We are not designing the world to deal with the mental illness we are creating in it.
The french air traffic controllers went on strike (surprise, surprise) and it caused my plane to be delayed that then caused me to miss two flights. I was trying to get to Portland, OR from Lisbon Portugal within 24 hours. This strike would extend my travels home from 20 hours to 3 days, 1500 extra dollars, and a few gray hairs I didn’t have before.
This was one of the most exhausting and stressful situations I have been involved in for many years. This experience plus my body's state at the time allowed me to experience the world sleep deprived, sick, hungry, fatigued, and frankly really pissed off because I had mentally prepared myself to be home and I wasn’t and I had to pivot immediately to re-coordinate everything in a compromised mental state. I was also navigating through Portuguese and English systems that were not familiar to me. Fortunately, the language barrier was minimized although I didn’t always understand what people were saying even in English and I’m sure they didn’t understand my United Statesian English either. (I see how whiny this is, but I'm not a trained soldier. If it gets too whiny jump down to the last few paragraphs).
In the situations of being stuck on airplanes, trying to navigate airports, calling, emailing and dealing with airplane companies with inadequate or expensive wifi, on low batteries, and check in desks that redirected me to other desks all while scrambling to find lodging just like the sea of people also trying to recalibrate. I was struck by how all these systems were not designed for users traumatized by the very system they were using or trying to navigate.
Interestingly, the French might argue the same thing which is why they went on strike. What I noticed, yet again, is that everything is connected so the poor treatment of one thing gives what it gets and it cascades to everything else, just like polluted water.
I was able to change plans quickly because I had a little battery left on my computer and a kind Portuguese flight attendant created a hot spot for me using his personal phone. I immediately asked my family to help me knowing I didn’t have much time left or a decent way to connect to the airline offices via email or cell phone. I did manage to call via Skype and switch tickets on my international flight. At the last moment, everything changed yet again and the pilot announced that they were able to leave a little bit earlier now. WHAT?! This meant that I may have been able to make my original flight. Oh, DANG!
When the plane finally landed in London, I tried to run to the other concourse, go through customs and security, again, and make the gate. I had a helpful pilot even run with my part of the way so I didn’t have to navigate signage. I wouldn’t have been able to find my way or know that I had to get to the other concourse without him. On top of all of this, I had taken an antihistamine a few hours before because I have been suffering from a rash and a cold. So I ran dry mouthed, itchy, late, lost, and adrenaline pumped to try to catch a plane. (This is important because many, many people are moving through the world on pharmaceuticals, many of them take them to deal with depression, pain, and hyperactivity for example.) The navigation and the layout, the signage, everything at that moment was confusing, poorly signed, there was no maps, keys or guides. The lines, rules, processes all seemed poorly organized for the various time-tables people were on. Why didn’t they have rush lines? Why wasn’t their signs that were at eye level about where you were, and which way you needed to go for help or information? Where was the line on the floor for me to follow to the other con concourse? Why did the world make the assumption that everyone had wifi or cell phones to help them navigate systems now? Why were the colors of the signs the same when the functions of them were different (way-finding vs. shopping)? How would I navigate if I was really old or young, not able-bodied, etc?
It’s not a new concept that all these desperate companies and designers take their little slice and add it to a system like an airport. (This is the segmentation and linear thinking we are trying to change to collaborative and systems thinking.) But for the user having to experience each layer in a system and in an experience, especially in a mindset altered by the experience, the process is disjointed, hellacious, confusing, and crazy making.
The most pathetic part of was having to visually and mentally decipher and filter the advertisements versus the way- finding. The airports were cages of consumption with jacked up prices and I was stuck with the options. What was really driving the design of this system then? Consumption, shopping, spending money, could this be a root cause of poor design?
I was really grateful for this experience because I gained, even more, empathy, awareness of access and economic barriers, mobility consciousness, and the need for designing systems to address the trauma that the systems we navigate create. Let's not design a system that creates or amplifies a traumatic outcome. If the users, (especially the Earth as a user) is put in a traumatized state after the use of the designed system, service, or product some things needs to be addressed differently than how it was created and pronto.
Let's take a close look at the top mental illnesses in the modern world and create places, systems, and experiences, that provide the antidote to what it is in the modern world that creates these illnesses. This is how design, service design, and space creation can be healing. This might just be what keeps loyal customers willing to support your support of them. We can and should start everywhere especially in our public spaces, where the need for universal or "public-friendly" design is the greatest. Cities, urban planners, developers, corporations, administrations, bureaucracies, can check in deeper with what they are really creating - stress and cumulative mental illness maybe? We can design for life, not just money.
I love tents and I love responding to situations where I see a possible fix to some aspect of it. So when hearing about the refugee crisis I put together the knowledge of the tremendous amount of vinyl waste from outdoor advertising with simple shelter designs. This idea would divert “free” material from the landfill upcycle it into tents and ship it to people that need them. This is a simple design and one that I hope gets people thinking about what is going to the landfill that could be helpful. There are millions or displaced people now and possibly more to come. I'd love for everyone to have an apartment, but continuing to think about fast and resilient shelter design is important. Maybe even ones that integrate water collection and heat from the sun.
Like food waste, we have a distribution problem and an interaction or behavioral problem (wastefulness) to attend to. One aspect of a perspective issue, especially within the refugee communities, is the idea of temporary. Often these temporary situations become permanent. Is it possible to plan for that reality? Could the temporary or disaster relief supplies be designed to become components of more permanent structures?
Take the simple designs on Tentility.com for the refugee scenarios. The tents are essentially billboards or vinyl sheeting that could become a vapor barrier for a more permanent structure. The PVC tubes that hold the tent together could be connected to become pipes for moving water. These are simple examples that I hope inspire people to see that in reality the climate is changing ecologically, politically, and socially. In my opinion, we need to design for resilience and possibilities of permanent nomadism, disaster communities becoming permanent, and design for a restructuring of what we typically believe to be normal. This might be a new level of self-reliance in an arrangement that creates the social and psychological healing and resilience needed to survive and care for each other, and the land base that will have to support us all.