Thinking Through Design: Understanding its significance

Article for Rappler

I’m happy to announce that Rappler has published an article I wrote about design and its importance! An excerpt:

If you’ve ever ridden the MRT in Metro Manila, you will have noticed two pairs of arrows painted on the platform where commuters wait for the train. These arrows intend to direct the flow of commuters getting on and off the train in an orderly way: the arrows suggest that passengers who need to get on the train should enter around the edges of the doorway while those who need to get off the train should exit through the center.

And if you’ve ever ridden the MRT, you will also know that the arrows almost never work. The moment the train pulls into the station, any orderly lines that do form quickly dissolve.

But urban commuters are experts at dealing with crowds. They face crowds all the time in their other roles as pedestrians and shoppers. Commuters know how to angle and reshape their bodies to squeeze into the tightest spots. They use bags and umbrellas as extensions of their bodies to block access to better-positioned spaces so that they can get ahead of other commuters. They know just how much they can push their way through a packed train compartment before someone protests loudly or, worse, rudely.

The arrows are an example of a design solution: someone saw that people had a difficult time getting on and off trains, thought that one way to improve the situation might involve some visual guides, and then had arrows painted on the ground. But is it a successful design solution? It’s not clear. What is apparent is that this particular solution doesn’t seem to take enough account of the deeply-established habits of the people who are supposed to benefit from it. The arrows seem to overlook the fact that not only are commuters accustomed to dealing with crowds – they expect them.

This is a column about design, written by Filipinos such as myself and my colleagues, who have devoted their careers to engaging with the world from the perspective of design. But what is design? It’s a fair question, and a difficult one to answer.

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