November 2008


Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport, early morning.

A trip to another country or region has the power to dig into assumptions and provoke questions about how we choose to structure our lives. Why do our buildings look this way instead of that? How can the alien swap places with the banal, and so quickly? What elements go into forming the complicated, bubbling stew that is our daily existence? The differences are found in the minutiae (power outlets, laundry procedures, elevators) and the substance (city planning, legal codes, methods of communication) of our lives.

This Material World was in Paris visiting friends this last week, a trip that included ample time for on-the-ground research. Paris is a city rich in history and culture, and its information architecture is just as interesting to examine as the architecture of its monuments and museums. Over the next two weeks or so, I’ll be compiling my photos and notes into full-fledged posts, on everything from the Paris Metro to constrained-choice systems. After exhausting the Paris material, the blog (and custom header) will return to its usual more inclusive (American) lens.

A modified version of this post will be retained as an indexed page on this blog, and will include a list of links to Paris-specific posts.

And looking, frankly, a little ridiculous.

The ways in which we organize our world; the physical manifestations of mental/metaphorical/social organizational schemes. The balancing act between temporary and permanent.

Never miss a chance to rep your brand: Peeking out of the right column is the logo for the Port of Seattle. (A logo, interestingly enough, that was retired in October. Have they replaced the ribbons between the stanchions? Freshness, and the message sent by being up-to-date.)

This modification of fence sheeting is clever because it (a) anticipates a problem, (b) recognizes human needs, and (c) responds with restraint. It’s so simple as to inspire awe: Of course people might crash into each other, of course they will want to be able to see around the corner to prevent that, and of course only one perspective matters.


This hack reminds me of forced-perspective parking garage signage. The signage is perfectly readable only when you need to read it, and disappears as soon as you no longer need it. (Axel Peemöller was the artist for the project.) In other words, instead of looking at plan and perspective drawings of our buildings, I think we should consider them in human-scale four-dimensional terms. The space should change as we move through it. This isn’t a new idea—human circulation engineers talk about altering ceiling height or lighting to subtly inform wayfinding decisions—but the level of detail in these two specific cases is incredible. There is a fineness to them, a smoothness, that comes with correctly anticipating human wants or needs. And isn’t that what we want our spaces to do?

Hidden, at least, until you need it. These outlets are designed to blend into their surroundings by exploiting architectural blind spots: They are low to the ground, unobtrusive in color, and, most importantly, blend into the vertical line of the single tree and horizontal line established between the trees.

More than this, we are taught not to notice infrastructure, to ignore outlets and pipes. We are taught to experience spaces as humans, not as electrons or water molecules. We must learn to see buildings infrastructurally.

Of course, outlets can also hide under things, like bushes or overhangs. The surroundings of the outlet are less important than its proximity to expected needs.

(This post, drafted waaay back in August, also represents This Material World’s first brush with the law: A UVillage security guard stopped me to ask what I was taking pictures of (“Um, the outlets.”). Fortunately, he was also an architecture major at the University of Washington.)

A stroller with attached umbrella. What does this say about the parent? What does it say to other parents? Are you a bad patent, especially in Seattle, if you don’t have an on-stroller umbrella?

Stroller as accessory development platform. Cup holders, diaper bags, etc. Exaptation. To what extent do we expect products we purchase to be adaptable/expandable?

Another instance of umbrellas.

Auto-stickers; auto-mythmaking. Establishing a local identity, forcing the built environment to see us.

Does Vashon Island even have an airport?

(Answer: Yes, although the FAA identifier is 2S1, and not VSH, which doesn’t quite have the same punch to it. Smaller airports serving general aviation (i.e. non-commercial flights and small planes) tend to have number-letter-number FAA codes, because there aren’t enough location-based letter codes to go around. How do we code empire into our basic systems and protocol?)

(Also: Pilots planning flights to 2S1 should be aware that there are OCNL LARGE WILD ANIMALS ON ARPT. Oh, rural Washington.)

Or: Scenes from CPR Training.

Is it like looking in a mirror?

A hairless, rubbery mirror?

Training, simulation, constructive play. A world without consequences.

The willing suspension of disbelief. (Even mannequins wear socks.) 

How do we enter such worlds? How do we think about them?

How do we regard ourselves and our actions? As real, or just another simulation?

The absurd, quietly manifested in objects-not-in-use.

The dream of every little boy and girl: Their very own Hands-free Ear Light.

Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, or MAYA, is a design axiom meant to capture consumer preference for the familiar. New designs should look new, fresh, like the future incarnate, but shouldn’t be so alien that consumers can’t imagine themselves using one. Hands-free flashlights have been around for decades—think miners’ headlamps—but the Hands-free Ear Light capitalizes on the design, orientation, and use of bluetooth headsets. Why? Because headlamps, while old, weren’t something you’d wear on your ear.

Exaptation, cross-pollination, variables and constants. The magic of cheap labor and economies of scale.

Why this is being sold next to vitaminwater is anyone’s guess.

(Notice also the aisle information sign in the background. Why the cutting trapezoidal shape? A designer’s best guess, or market research at work? I’m guessing the former, but would really like to see a video of the focus group behind the latter. “The rectangle’s just normal, I guess. Trapezoids make me feel kind of cutting-edge.” And on that wisdom, we remodel our worlds.)

Selling ideas, selling concepts: The product is secondary to the ideal, the image, the lifestyle.

The verbal talismans we brandish to keep our monsters away. The useful gnomes we invoke to justify our actions.



Ad hoc solutions.

Using The Wrong Story to pull the curtain back a little; delving into irregularities to more fully illustrate reality. Aggregate data, specific conclusions. The essential story so often hidden where we least expect it.

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