prevent contamination. So hopefully not!

  • Dylan

    Out of common sense I think that they should be made from white paper as it would be a lot easier to see the contaminated water come through if you have used one too much, or if they get dirty before usage.

    Also, it would surely be a lot cheaper to have not bothered with the aesthetic design at all (except for the text). I am uncertain as to why a basic survival aid would need the level of aesthetic design that has gone into this – I mean I don’t think they should look horrible, just that if they are struggling with funding surely the book should be made from the most basic undercoated materials to try to keep the cost to a minimum.

    I’m certain that putting the water filters re-sealing plastic bags would surely be cheaper and better overall as it would get rid of the whole book spine and the metal pins to hold the filters to the book, whilst keeping the filters in the dry and clean inside the bag, plus it would mean that the bits of filter underneath the pins isn’t wasted.

    Overall it is a good concept nonetheless.

    • Sue_DeNimm

      The silver nitrate turns the page orange, so the colour is going to be orange if it’s going to work.

  • Jason Lorde

    This is the most infuriating aspect of design and media today: the fetishisation of aid as art and concept. It is very patronising and sad. The purpose is not really aid, the production of this book is too expensive.

    It is really to be shown in museums, blogs, and coffee tables to make designers heart warm. Building real water filtration is not as sexy as a book, but what everyone deserves.

    Imagine if you needed a book(s) to filter your water. This is similar to the project teaching a homeless man to code.

    • Sue_DeNimm

      I do and I don’t agree here. I think the intention is to get people to sponsor them and people seem to prefer to sponsor an actual item than a percentage of something for a village. So while I agree in some ways, if they are right (human nature being what it is I wouldn’t bet against them) they may be able to help more people by doing this than not.

  • John

    Middle class guilt trash.

  • DesignUtopia

    I got to try this recently. It does not work.

    The innovation is the paper, which theoretically could do what it says, but the book form and function is totally at odds with the shape required to filter water. For example, the water passed around the paper and went into the tray below – nothing securely held it in place. As the tray is rectangular, it is very hard to decant without spilling.

    • Sue_DeNimm

      I did think it looked rather useless in that regard. Still, the technology is a good first step and hopefully they will work on the practical design a bit more shortly. This can’t be an insurmountable problem!