Michael Bierut | Essays

When Design Gets in the Way

Times Square, New York, 2009, photograph by Fallon Chan

Readers of Design Observer may be sick of the High Line by now. I know that I sort of am. The product of a design competition with over 700 entries, designed to within an inch of its minutely cultivated life, and surrounded by some of the chicest real estate in town, the half-mile southern stretch of this elevated New York City park has been so deliriously popular that crowd control has become a serious problem.

Nearly as popular, but much less celebrated by design cognescenti, is an urban intervention about two miles north. At the beginning of the summer, New York Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan closed two sections of Broadway to traffic, including five blocks at Times Square, creating new pedestrian malls overnight. Then, Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance, realizing that people might want to sit somewhere, bought 376 rubber folding chairs for $10.74 apiece from Pintchik's Hardware in Park Slope. Done and done, and instantly — without the High Line's international design competition, logo, $170 million budget, and five years of painstaking deliberation — millions of people have a new way of enjoying the city.

This raises a question: when it comes to fulfilling simple human desires, can design get in the way?

Consider the behavior of one of my big corporate clients, a client with, God bless them, a seemingly healthy respect for design and the design process. This client would convene an internal task force to consider ways that they might, say, improve their customer service. The task force would come up with a decent idea: for instance, let's make a rule that from now on we'll pick up the phone on our customer help line after no more than three rings. So far so good.

Then I would get a call. This proposal, now designated an "initiative," needed a name. The team has been brainstorming, I'd be told, but none of the names so far had generated enough enthusiasm. Quik Pik Help Line. Rapid Ring Response. Customer First. And so forth. Could I help?

Usually, at this point, I would ask if they might consider, you know, just answering the phone in less than three rings and not making such a fuss out of it. No, I'd be told. "We need to build buy-in around this initiative with the internal stakeholders," my client would tell me carefully. "The thinking is that we need a brand identity for this concept before we introduce it to a broader audience." Well, okay. Eventually, after a great deal of internal debate, and the presentation and rejection of several alternatives to the higher-ups, a name would be chosen: ServiceQuest 2010. And then would inevitably come another phone call: could I design a logo for ServiceQuest 2010? Sigh.

Meanwhile, presumably, the phone would just keep ringing and ringing.

Now, far be it from me to argue against any kind of full employment program for designers. But I do find it useful to start conversations with potential clients with a simple question: are you sure you want to do this design project? Why is it necessary? Is this the easiest way to do it? Is it the best? Why does a designer have to be involved?

I like to think about how Ms. Sadik-Khan and Mr. Tompkins would have dealt with the less-than-three-rings initiative. How about a one-paragraph (or even one-sentence) mass email? Just answer the goddamed phones, people! Likewise, if they had run the High Line project, I'm guessing their first priority would have been access — not high design, not ingenious little moments, not formal affectations that may end up looking very 2009 about ten years from now — but simply getting people up there. I applaud the ambition of Friends of the High Line and their design consultants, and the result is quite rightly acclaimed. However, I would love to see more design incrementalism, more Jane Jacobs-style fast prototyping to complement those slow-moving Burnhamesque Big Plans.

One last thing: a lot of people liked sitting in those $10.74 chairs, but a lot of people really hated the way they looked. So earlier this month they were replaced with more tasteful park chairs, the ones that Sadik-Khan and Tompkins evidently wanted all along, but couldn't get in time. And what about the old chairs? With the customary improvisatory panache I've come to associate with this effort, they commissioned artist Jason Peters to create a sculpture out of them. It lasted for a weekend.

Management consultants like to enthuse about the importance of Big Hairy Audacious Goals. BHAGS are good for white boards and Powerpoint presentations. But sometimes — and maybe more than ever, these days — the best kind of audacity comes in small packages.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Social Good

Comments [24]

Excellent. Thanks.
scott crawford

I am aware it appears there at the top of the buzz-word list that was linked to in the article, but I believe it's when a solution manages to engage the user/visitor/reader/... that it becomes successful. It's less about the process and more about the will and ambition to engage. The High Line seems to be a success – despite its design 'threshold' – due to the way it has managed to get citizens involved, and curious. The radical gesture of closing Times Square seems to have managed to awake a similar response of involvement.

Design gets in the way when it's driven by the wrong reasons and motivations. See Parc Central (I've yet to find out who came up with that name, I'd bet on one of the city's branding agencies. Sigh.) in Barcelona for a case study of a design without any engagement with or understanding of its environment, the climate, or the needs of the citizens of the area. Mr. Nouvel states it will take up until 5 years until the vegetation has grown enough for the park to leave the impression intended. Well, studio Nouvel can showcase their renders and win further commissions for urban landscapes on the pretense of ecologic/sustainable design – which should be an inherent requirement, not a brand mechanism when it comes to a park, one would think - while we who live in Poble Nou still have to wait for someone to pick up the phone.

I'm not sure design is necessarily the problem here. My question would be more: when it comes to fulfilling simple human desires, can New York City get in the way? And the answer is hells yeah.

I think part of what makes the High Line so notable is that it happened at all in the face of the complexity of New York City and its governance, community groups, private interests, etc, etc. In an AIGA lecture I saw a while ago, Elizabeth Diller hinted at some of the enormous the challenges DR+S faced working with city regulatory, community groups and competing Lincoln Center groups in their Alice Tully renovation. Big projects can barely get done at all these days. Look at the WTC site (obviously) or shelved public works projects like the 2nd Avenue subway. Meanwhile, on TV, Mad Men last week was looking (somewhat wistfully) back at the economics/politics of the construction of MSG in place of the old Penn Station. Sadik-Kahn's chairs look much less deliberative compared to the High Line but are a part of a more intentional and complex Bloomberg midtown traffic calming vision...which is itself contested. Though it is a nice example of more incremental design change.

Over-design = problem? Yes. Is the High Line over-designed? Yes. I still think it's enjoyable and pleasing-looking but it has some major function issues that need sorting. And I think it would be inaccurate to call it a park. Check Nick Paumgarten's interesting article about Governors Island in this week's New Yorker (Aug. 31, 2009):

"The risk of a project like the High Line, or Governors Island, is that the place may pass from one kind of elitism, in which virtually nobody is allowed, except those who have secret or privileged access, to another, in which ambitious restoration introduces esoteric or refined tastes and uses."

Is the High Line too refined for its own good? Yeah, probably. Maybe they should just call it a day and put in a subway turnstile for the privilege. I see crowd control as built into the project in a not obviously public friendly way. I went the first week and a nice guard suggested to me, as I was leaving, that they should have told me not to have brought my cup of coffee up with me at the entrance. That's fine, I can ditch the coffee, but no outdoors park bans beverages. That's not a park. I trust they've relaxed this rule(?) and that it was partly opening week jitters. Maybe they have trash cans now too. And how about recycling bins as well! It'd only be 15, 20 years behind, say, the Portland OR Airport on that point.
Peter Jacobson

I haven't been to the High Line yet because 1) I've been busy and it's been busier, 2) I've heard too many people call it "The Hype Line," and 3) Lockhart Steele's initial crit rang true for me. But I will get there. Thanks for the another crit that seems to ring true. http://bit.ly/HghLn

PS: One of the meanings of Peak Oil is that we might once again want a freight line connecting to industrial buildings connected to docks on the Hudson. Of course we no longer have a freight line, industrial buildings or docks, at least in Manhattan.
John Massengale

Poor NYC, we got another great architectural project built here by world-class designers. Let's go complain about it more.

The attitude this article on the highline takes is the same reaction Seattle Public Library has gotten (over-designed, too much design-ego, it's actually poorly designed) since it opened. Projects such as the highline should be welcomed but the American character always seems to show itself in the criticism of these projects. In MB's post, there is an undertone of anti-intellectualism not uncommon amongst Americans.

To compare the highline project to branding and naming a corporate phone-answering initiative really makes me question MB's critical and comparative skills. The latter is completely banal, the former improves the quality of life for a major global city. Perhaps he is not happy with the kind of work he's getting, and the impact it has on the world?

I agree with the poster who says that in fact it's not design that gets in the way, but bureaucracy. The fact that something like the highline or SPL even happens in this country is a miracle and it is a testament to the perseverance and focus of the designers' vision, something we don't seem to have much of in the American design scene.

Sweet, sweet smell of sense.

I think there is something interesting about design by crowd, if that can be the description of what happened in Times Square. Space closed, chairs provided, people sat, and it worked. The solutions (chair placement, orientation, spacing, etc.) that people worked out on their own I think would be difficult for a designer to create with the same level of reactive honesty. And perhaps part of the popularity of the space in Time Square is that it seems semi-self-made. You find a chair, drag it to your chosen spot, and sit down. There aren't the proscribed views of a place like the High Line. Plus you get to sit in the middle of the street, and in NYC, that is quite a nice moment of pedestrian transgression.

I once spoke with someone building sidewalks for a new section of a college campus. He said that rather than building the sidewalks immediately after the buildings, he'd rather plant grass and let people walk from building to building for six months. Then he'd come back and put in sidewalks where the grass had been worn away.

While there may have have been no designer involved specifically in the Times Square project, it would be a mistake to suggest that it was not influenced by professional design thinking. Organizations like The Project for Public Spaces http://www.pps.org/ have for years advocated for more livable urban spaces. One of their favorite ways to accomplish this is allowing for user control over public space architecture such as the Times Square movable chairs. Indeed, there are precedents for spaces with movable chairs all over the world--Rome and Chicago come to mind.

"We need to build buy-in around this initiative with the internal stakeholders," my client would tell me carefully.

I love this line, because it completely encapsulates the over-marketed nature of our current lives. Everything has to have a program (and, apparently, a logo).

The challenge, of course, is determining when an "initiative" really needs to have a marketing effort behind it, and when a more simple solution would be more appropriate. Answering the phone in three rings is a pretty far-fetched example, but other programs may not be so easily mocked.

When a company chooses to roll-out a new product development process, for example, does that warrant a marketing initiative? It is certainly going to require the participation of more than one department. But does it require "buy-in" from "internal stakeholders"?

Ideally, we could develop a rule about when something needs a marketing push and when it doesn't. Of course, if we did that, someone would just come along, want to call that rule a heuristic, and insist that we develop an entire marketing initiative (and logo) for it.
Brock Ray

Ha! Great story. Reminds me of the time some managers came into my office and said, "We have this new program we're developing. Can you come up with a logo?"

After several weeks, the logo was done, the managers were happy, and life was good.

Another department manager dropped by, looked at the logo and said, "Nice logo. Now all they need is the program behind it."


Tally ho!

Joe Moran

So simple, a caveman could notice it... or a child. My wife and I took our two young boys into NYC about a month ago. We live in NJ and have made this trip several times a year. What was different this time were the multitude of people sitting in chairs right in the middle of Times Square. Eating lunch at Bubba Gump (the boys' choice, not mine), we had a Times Square view and could observe the scene from above. The boys were fascinated.

When my 6-year old was asked to complete a packet telling his teacher what he did this summer, I was amazed and amused that one of the things he chose to write about and illustrate were people sitting in the middle of Times Square right outside of Toys R Us. It wasn't our trip to the top of the Empire State Building, or the NY Skyride, or even the train ride in - it was people, sitting in the middle of one of the busiest streets in New York City.

Yet another example of "Keep It Simple, Stupid"... brilliant!

Joe Schwartz
Computer Graphics & Design Instructor
Spotswood HS
Joe Schwartz

It's funny to me that people found those plastic folding chairs ugly. In Times Square?

If anything, they were wholly appropriate. The perfectly American, kitschy furniture to go with the all-too American, tacky environment.

Replacing them with the delicate, wobbly furniture found in the likes of the (comparatively) high-falutin' Bryant Park seems good-intentioned but ultimately disingenuous. Perhaps over-thinking the design is unavoidable in the long-term.
Josh Berta

Maybe what gets in the way is the the desire for attention or 'monetization' (ugh).

If I close the window when it's raining, I solved the problem.

When I talk about closing the window and call it an act of contingent climate-architecture, meant to transform user experience of the office, it's not just doing something, it's also saying 'Look! I'm doing something over here! Look at this testament to my designer's perseverance and my focused vision! Also, I can bill someone for this!'

“In MB's post, there is an undertone of anti-intellectualism not uncommon amongst Americans.”

Perhaps designers and architects who believe that the solution to public problems is complex structures that require fortunes to build and maintain have something to do with America’s disdain for intellectuals.
James Puckett

Actually, the High Line has more in common with the Times Square project than it seems. The High Line is an accidental park that exists because intrepid residents figured out ways to enter it, fell in love with the experience, and had the vision to see what it could become. It started with as much serendipity as the lawn chairs in Times Square. (And as another poster has pointed out, the Times Square street closing was highly planned.)

Maybe we are always destined to eventually codify and refine randomness...as in the Pathways of Desire example.

In any case, once the hubbub subsides, the High Line will still be there. If you haven't been yet, please don't let the rumors of uber-hipness put you off. Go at sunset (it's open until 10:00). It's a wonderful place, and we should all be very grateful to the perseverance of the people who made it happen.

If the creators of the High Line simply put chairs on the tracks no one would of responded. Placing chairs in Times Square works because that's where most people visit when they come to New York.

The High Line had to reimagine, repurpose and then rebuild the space for all of us to experience something different. And folks, that takes time and money.

The problem with this recent Phillip Garrido's kidnapping case is that all these so called systems were in place and tools dispatched however it still didn't help this little girl. The most effective action would of been to simply visit the guys home and check his property. We don't need a million dollar program to accomplish this.
Rocco Piscatello

Spot on.


If I had a dollar (Canadian or U.S.) for every BHAG someone tried (unsuccessfully) to co-opt me onto, I'd have a penthouse on CPW and a box at Flushing Meadows.

L.M. Cunningham

great post. love the thought of quick initiative. great ideas are often killed by over planning, risk management and over branding.

get the thing started and tweak on the fly.

it will never be the perfect time to start, you'll never have everything figured out. the greatest aid you can have is passion and speed.
Dave Gilbertson

'"We need to build buy-in around this initiative with the internal stakeholders," my client would tell me carefully.'

The sad reality of many corporate cultures is that many VPs and other executive level types only respond to flag waving from a top the logjam upon which they sit when the flag waving down below has a big logo on it. That means the exec can "allocate funds" to "further the initiative" which involves "training" and mandatory meetings to garner "buy-ins" from "on the ground" employees who are managed by the "stakeholders". Oy.

These programs change very little day to day operations in reality, and soon fade from sight. Instead, what really works is when a manager loves their job and meets people one on one and sells their ideas for change by creating a personal, routine dialogue. No logos needed, really, in a perfect world where all the managers love their jobs. But until we get to that day...us designers will keep designing logos for flag waving!
Douglas Bonneville

Actions always speak louder than words (or brands). We live in a mad world where everyone 'needs' and 'wants' to brand everything and anything, when they really don't need to. As you say, they need to stop, think and ask themselves do I really need one.
Kevin Blackburn

Great stuff. I really like your writing style.
Aubrey blog

About the need of a logo... If I were to create a logo for the High Lines, I would make it iconic, something that represents the elevated parks, something that everyone can remember and recognize. I mean, how can you expect to attract tourists to visit the High Lines if there is no logo for them to get an idea on what it is or what it looks like?

I love the way you write but I love JSK even more :-)
Sujit Patwardhan

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