Design Solutions to the Monotony of Non-Places

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Depending on where we live and work, many of us may spend over half our waking hours in non-places. As I explained in a recent post, non-places are environments where person-hood is put on pause, where you have no identity beyond your function within them. Most of the time, we want to be in places with personal meaning, and these non-places exist between where we start and where we want to be. It’s the highway, security line, and airport between a tropical vacation, or the queue we wait in, to get a new driver’s license.

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Photo by “docMEMEexe” from /Backrooms

These non-places have ballooned into an ever-expanding experience of highways, condos, office parks, waiting rooms, and chain grocery stores. There’s even a subreddit about the creepiest, most inhospitable versions of them!

We may always need purely functional places like these, but we can use design to help make people feel more at home within them — or at minimum, feel less like they’re in an alien palace that provokes feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and disembodiment.

It’s one of the challenges I put to participants of my user experience workshops: “Pick a non-place,” I tell them, “Where you feel put ‘on-pause’. How would you as a designer improve its experience? How would you turn a non-place into a place?”

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I’ve been running workshops on Calm Technology for five years. My workshop participants have the same non-places in common, where they felt most anxious: Doctor and dentist offices are often first, followed by airports, highways, and elevators.

Participants work in small groups, each selecting a specific place they’d like to improve, using principles of Calm Technology to give it a sense of identity, a relation to history and culture.

After running dozens of workshops like this, I’ve noticed a couple of distinct trends:

I realized that recent graduates without experience in retail, food service, or maintenance had idealized thoughts about “easy” solutions. They didn’t think through the entire experience of installing, maintaining or fixing systems over dozens of years. The human imagination makes it easy to dream, but implementation is an important art.

Which brings me to the other workshop trend:

Groups comprised entirely of software engineers immediately come up with lots of high tech ideas for changing non-spaces. These options are usually expensive, utopian, and difficult to maintain.

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Dirty iPad photo by Olivier Jeannin

For instance, one engineering student suggested that airports could improve their experience by providing iPads with personalized directions for travelers. But how would people juggle an iPad as well as their luggage? And would the airport have to increase the bandwidth needed to provide people access to additional devices? Who would maintain the devices? Not just technically, but who would charge them, provision them, and check them out? What about sanitation? “You can’t just have people sharing iPads without sanitizing them,” as I put it. “iPads are personal devices that pick up germs.” And can you imagine the airport handing out the same devices 10 years later?

By contrast, the best solutions presented in these workshops come from people who didn’t have a technical background at all.

While this does not surprise me, I found it challenging to shift the perspective of many participants towards minimal changes, instead of landmark ones. Very often, we get excited about “disruptions” instead of incremental reforms. But just a simple change in light, sound, or acoustics can improve a space so much more than handing out fragile, expensive devices.

Because non-places are purely functional, developers usually disregard their experiential qualities. But just activating a single sense in the slightest way can totally change how a non-place is perceived. Instead of first going to major fixes, consider how subtle changes to our sensory landscape can fundamentally alter our sense of place.

Here’s some of my favorite workshop approaches, compiled into five distinct groups — because all of them engage (or disengage) one of the five senses in some way. I’ve also included some notable design improvements in non-places I’ve personally encountered on the way.

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Hotels and condos try to remove all trace of humanity in order to seem clean. It’s a key reason why many people are increasingly preferring A‌i‌r‌b‌n‌b‌s: They offer a coat of the culture they’re related to. In contrast, every Radisson hotel in the world seems like a copy of each other. Good for a business traveler that needs a guaranteed experience that’s the same every time, but every business traveler needs to feel a little loved too.

Some of the simplest solutions are visual: Ace Hotel in Portland hired artists to paint the inner stairwells (pictured above); it’s a way to bring humanity to a non-human space. The art acts as an extension of the existing aesthetics of the building. (At the same time, safety is crucial. You don’t want to add any design that is so loud that it gets in the way of where people need to go, or distract them on the way.)

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Air travel is typically monotonous, impersonal, and stressful. When I board a plane, I often find myself holding my breath. By contrast, Virgin Airlines lit their cabins with a warm purple light, turning formerly bland cabins into cozy spaces that looked more like a nightclub, enhancing the excitement of travel. The soundtrack, the colors, all made me feel secure and calm. And that was just from a few lights and decorations! Not so costly to install on a muli-million dollar jet, but really changed everything. When boarding a Virgin flight, I found myself exhaling with relief.

It’s an interior design tradition thousands of years old to employ essential oils and plants to remove bad smells, heighten sensuality, and fill the room with fresh air. Dubai hotels employ real, natural scents to heighten the experience; sisters Samantha and Dawn Goldworm actually make scents for brands. They recently created a scent for a major bank that helped put customers at ease when they walked in.

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LiveWall living wall installed at the TSA Checkpoint at Appleton International Airport (ATW) in Wisconsin.

Removing smell by creating clean air creates significant results. One windowless gate at a London airport had a wall of plants instead of a window. The plants brought wonder, especially with natural light playing on them. To bring passengers closer, the designers had even added a little “voting booth” for the plants nearby; they’d cheerfully come up and press the “Good!” button. They were lively, oxygenated, and in good spirits, despite the fact that this gate with plants had no windows. At other gates, passengers waited listlessly with their shoulders slumped. (Yes, someone has to maintain these plants, but what a pleasant chore!) The plants also helped with sight (non-repeating imagery, beauty), texture (touch, visual depth and interest), light (full spectrum lighting for the plants instead of gray fluorescent tubes) and smell.

To be sure, scents overall are a tricky subject. You don’t want to include any synthetic chemicals that might trigger fragrance sensitivities. Plus, not everyone is going to like every scent. When done poorly, a scent will feel like a 13 year old’s first experience using Axe body spray. When in doubt — or if you have a limited budget — plants are a better way to improve the air.

Core to an experience of a space is how it responds to our touch. Natural wood and soft carpet evoke nostalgia and hominess; texture in spaces evokes a sense of touch, even if we don’t actually touch it.

More importantly, a good texture can offer a sense of visual variety and depth that a flat surface can’t. If repeating surfaces dull the mind, then a good texture can help restore it.

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Food court inside Japan’s Narita airport: “The open food court employs low-cost natural wood Muji furniture, but creates a modern, domestic feel in the heart of an airport departure lounge”

I noticed a keen awareness to the value of tactile surfaces on my recent sabbatical in Japan. A new terminal in Narita Airports has a food court unlike that in any other airport. It is designed to feel homey, with low-cost, natural wood Muji furniture. Japanese supermarkets often use similar furniture in their produce section, to look like a bazaar, hearkening back to the time that you might personally know your neighborhood vendors.

Some tactile elements can be far simpler, but just as effective. My mom’s dentist office makes the latter three senses part of its customer experiment: At the end of every appointment, the dentist hands her a carnation.

Carefully Curated Sound

The classic soundtrack for non-places is Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” (above), a non-repeating ambient soundscape created to soothe not just passengers at airports, but airport workers; for that reason, it was designed not to repeat during an 8 hour work cycle.

At the same time, it’s a mistake to assume that simply piping in music by a talented artist automatically transforms a location for the better. A few years ago, I worked at a major software company with a trade show store selling T-shirts and other gifts to families and kids. A new creative director decided the company store needed a background soundtrack, created a playlist comprised almost entirely of Beyoncé tracks… and set it to repeat every 2 hours.

The shop workers had to listen to the same soundtrack for seven days in a row. What used to be an exciting job to them, and a fun way of interacting with the company’s best customers, became a hellish experience. Even staff who were fans of Beyoncé told me they could no longer listen to her tracks; worse, the creative director would regularly come by to hear his “creation” and make sure the music was still on so that he could “dance to it”. I love Beyoncé, but totally sympathized with the staff: Not thinking through the experience and ambiance that would be ideal for a store catering to families annoys me to this day. It completely ruined the store, and the demoralized employees were blamed — not the creative director.

“In 1984 Muji commissioned Haruomi Hosono to compose in-store background music.”

Muji stores, by contrast, also provide soundtracks, but they’re new every month, and they’re hand curated by cultural creators and people inside the music industry. New stuff. Independent stuff. Global stuff. I often go to Muji outlets just to discover new music. The environment is so peaceful and enjoyable that I just feel like I’m floating through the store. The work that went into it was a series of subtle, balanced considerations. The result? A place with a fanatic following and respect from the community.

“The core of Norwegian’s audio branding — the musical track “Northern Colours” — has been composed and produced by Joel Krozer, with string and orchestral arrangements by Robin Mullarkey.”

Norwegian Airlines started to create very carefully constructed soundtracks to soothe passengers during the boarding process. They consider sound as an extension of their brand.

BONUS: Sound/Taste

Norwegian Airlines also designed an ambient soundtrack so that, when passengers hear it, the taste of food during a flight is heightened. As I explained in Designing with Sound:

It’s a well-known fact that food tastes differently in airplanes. The dryness of the cabin makes it harder to taste sweet and salty flavors, making food taste bland. But cabin noise frequencies also alter your sense of taste. The low humming sounds further reduce sweet and salty experiences, and amplify bitter and umami flavors (Umami is a Japanese word that describe the 5th basic taste found in savory flavors such as rich broths, meats and shiitake mushrooms). These factors make airplane food less tasty in the sky.

To combat this, Finland’s Ultra Nordic agency worked with China’s MasterChef Steven Liu and molecular gastronomy professor Anu Hopia to craft mealtime soundscapes for passengers on Finnair flights. The idea was to use elements of sound design, like the idea that high frequencies enhance our perception of sweetness, to bring back some of the tastiness to food in the air. The chef and gastronomist worked with sound designers to record Nordic landscapes and high frequency ranges to match the palette of the food served on the flights. Passengers were given headphones and sounds to play during their meals. After significant testing, it was shown that the passengers experienced a heightened dining experience, with a greater sense of taste with the soundtrack than without. The work was nominated for multiple awards at the 2018 International Sound Awards in Hamburg.

We are the Solution to Non-Places

Fundamentally, improving non-places requires adding yourself to a situation, and feeling the emotions (or lack thereof) that you have every time you experience it. If you haven’t been to a particular place, talk deeply with the people who have. Never sat and paced in a hospital lobby for 8 hours while you awaited news about the surgery of a loved one? Make sure to talk to those who have. For far too long, we’ve learned to live with non-places as mild inconveniences to be endured and passed through, but there are many people who spend most of their lives in them. And all of us spend far too much in them not to demand more.

Have you seen any non-places transformed by subtle design? I’d love to hear about them! Feel free to reach out @caseorganic on Twitter or comment below!

Written by

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology + Designing With Sound. Research Fellow at Institute for the Future. Caseorganic.com

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