It’s been a while since I blogged but the topic of this post has been on my mind since we landed. I’ve been noticing millions of subtle differences in the design of almost everything in the US compared to Britain. You might think that with no language barrier the experience couldn’t be that jarring, but I’d argue the many differences aside from the language serve to be just as much a culture shock as struggling to ask for directions when abroad.
I find it particularly interesting because it makes you appreciate the design for things you’d never even considered were thought through by a person somewhere, often because they clearly haven’t been here! Things like, the displays at platform level on the tube tell you not only when the next train to X is arriving, but also the train after that. What use is that!? When would that ever be helpful? Oh good, my train to work which is just pulling in now is here, but if I wait 20 minutes, I can arrive 20 minutes later! Or perhaps, buying a $5 footlong from Subway only to be rung up at $5.49 because tax is added at the till almost everywhere.
That said, its certainly a two way street and much as it may dishearten my English brethren, the Americans do things better than us in many ways to. Returning to the transport theme for example, here it is marked on the platform where the train doors will be so you can queue in the right areas in rush hour. Or perhaps my favourite discovery, ATMs here are more like a staffed bank in a box. You can withdraw, transfer, and deposit money. Hell you can even buy stamps from them!
Its not always for better or worse of course, some things are just… different. Cars spring to mind. The best way I can describe it is that American cars seem like half way through the moulding process (in a hypothetical world where cars are squashed into shape from some sphere of metal) someone just got bored and went “that kinda looks like a car, alright, next one.”
All these difference intrigue me because previously I had the impression that through internationalisation and mass import of American media and the culture that came with it, the UK had been assimilated into a cultural extension of the US, but I can tell you for certain now its not the case.
But I digress. Everything is designed. The magnitude of that seemingly fluffy statement is hard to appreciate, but it’s true. Someone somewhere put thought into the design of every object and system that you interact with on a daily, perhaps even hourly basis, and its damn easy to forget that. Until, as I’ve discovered, you use those same objects and systems, but this time around someone else designed them. Then suddenly all the subtle nuances of the old design become apparent. That toaster that you hadn’t appreciated for years suddenly seems like Da Vinci himself crafted it, now that you’re stuck using one where half the slice sticks out the top.
Good design is as little design as possible. - Dieter Rams