One of my favorite things to notice as a weirdo is when the good intentions of design slam into the hard reality of humans and the real world. It’s always interesting.
Let’s start with an Asgardian example, a theme park design story told in three photos. (Pics via DLPReport)
① A nice scenic thing is installed.
② It’s suddenly gone (and cloaked with trash cans)
③ It’s back! But: something new has been added!
You can probably guess what happened, right?
This element was designed just low enough to look like an (extremely uncomfortable?) seat to a tired guest.
When it comes to design in the real world, there are a few basic rules that seem to always apply:
If it looks neat, people will want to take a photo with it. If it looks comfortable, people will want to sit on it. If it looks fun, people will play around on it. Etc.
And yet, designers are often still caught by surprise! Ex-Imagineer Jim Shull recalled at least two times when this phenomenon got him:
Here’s another recent example:
① Design a beautiful sloped base for your Quinjet.
② Soon, rope it off.
③ Also, add a sign. (Google “Avengers Font” first)
④ Then, something new has been added!
How does this keep happening?
Surely, you’re thinking, we know how humans act by now, so we can easily adjust as necessary in our designs?
But it’s a big, different planet with lots of different people in it, who grew up in lots of different ways. At Tokyo Disneyland, for example, you can create elaborate in-reach prop displays that will never, ever be disturbed or broken by guests — rules are rules. (By the same token, I once got politely yelled at there for ducking under a chain to shortcut a completely, 100% empty line. I absolutely had to walk through the entire, empty switchback. And that’s fair, I was breaking the rules!) Whereas here in America, if your prop is not literally bolted down, it’s likely to show up on eBay / Van Eaton within the week.
Tokyo Disneyland also has beautiful integrated water features that were totally incomprehensible to my American litigious-society self. Wait, there’s no railing here? How is this even possible?! I never would have imagined this was something you could do in a theme park.
Design is global. No one person can have all the world’s understanding. And that can lead to blind spots. I think there’s a good argument to be made that a more diverse team of empowered designers working together could catch a lot more potential real-world design pitfalls.
But honestly, a lot of it, I think, is just that some designers are amazing at imagining things, but not as amazing at imagining them surrounded by the universe. That beautiful thing you’re working on, it lives in a window on your monitor tucked under a title bar, and that’s as tricky as it gets. What if you can’t imagine your thing in its final context? What if you aren’t great at predicting human behaviors other than your own? What if you push a worst-case scenario out of your mind because you like your idea so much that it’s “at least worth trying”? (I’ve done this!) Maybe you’ve forgotten how you would goof around with your friends to make them laugh way back when. Or maybe, a little bit sadly, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to experience the world as a kid. Not everyone will, or can, have these skills.
It almost seems like there’s a real job here for the right type of person. “Real World Engineer”? Unfortunately, the closest thing most companies currently have is “lawyer”.
Hey, what about the guests?
When theme park nerds discuss things like this, it’s usually eye-rolled as “this is why we can’t have nice things!”, and I 100% get that. Yes, it would be very awesome if all of humanity had an innate sense of what would break and what wouldn’t, and didn’t put themselves in danger, and were more respectful to nice things, just in general.
But, between you and me, I can’t totally blame humans.
I think this flipped for me a little at Disneyland Paris, where we watched an incredible dance play out every day:
• People would hop the fence and relax on the nice grass.
• A cast member would bark and shoo everybody off.
• Three minutes later people were back. Repeat infinitely.
My first reaction was, naturally, “Geez! Why can’t these people just follow the rules?!” But the more I thought about it, the nicer that dang grass started to look.
We’d been walking all day. We’re exhausted. Benches are hard to find. It’s hot and humid. And what could be nicer than a Disneyland nap… the ambient noise… the smells…
Suddenly — for a brief moment — I got it.
Of course I’m going to sit on this beautiful grass lawn because it’s hot and I’m exhausted and it looks relaxing!
Of course I’m going to try to take a photo in this cool looking toy jeep because that’s a really unique memory and heck we’re waiting for this dang line to move anyway!
Of course I’m going to run up this curved wall and see if I can touch the ceiling because I’m waiting for my dumb sister and it looks like the one from Ninja Warrior!
And of course I’m going to try to sit on this ancient, weird stone and/or metal pedestal from Asgard, because I’m tired as hell, and the design is very successful in convincing me that it’s an incredibly solid place to sit, so I don’t realize it’s actually hollow and made of fiberglass and will crack immediately under my weight!!
Give me more places to relax! Give me more cool things to take photos with! Give me playgrounds! This was expensive and might be my only time here in my life! Rarrrrrrrr
Ok, ok, deep breath.
I eventually snapped back to being the good rule-following productive member of our capitalist society that I am on a (mostly) daily basis.
But it still stuck with me: good design isn’t just beautiful and incredible and boundary-pushing, it also remembers what it means to be human.
PS: sometimes they catch it!
When Disney’s California Adventure first opened, it had these gigantic CALIFORNIA letters out front, to frame the entrance as if a kind of a life-sized picture postcard.
As a low-key typeface goof, and an overall Futura Condensed fan, I couldn’t help but notice one thing…
Do you see it?
Yes, the bar on the “F” was raised just a little bit higher. The white outline is the actual Futura.
I’d bet you $99 this was done for just
one two reasons: to prevent people from climbing up and sitting on the F. (And so people don’t hit their heads, of course. Thx John.)
One point to the designers!
PPS: if you have any ‘well, that didn’t quite go as we planned’ stories, please share them so we can all learn!