Designing Our Way Out of Non-Places

Unused space in a Santiago, Chile airport

I’m recently back from a creative sabbatical, which began in Japan after giving a talk on UX principles to some young designers. It’s been a relief to take a temporary hiatus from my usual speaking schedule. I love discussing design with global audiences, but ironically, that requires enduring an unsolved problem of our urban user experience: The ubiquity of non-places.

Briefly defined (drawing from Augé’s original coinage), non-places are urban or industrial spaces where personhood is put on pause. And they’re everywhere, from airports, highways and chain supermarkets, to narrow, suffocating, condo-filled streets — the in-between spaces where people are without relation or history. In a non-place, an individual has no identity beyond their function within it, there’s no organic connection to the outside world, and no immediately identifiable history.

Non-places might seem affordable and efficient, but they pass tremendous emotional labor cost onto the people within them. From waiting rooms to many or most work spaces, our time spent in non-places is so often bracketed into our daily lives, we’ve come to accept them as inevitable.

This still from Jacques Tati’s 1967 masterpiece Playtime perfectly visualizes what I mean by a non-place. The film is a 50 year old satirical look at an everyday future we merely tolerate.

If non-places were music, they might sound like this track, weaving together sounds from casinos and other non-places, slowed down to a hypnotic, dehumanizing drone — play below:

While the corrosive effect of non-places on our well-being has yet to be scientifically studied as a specific category, we know enough to suspect they do. “Collectively,” as environmental psychologist and neuroscientist Colin Ellard recently observed, “studies of both extreme and moderate forms of environmental deprivation provide compelling evidence that boring environments can generate stress, impulsivity, lowered levels of positive affect, and risky behavior.”

Non-places impact everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Business executives may be able to pay for preferential treatment at airports, but in the end, they are still just Another Passenger, whose sole function — from the non-place owner’s point of view — is to move or be moved as efficiently as possible through the mechanics of travel.

Perhaps owing to complaints from their better-advantaged clientele, there have been attempts over the years to lessen the monotony of the airport experience. Some airports install art galleries and plants, especially in rooms with no windows; my favorite enhancement is Brian Eno’s ambient “Music for Airports”:

“A composition created by layering tape loops of differing lengths, and was designed to be continuously looped as a sound installation, with the intent of defusing the tense, anxious atmosphere of an airport terminal.”

But the grind of non-places on the less advantaged populace is rarely improved to any great extent. For them, a whole lifetime in non-places often awaits — living within rows upon rows of low-rent, prefab, identical condos/housing projects; working in regimented spaces, waiting for assistance in teeming government services waiting rooms. At the farthest end of that spectrum: The non-place of prisons, and now, tragically, the non-place of detention camps. For economically oppressed people, everything is the DMV.

It is good and important to have a public conversation about paying people a living wage, but that can only be the start of a more holistic solution, which relieves stress and encourages creativity. The poor deserve bread; they also deserve roses.

Japanese Solutions to Non-Places

My recent travels through Japan were highlighted by beautiful solutions to non-places. To be sure, the country has its share of monotonous urban areas, but even in the most utilitarian public locations, you will often see elegant flourishes which imbue them with a sense of place, and humanity.

In Tokyo’s Narita airport, directions are not just confined with clearly marked signs, but the floor is lined with what look like colored race tracks, which nudge travelers to stay on the right path, while encouraging them to feel not like weary travelers, but prize contestants. The color choices are intentional, with blue meant to convey “the color of the sky, and the uplifting feeling of traveling somewhere far away”, and with earthy-red for arrivals — the reassuring color of the soil, groundedness, home.

This layout reflects the Japanese value Omotenashi (“o-moh-teh-nash’ee”):

The quality of being thoughtful and considerate of others, so that you can anticipate their needs and adjust your actions accordingly. It arose in ancient times out of the tea ceremony, when the host took painstaking care to brew a beautiful cup of tea for each guest. Small, considerate acts like offering a hot towel to customers are rooted in omotenashi and are the reason for Japan’s world-famous level of customer service.

In the principle of Ichi-Go-Ichi-E (ih-chee-GO ih-chee-AY), again from the traditional tea ceremony, every meeting is an occasion to be treasured: “Today, people use it as a reminder to slow down and savor each moment, because every encounter in life occurs only once.”

So Narita’s food court 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, and hearken back to the time that you might personally know the vendors. Treasure even your grocery shopping, or your fast food meal in between connecting flights.

In a non-place, you don’t see nature. You don’t see the passage of time. In a place, nature works with you. Train stations are usually non-places. One train stop in Japan, nestled on a mountainside in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, is specifically designed to be the opposite:

A station with no exit — its only purpose, for passengers to get out and contemplate nature for awhile. Ichi-Go-Ichi-E for train passengers.

Workshop with the calm technology startup Mui at the Kyoto Maker’s Garage

In Kyoto, I spoke to two groups of Japanese designers. Some of them were expecting me to impart principles of Silicon Valley user experience and its “move fast and break things” approach to development — and they were surprised that instead, I kept returning to principles of Japanese aesthetics.

“You already have it figured out culturally,” as I put it to them, “it’s not necessary to discard insights in order to adopt the American way.”

The Valley doesn’t deserve a monopoly on design; there are more ways to build things. The solutions are both past and present. There isn’t just one future. There are many, and embracing different ways of building things is key to having an interesting world.

Now that I’m back from hiatus and Japan, it’s time to think about how these principles might be applied to our non-places, and many of our other, pressing challenges.

Coming soon: Robotic, automation, and allaying our fears of machine-human interfaces.

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

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