September 2008


What options or obligations does the built environment present? Do the presence of stairs obligate a building’s users to use them instead of an energy-sucking elevator? How do we make obvious the ‘correct’ choice—how do we shape users’ actions? Older buildings have vast, sweeping, sun-lit staircases that see heavy use. The contemporary buildings I’ve lived in make it clear that they see stairwells as anachronism, a legal oddity, something to be built for evacuation purposes. The form and style of stairs reflect this; I spent the better part of a year shuttling up and down a poured-concrete stairwell with fluorescent lighting, hidden behind evacuation doors in the core of the building.

Despite the building’s opinion that stairs were outmoded, and that the door to the stairs was directly across from the elevator, the elevator saw little use. It was too slow. Is there value in purposefully handicapping technology so as to encourage the use of low-energy low-tech?

Most of the objects we use today are packaged, and the packaging isn’t networked or electronic. It doesn’t have to be: For one, augmenting the packaging with technology gets expensive quickly, especially as you work with economies of scale. And interaction with these objects has always been successfully mediated by the end user: We visually examine seals to determine if the package has been opened or damaged, read labels to see when they were shipped. In the case of technology, the advancements have been in passive computer-readable technology, like barcodes.

At one end of the spectrum are methods for temporarily and passively annotating objects in order that we may better use them. Jan Chipchase writes about a café that serves tea with a sticker advising that the user allow the tea to brew for two minutes.  But the sticker is passive: We are left to time brewing on our own. It also expires: There’s no reason to see the information after two minutes have passed. Indeed, its temporariness likely calls attention to it.

Then: non-temporary passive annotation (like “Caution, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot”). Small signs, in other words, but signs that don’t expire.

A step above this is active analog annotation. Coors, the brewing company, introduced a can that turns blue when properly chilled, finally relieving Coors lovers of the fear of warm beer. (Although, if you’re drinking Coors, are you really a beer connoisseur? Technology as marketing gimmick.) A more important application is shipping damage indicators: Slap it on a box and see if the box was tipped, shocked, dropped, heated, frozen, or exposed to adverse amounts of humidity. Are shipping employees more careful with packages if they know they’re being monitored? Or is this just expensive peace-of-mind? These indicators, like the Coors can, depend on physical or chemical technology, but the technology is still analog.

So next comes active digital annotation. High quality wine bottles are being shipped with miniature digital thermometers to see if they are exposed to high temperatures during shipping. The information can even be uploaded to a spreadsheet, to show when the exposure occurred. A sufficiently valuable product can absorb the cost of more expensive packaging, especially if that packaging is related to its quality. In a way, this makes perfect sense: Why trust the supply chain when you can monitor them, especially if you’re paying upwards of $100 for a bottle of wine?

[tea sticker via Future Perfect, wine thermometers via Gizmodo]

Urinals in the men’s bathroom at the recently renovated Art & Architecture Building. The urinals are water-free urinals. There’s no need for consumer re-education here, because the urinals function in the same way as regular urinals (and men were long ago re-educated to use urinals that could automatically flush).

But there is an opportunity for general consumer education: Regular urinals can use up to one gallon of water per flush; water-free urinals use no water at all. The benefits of waterless urinals can be imparted to their users: Paco Underhill advised that people perceive wait times to be shorter than they actually are if they have something to read. (In the past, advertisers trying to apply his axiom to urinals have been the target of Adbusters-sponsored “Aim Higher” campaigns.) This is the first waterless urinal I’ve used, and I had to content myself with reading the company’s name and URL off of the inside of the urinal. (Is that really where you want to put your brand name?)

These urinals also had the urinal fly—you can see it just to the right of the SLOAN name, above—a target meant to reduce, um, spattering. The weird thing about the urinal fly is that I noticed it after I had been unconsciously aiming at it.


This modification of the built environment is temporally based. The art is only “complete” for a certain amount of time each day, and then only if the sun is sufficiently strong. But this is more than just a clever manipulation of space and time: By tying itself to the cycles of the sun, the piece forces us to recognize the rhythms so often absent from an always-on world.

The method it uses is also clever: An instantly recognizable character from the pop culture zeitgeist. What benefit exists in forcing the consumer or end user to think? Figuring something out requires mental energy, therefore investment, thereby creating some sort of tie to an object or brand.

The other cleverness to this is that this meme can be modified and passed on. Is this the start of a grand art collection of Mayan-style shadow-art, spreading slowly across the streets and sidewalks of the world?

[flickr via Neatorama via Gawker. Thanks, Mom!]

Spotted on a brand new Boeing 737. Smoking has been outlawed on planes for how long? The signs and pictograms aren’t strange, but the ashtray is. The plane is a hermetically sealed environment, both literally and legally. An ashtray is present even though no one will ever smoke here.
Does the presence of the ashtray encode or incorporate into the built environment the very behavior that is officially prohibited? How do we reconcile occasions when signs and features of the built environment send different messages?

Possible explanations: FAA regulations require no smoking signs and ashtrays; airlines are interested in maintaining the resale value of their planes to international carriers, some of whom may not have anti-smoking rules; or that a change in regulations is no reason to change how Boeing makes the doors.

One sign calls attention to the law: The other explains the consequences.

The art of endcaps, again.

What on earth would we do if some company (Rubbermaid?) didn’t periodically re-design our trash cans? Never mind that the new cans and old cans operate in exactly the same way even as they perform the same function. 

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