All That Heaven Affords

Observations about the optimism of design and designers

This was prompted by a recent blog post by Cabel Sasser called “Fantasy Meets Reality.” He writes about various cases where the design of physical spaces (mostly theme parks) breaks down when it comes into contact with actual human beings.

Cabel mentions how design needs to make different assumptions based on culture and location; even within the subcategory of “Disney theme park,” for instance, there can be dramatically different ideas of how much guests are compelled to follow the rules, and different understandings of what the rules even are.

There’s a sense of optimism in that post — not just because of Cabel’s inescapably infectious enthusiasm for things, but because of the sense that is often common among designers, that these are problems that can be solved, and that thoughtful design is often the answer.

I was immediately reminded of a blog post from several years ago, where the writer was illustrating the idea of user-oriented design with the example of a public restroom. The floor of the restroom was frequently covered in used paper towels. The writer explained that this was because the designers of the restroom had put the trash bins near the sinks, where the paper towels were distributed. People were using their paper towel to open the door without touching the handle directly, and then, not having a trash can, being forced to throw the paper towel onto the floor. The solution was simply to add or move a trash can to sit permanently next to the door. Problem solved!

This illustration has always stuck with me, since my response was (and still is): “No, the solution is for grown-ass adults not to throw their trash on the floor for someone else to clean up! Who raised you people?”

Here at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the queue for the Mario Kart ride has an elaborate diorama, made to look like Bowser and his minions hand-crafted a race track out of cardboard and magic markers. It’s a wonderful detail. It’s also now mostly hidden by a gigantic metal grate covering the whole thing.

I still don’t know whether that was the intention all along, and it just hadn’t shown up in time for soft opening, or if it had to be added in response to something that happened during soft opening. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I’m not cynical to the point of being an old man shaking his fist at lawless teens, but I’ve already seen people jumping barriers in the queue to pose for photos. It only takes one person to ruin it for thousands.

I can’t think of a great solution to that one, since it has to be close enough to guests to read as handmade cardboard papercraft, and you can’t do a whole lot if people are determined to be malicious or careless.

But Cabel’s post is a reminder that there’s a whole class of these issues that are design problems as much as social problems. And much like during the turn of the 20th century, when there was a pervasive confidence that science and technology would be able to solve everything, in the turn of the 21st century, there’s a pervasive confidence that thoughtful design can solve everything.

It’s tempting to believe that’s the case! When I was talking about Half-Life 2 and Jedi: Fallen Order recently, I was really impressed by how much they’re able to guide players subtly and silently. You often “know” you’re supposed to go in a certain direction, even though there’s nothing obvious pointing you in that direction. And with Fallen Order, one of the levels I’ve seen so far was designed so that even I, with my catastrophically terrible sense of direction, could navigate it — and not just forwards, but backwards!

Speaking of my catastrophically terrible sense of direction: the past several times I’ve been to Walt Disney World with a car, I’ve relied entirely on signage and no Apple/Google maps the entire time I’m within the bubble, and I never get lost. There’s a decades-old tradition of guests asking “what time is the 4 o’clock parade?” type questions inside the Disney parks, but speaking as someone who’s been guilty of asking those myself, I think there’s some justification for it: everything tends to be so designed and planned out that it’s just easier to turn off higher brain functions.

There’s something undeniably satisfying about a space that is so clearly designed, it manipulates you into doing the right thing without your even realizing (or caring, at least) that you’re being manipulated. Can it solve the Greatest Problems Of Our Age? Unlikely, but it’s fun to imagine.