Have you ever tried to read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Wouldn’t you like to really know it and understand it? That glorious theory of the way the universe works, asking us to examine who, if anyone, is really at the center of space and time. It’s not easy reading. There have been many attempts to parse the idea, to translate it for us poor unwashed masses who are unversed in quantum mechanics. I recently came across “Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in Words of Four Letters of Less” and was completely charmed by this particular attempt. Not only was the author trying to explain the mind-bending theory in layman’s terms, but also to do it under a constriction of four letter words. That’s quite an exercise in constraint and simplicity for any piece of writing, let alone for humankind’s peak scientific idea. The desire to comprehend, to share, to teach people in a common language and understanding for the sake of grasping our world is perhaps worth the attempt.
In a very tiny nutshell the Theory of Relativity asks, who is the center of the universe? You? The sun? Some other body in space nearby? The answer depends on your perspective, your sense of movement relative to other objects, and whether you shift your center from yourself to somewhere else. I think the question and the answer also holds true for desire lines, those footworn paths created by people or animals shortcutting the most easily traversed line between places. Desire lines represent our attempt to circumvent throughways that are created on our behalf by someone other than ourselves; although those throughways are designed to accommodate human traffic towards a destination in a sensible and ordered way, the very fact that they are created by someone other than ourselves means that they come from a different perspective than our own. Who is to say which perspective is “more right”?
If you look at the flickr photo set of desire lines, you’ll notice that they are taken from a first-person point of view from some point on the desire line path – in other words, not from the architect’s or the official path’s point of view. The tendency is to believe that the architect or designer got it wrong by somehow not accounting for the easiest path, the most human path. And often, this is exactly the case. The desire line is there, quite simply, because a group of people commonly desired and created a better way of getting from “here” to “there.”
So why should architects or planners or designers go the hard way? Why not cave to what people really desire, which is simplicity? Obviously human-centered design is already a well-accepted philosophical approach to creating things, systems or services that have empathy for the end user in mind. There is no arguing its validity. But like any other approach, without thoughtful application and consumption, the approach itself becomes a shortcut and eventually loses all substance and meaning.
Think about the "Theory of Relativity in Words of Four Letters or Less": even though the human-centered attempt at delivering a complex idea through simple language is successful formally, it still requires that the audience takes the time to read the entire text, to think about it and to absorb it. It requires effort by both parties, the creator and the receiver. Shortcuts don’t equal a passive or automatic user experience.
If architects and planners actually observed, formalized and built all the possible desire lines, might the world become one huge mesh of crisscrossing paths with no negative space between? An infinite number of direct paths from point to point, but with no common, shared trails? Where is the threshold between accommodating desire lines and overcrowding a design with too many unique possibilities? And at what point to those desire lines themselves become too indirect and require yet another desire path or shortcut?
I believe the answer lies somewhere in between a human-centered approach to simple, effective designs and an acknowledgement that as designers, we can’t ever completely eliminate the need for our users to actually participate in the conversation, to engage, and to think.