By my third time connecting through New York City, I felt in control of my faculties enough to take the train the rest of the way.(2)
Slogging far too many suitcases onto the Long Island Railroad en route to fabled Penn Station.(3) My disappointment with this other teal and pungent reality was kept in check by the chaos of travel noise and non-sleep. The circular layout of the station helped to further disorient despite the best efforts of its classically Helvetican signage. I had about three hours to kill before my train and was excited to leave the underground daytomb in order to at least say I’d been to New York in a more legitimate if not full sense.
Emerging on the street immediately below the massive signage of Madison Square Gardens, the sheer force of tidal humanity sent me back a step or two in caution. What had I gotten myself into? San Francisco had been the most congested, urban anxiety I’d ever known, and yet this one street corner made S.F.’s Mission District seem like a tranquil meadow. I don’t much like people, cars less. This had more of both in unacceptable quantities. The Frogger episode of Seinfeld made so much more sense now.
Spidey-sense throbbing,(4) hyper-aware of my back wallet-pocket and an imagined prison-shank-like ending to my adventure, my want/need for coffee was discouraged by the lines-out-the-seams of every Starbunkin Donuts. Coffee might should have/would have been purchased at every third shopfront and yet I literally could not.
My mood was not improving. I attempted to hug a pillar in the sea of bodies, praying to Google Maps to give me some sort of purpose out here. I located Central Park and oriented myself enough to begin heading that way. I paid no mind to the fact that it was five odd miles away and that I’d never make it there and back in time to catch my train. (As I recall; it may have been eight blocks for all I know.)
Maybe due to my sensibilities as a designer, what I best remember of the next blurred 90 minutes is signage. Ads for every thing, in every size, in every medium. I wandered upon a corner of Times Square purely by accident. Now thoroughly saturated with the city, I promised myself I would stick it out long enough to experience the cultural landmark.
I took up my post mid-island and drank in more graphic design than I had ever seen before in one place. I couldn’t help but feel like Tumblr had come to life to wage war against YouTube interstitials, forming an LED-powered Canyon Of The Obnoxious several stories high in every direction.(5) What more, despite the intense volume, the messaging didn’t speak, it merely was. Even the most flashing, spinning of animations — crafted entirely to combat apathy and overload — held any prominence.
It’s humbling, seeing what you do, reduced to this, at scale.
The insignificance of design’s presence in people’s lives is sometimes too glaring. Even Apple’s much-loved, oft-“make mine like that” branding blends into the background muddle in these conditions; its transparent void running in competition with the garish animatronic pinks of Virgin Air and 20-foot celebrity headshots staring lasers at you from the producers of The Producers. The highly designed, multi-million dollar campaigns by the best-of-the-best agencies are reduced to little more than the rubble of cheap vinyl banners at the street market below my window as I type this a year or more later, 3,000+ miles due south.
It’s fairly easy to write off what I was seeing as simply another shortcoming of user experience.(6) The problem, as the client almost invariably presents it, is that their message hasn’t been shouted loud enough: their spokesman isn’t famous enough, their models not naked enough, their logo never big enough.
The problem, however, is that the user doesn’t care how loud/endorsed/sexualized they shout. The user is sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and gouged by their landlord and already has too many emails to catch up on. They can barely get in for a cup of coffee let alone bother to look up at someone trying to get their attention or suffer through whatever no-matter-how-focus-grouped-‘engagement strategy’ we can concoct. If most people are too swamped to make it to their kids’ ballgame, they certainly don’t need an eye-scalding reminder that Kathleen Turner is starring in a revival of Godspell.
It shouldn’t come as any shock when I say that my experience that New York morning turned it into the physical manifestation of the darker side of life online ― every face on every street corner an intrusion, a troll, an African prince needing my assistance and to please send my account information at once. Our lives both online and off are at once simultaneous and crowded yet fundamentally isolated and hyper-individuated. How much irony in that the more either grows, the more disproportionately savage each becomes.
Could it be that the user just wants to experience Experience in one piece, in peace? Rather than simplifying ways to game users into more accessible forms of following ulterior profit motives, clients could allow designers to realign their roles to work in earnest towards improving the life that the user is actually searching for. (The Haircuts have hi-jacked this as Empathy, which is a more gentrified perversion of what I have in mind here.) Is it an option to define successful design as defining the client’s position in that more natural path: a welcome, steady footing in the storm, not another bucket of water in the face?
I couldn’t breathe very well. I still expected my suitcases to have gone missing from bag check, or, at best, to be ransomed back to me. The impending threat of kidney punches and identity theft pecking at the base of my neck, I retreated to the safely static, pungent, flourescent buzz of Penn Station.(7)