Rules


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A standard no-parking sign in Paris: The “not” symbol is understood to mean “no parking,” and “jour et nuit” translates to “day and night.” No Parking, Day or Night.

This system relies on interpretation and conscious action. People must follow the rules, must heed the signs, if the signs are to be effective. This is an open-choice system: We may follow the sign’s instructions, or we may not. The physical environment does not constrain us in any way. Contrast this with a constrained-choice no-parking system, which simply prevents users from parking in certain places or certain ways. Open-choice systems are significantly more flexible than constrained-choice systems, leading to their deployment in places like no-parking zones.

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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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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 always-delicate line between reality and make-believe. Signs prohibiting interaction with fake snow at Disneyland Resort Paris, articulated by a “no snowmen” illustration. The advantages of friendly illustration versus harsh pictogram, especially when conveying a less-than-friendly message.

See also Ralph Caplan’s thoughts on using signage to fill the design gap.

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Especially in zones where the usual rules don’t apply—like Disneyland Paris. (The entrance to the men’s room, it turned out, was around the corner, and indicated by the silhouette of a man in period dress.) This sign could easily be an Imagineer’s joke.

The contexts and cues we rely on; how seriously do we take our environments? Past experiences, culled and combined with expectations, combined to form a land where predictions, like dreams, come true.

The subtlety with which we adjust our expectations, and then adjust our behaviors accordingly. Where and when it is socially acceptable to run, or sit, or talk to strangers, or behave outside of normally accepted standards of behavior. The ways in which these spaces change over time, as a reflection or reaction to changes in society. Loiter with a cigarette or a cell phone, but rarely by yourself; the activity is the excuse.

(This is a similar danger to that of construction sites—the usual rules don’t apply. But in these cases, the rules are usually more important things, like the existence of a floor or the presence of doors into an elevator shaft. The safety built into our environments and the ways in which it may be circumvented.)

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This sign is fresh: The medium of hand-chalked blackboard is intimately bound up in its message of daily specials. We know (or assume) the information on the sign is fresh because we read the sign as being easily modifiable, and therefore the information it presents necessarily transitory. (Check out those crazy French ‘1’s!)

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And that’s the problem with this sign. It looks static, and we therefore read it and the information it presents as static. This, in turn, led me to do a double-take when presented with the following message: 

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If the medium is static, the message is static. The content of the message becomes obscured under a visual conflict between medium, message, and meaning. This visual contradiction is all the stranger because it’s clear that this sign was developed to always look professional and polished, no matter the message it presents—that’s the point of the slide-in-slide-out placards. Once you realize how the sign works, though, everything clicks into place and the Disney standard of service shines through. The investments that go into making a spatial product; the effort we pour into short-lived worlds.

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Traffic barriers near the ChampsÉlysées serving as both medium and message. The disconnect between surface and what’s inside; the difference between white-and-black spray paint and reinforced cement. Literal and metaphorical scars, the stories told in a city’s used and disused infrastructure. How the mundane is captured, the carelessness of a 1,000 drivers made real. The object as center of a web of interconnected stories.

Lines, lines, lines. Horizontal layers of perpendicular lines.

Next up: A visit to Disneyland Resort Paris. Posting may be slower these next two weeks as the TMWORLD team pivots to focus on its final papers (versions of which are likely to post to this website).

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Hot chocolate served at the bar of a Paris café. The small pitcher inside the cup holds melted chocolate, allowing the end user to determine the chocolate:milk ratio and thereby the taste of the hot chocolate. (The larger pitcher of steamed milk is not shown.) Customization, acceptable tasks. The justifications we mount behind certain ways of doing things.

Both the spoon and the pitcher of chocolate could be transported on the saucer, but only the pitcher is. The spoon is delivered after the saucer/cup/pitcher has been set down. The spoon’s delivery is very purposeful—it is placed just so, its bowl pointing down and its handle resting on the bar.

Anticipation and the staging of an experience; the power of ritual. Even getting coffee from an automated machine has an aura of ceremony to it—the metallic coins deposited, the click of the selection button, the sound of hot liquid hitting a cardboard cup, the always-identical smell, the grimace of the first sip. The line between interaction and observation; the line between accidental or ad hoc or improvised moments and the deliberate creation of a product-to-be-experienced.

(The fiscally-driven spatial product of Parisian cafés: Table service costs more than bar service.)

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Ramp equipment at CDG. Look: you can see baggage tugs (just past the crosswalk), and some tow tractors just past them. In the middle, above the minivan, you can see baggage containers on carts and what look like mobile APUs. If you really squint (or click through to the larger image) you can see an HSBC ad on the jetway just in front of the Air France 747.

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The standards on which we rely; a 747 must be serviced a certain way. A global archipelago of compatible standards, built to follow our islands of capital. We see the world as easily interconnected only because it is. We do not have the incompatibles—changes in railroad grade, shipping container size, segregated national telephone networks—that were an accepted part of earlier ages. 

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The temporal colonization of space: Turn around a jet in 30 minutes. They don’t make money when they’re sitting on the ground. The ease with which this idea is extended to people: Minutes necessary to eat, hours necessary to golf. Spatial products built on expectations of turnover. (Seating at McDonald’s is built with plush seatbacks but hard plastic seats so that it becomes increasingly uncomfortable the longer one stays.) Linger in protest.

(The diagram and Gant chart are both taken from Aviopolis, an interesting take on airports through the world-as-network lens. There’s only one more CDG post, I promise, and then we’ll finally leave the airport and actually make it to the City of Lights.)

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