On a recent vacation to Europe I promised myself that I’d put my new camera to good use by documenting as many examples of typefaces as possible. With only a week of travel time I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to accumulate the desired collection of new and modern trends that I’d hoped for given that I was dedicating my travel to the olde parts of York, London and Paris.
I captured some old and new typefaces but came to a more profound realization that traveling is like being a beginning user. As designers, we try to put ourselves into the minds of beginners through observation in research but this can be only partly successful. Research doesn’t beat the real thing and there’s no better way to do that than throwing yourself into another country. I should disclaim that I spent 18 years of my childhood in England so it’s not a completely new experience, and I’ve been to France many times also. Being away for so long is a good way to completely forget old experiences and see new design innovations for the first time.
I’ve included a collection of photos from the week, and I’ve also summarized some of the highlights below.
When visiting an historic location like Versailles, it’s preferable to imagine yourself in the era of the time. It’s especially difficult to do this when an artist’s work (in this example featuring Michael Jackson) is smacked in the middle of a room. The idea was creative but the visitor’s experience suffered.
On a small side street I was confronted with this myspace graffiti. Just a short reminder that it’s hard to leave the internet at home, even when losing yourself in a city like a happy naive tourist should.
Taking the train is far different from air travel
For the first time, my wife and I booked train travel from London to Paris the weekend after the disastrous channel tunnel fire, and we had prepared to cancel our trip to France altogether. But the confidence of a Eurostar customer service phone representative convinced us to take a risk a mere two days after the fire had been extinguished. We feared a long delay. Upon arriving at Kings Cross station we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a dozen or so representatives on hand to answer questions from concerned travelers. In this chaotic time, Eurostar did something no airline would ever consider: Make themselves as available as possible. Our train was full, but no one was delayed, people were calm and the ride was quick, smooth and very comfortable. We saw much countryside from our seats also. We arrived in Paris an hour earlier than scheduled. And the best part was no baggage surcharge.
Some basic amenities require too much thought
Whether it’s a hotel room, toilet or elevator, you’re sure to experience something that’s a little wacky. We stayed in one hotel where our room electricity wouldn’t activate until we placed our hotel card key in the light socket near the door. Saving energy is a noble task but it came at a cost. I managed to lock myself out many times because the key wasn’t in my wallet. We also found ourselves fumbling around in the dark until the key activated the lights. I never did misplace the key though!
Those foreign toilets are a puzzle too. What do the two buttons really mean? I guessed that one was for “number one” and the other for “number two” but I could never really figure out which was which? I resorted to flushing both to experience the difference but couldn’t really tell. With so much variation in toilet button design you’d think that manufacturers would make the button sizes more distinct or label them or something.
Then there was the hotel elevator for a six floor building. It was no 60 floor Manhattan office skyscraper (where I’d seen this design once before). You press the floor level in the lobby and it informs you which elevator to take. This sounds efficient but I’d mostly press our floor and then drift into a vacationer’s daydream before realizing that I had no idea which elevator was ours. Plus the anxiety of being in an elevator with no buttons was too much for me.
The simplest and oldest of designs can be marvelous
A wonderful metro map in Paris showed us the best route to take from our current location to our destination by simply pressing and holding a button. I contrasted that to an iphone app, sfmunitime, which is riddled with challenges. Admittedly, I’m comparing two vastly different resolutions of information display size but simpler is usually better when you’re new.