Paris


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Another constrained-choice system: Poles in the sidewalk ensure that cars don’t turn on to the (very broad) Parisian sidewalks, while permitting bicycle, motorcycle, and pedestrian traffic to pass through. A kind of semi-permeable membrane for the four-wheeled set.

The poles are also a way of claiming turf and delineating space. They are also a handy way to notify pedestrians that they should expect auto traffic.

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McDonald’s, central Paris.

Be prepared to compromise. Le M is served alongside the McChicken.

The McDonald’s of Paris are always packed, possibly to an even greater extent than their American counterparts. Businesspeople, school kids, teenagers, fashionistas: They’re all here. Those who aren’t lured by McDo’s burgers are there for the chocolate mousse—bring up this France-only menu item with any American who’s spent time in Paris and be prepared for a long-winded rave—or by the free wireless internet every restaurant pumps out.

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Tread softly, and carry an extra supply of subtle-dark-grey lettering.

It works because McDonald’s is American, but it’s not too American. It’s the same story as Disneyland Resort Paris: An outside product that has, in effect, knelt and asked for the French to accept it. America sells, but it’s got to ask nicely.

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Free public toilet, gender-neutral.

(more…)

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A constrained-choice system is one in which the very structure of the system eliminates certain options. The aims of the system are physically manifest in such a way that the desires of the user, when physically manifest, are simply incompatible. The Paris Metro, for example, provides places to sit, but structures these seats such that they can only act as seats—they are physically unable to act as places to lie down, thereby curbing public sleeping. Note that (a) the aims of the system are not to prevent litter, leading to the newspaper on the second chair, and (b) the system assumes a relatively tight correlation between sleeping and lying down, between the action and the position. That is, people can use these chairs to sleep while sitting up.

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It’s easy to notice the underlying presence of a constrained-choice system in Metro seating because the change from benches to chairs is a relatively recent one, brought about by renovations. The new seating system eliminates an existing loophole or exaptation—something the system was never “designed” to be used for. The seating design in certain Metro stations, like the one above, just misses the point: a constrained-choice system only successfully eliminates choices if it is properly applied. Seating design is an especially powerful example of constrained-choice because it modifies an ongoing action, in a way that keys or security checkpoints don’t. A remarkable example of a constrained-choice system is the Airbus A320, which ignores pilot instructions that would cause the airframe to exceed its design parameters. 

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Orwellian Newspeak is an example of a linguistic constrained-choice system:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘ politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. (George Orwell, 1984, appendix.)

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The really fascinating thing about this is that, to a certain extent, all systems are constrained-choice systems. The difference lies in whether or not the system deliberately seeks to constrain a user’s choices, and in how well or poorly it does so. In most cases, a system either needs to meet the needs of so many different people, is not sufficiently funded, or is so crudely designed that there is plenty of wiggle room and all manner of exaptations are possible. (Dumpster diving is an exaptation; pouring bleach on thrown-out food is an attempt to maintain the integrity of the system.) 

The process of design, of choosing this form over that one, necessarily excludes certain possible choices. The interesting stuff comes when certain choices are deliberately built out of a system, because those design decisions reveal both the mindset of the designer, the aims of the system, and possible weak points. Every system, even constrained-choice systems, can be exploited. It’s just a matter of how or where, and finding a system’s weak points is easier when you can see what the system ‘wants’ its users to do.

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Where does a 3,000 lb car park?

Anywhere it wants.

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The lines and forms we don’t see, the subtle coming-together-ness that happens just at the edge of our vision, just at the fringes of conscious reality.

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How long does it take for us to realize that there is no message here? A different kind of urban reprieve; this posting demands no response. Garbage in, garbage out.

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De-branded spaces are startling: Silence amidst the din of advertising. An urban pause, emptiness within the frenetic swirl.

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The I. M. Pei Pyramid at the Musée du Louvre is one of the most architecturally distinctive buildings in Paris, and draws a lot of its meaning from its centrality within the Louvre. It is the entrance pavilion, the exit pavilion, the hub at the center of the museum’s diverse galleries and exhibits. The pyramid is an icon—both for the Louvre, and, cleverly, for the exit:

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This is brilliant because it introduces a literal meaning to pictograms. All too often, pictograms are abstracted idealizations: An exit is a figure moving, a door, an arrow. In the Louvre, the pictogram for “exit” literally means “exit”. It is both universal and place-specific, balancing between the need to speak to a specific audience and the need to speak to the multinational members of the audience. The pyramid, already an icon for the museum, is abstracted and flattened into an icon of itself.

That the Louvre can invent its own pictograms speaks to the strength of the institution. You can do it, but it’s not a good idea, because it tends to hurt wayfinding significantly while aiding branding very little. The cleverness of the pyramid-as-exit pictogram is that it’s smart graphic design, but it’s not merely smart graphic design. It’s also smart wayfinding.

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At the Walt Disney Studios Park portion of Disneyland Resort Paris, something’s not quite right. Note the curiously flat column on the left, the shadow over the “1” at the top of the building, and the blockiness of part of the sky. This is not, in fact, a façade—this is a custom-printed cover, hung over scaffolding and set 3-4 feet forward of the actual front of the building. (You can see the scaffolding most clearly at the top of the frame, just to the right of the “1”.) The cover exactly duplicates the façade of the building it’s hiding. This is pure Disney: Renovate, but don’t let anyone know about it. The cover not only masks renovation work, it also protects the public from dust or dropped tools.

The seams of our reality, the messages we convince our buildings to send or mask. The messages we are meant to receive, the details we are meant to notice: In an artificially constructed reality, the commonplace or unremarkable messages become all the more important, because they, too, are fraught with meaning, even if they purport not to be.

Last Disneyland Paris post. Back to the city of lights!

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