Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Data and Details: A Review of the NYC Information Center

At a recent lecture at the Interactive Design department at SVA, Frank Chimero urged students to remember, “Design is a vessel. To be valuable it needs to hold something.” Interaction design holds content or more specifically data. In the case of the NYC Information Center, a new tourist centre featuring interactive maps of New York, it holds the attractions and events of one of the most exciting cities in the world. What possibilities! For interactive designers at Local Projects working for the Center, I imagine handling this immense amount of data was both an exciting and intimidating task. Sadly, many of these possibilities were lost or overlooked by the designers ignoring some basic principals and the smaller aspects of the project.

Since January 2009, The NYC Information Center has become multimedia centre where tourists can explore New York’s attractions on interactive map or “smart table”. The center also includes FAQ screens where the top 100 questions for tourists are answered in 10 different languages. It still functions as regular tourist office where visitors can get brochures and purchase tickets in one convenient location on the retail level of the NYC & Company tourism offices on 810 Seventh Avenue. But although the midtown location is certainly convenient for tourists, it is not an easy place to find. A small 7-inch steel sign in the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface not only looks generic but is also placed above the tall windows making it almost impossible to see.

The first thing that struck me upon entering the Center was how small the space actually was. Not only did the architects at WXY and Local Project designers have to successfully distill the life and breadth of New York City but had to attempt to do so in a small, narrow space. Why when the space is already so cramped is the interior design so clunky? The smart tables are solid white boxes with another solid white structure above them. Although not apparently obvious these are shaped into an ‘i’, “the universal symbol for information”.[1] These looming structures or “digital mirrors” create a claustrophobic atmosphere. They serve no functional purpose but light up in an array of colors depending on your activity. During both of my visits, these lights were not working making the structures look even more obsolete. The digital mirrors would have been better as glass structures as the transparency would make them look less cumbersome or by eliminating them altogether.

To create a customized guide, the visitor takes an interactive disk, reminiscent of a coaster and places it on the smart table. When the disk is on the table’s map, a surrounding circular area appears. This is essentially your selected zone. You move your disk around the table to choose the area of New York you wish to explore. From here, you can choose from a number of options – restaurants, galleries, shopping – within your selected zone. I found it surprising that there were no sub-categories within the main list of options, for example “Italian” or “French” in the ‘restaurant’ section. The results are shown in the form of large tags scattered around the map. When you see an attraction that interests you can click on the tag for a description and more information. Surprisingly, this description doesn’t always include basic information such as opening hours and prices. This is a little frustrating. You can tap on this ‘+’ sign beside the description to add the favorites to stored on the disk. The disk will save up to 30 items and you can send your custom itinerary to your cell phone or email address, or print it out to take with you.

Ian Curry, designer from Local Projects, said tourists expect a level of customization and “want their experience facilitated for exactly what they’re interested in.” Since one of their aims is to allow people to customize their own guide, there should be more categories. The data also offers the opportunity to create some custom tours depending on your interests for example “Modern Art”, “Irish-American history” or “Rock Music” tours. These customized tours could go alongside the “Free NYC” and “Ask a Local” options located in the smart table menu.

The circular area, marked out in walking-distance in minutes, can be increased and decreased. Whereas most people’s walking speed is three miles per hour, the designers cleverly reduced the walking speed for ambling tourists to two and a half miles. Generally, tourists spend most of their time on the subway with no idea of the area they passed between two places and arrive, delirious and scrambling to find which direction to go. This can leave people with little sense of place or context. This path is an excellent idea as it encourages people to walk around above ground by illustrating how much they can see by walking for a short period of time.

The “Fly Wall” screen at the back of the Center allows you to virtually soar over a three-dimensional map of the New York as it highlights the attractions you added to your interactive disk. The name of the borough is overlaid on the map and looks quite impressive.  In fact, the whole thing looks impressive; I just don’t know how well flying 600 feet overhead gives a tourist a real sense of New York. One of the biggest problems for tourists is finding North, South, East or West. What would have been more useful for tourists locating themselves would be if the orientation of smart tables actually matched up to the cardinal direction of the city itself!

The poor orientation of the tables and exclusion of sub-categories or customized tours are indicative of the Local Projects approach. The technology within the space is undoubtedly impressive. But the designers have focused too much on the large technological aspects and not on any of the micro details to the make center more accessible and user-friendly.

Manager Amit Maharaj told us, “We wanted the place to look clean and not overwhelming”. Since the streamlining design phenomenon of the 1930s, white has always been associated with cleanliness but the lack of color in the space makes it look uninviting and intimidating. Amit made a comparison to the look of the Apple Store. But an Apple store can look slick and technological because they know their target market is generally young, urban and tech-savvy. The NYC Information Centre should be catering to a much broader audience considering age, race, physical ability and technical knowledge. In many respects, the place is accessible; the FAQ walls are done in 10 languages and have a lower touch screen mode for wheelchair users. All these features are admirable but I am concerned that the center would be exclusive in other ways as many people may find the space intimidating.

The $1.8 million center is funded by advertising revenue in the form of “marketing takeovers” and membership dues from NYC tourism agency.[2] I suspect the monochrome interior may have been selected so as not to overpower whatever takeover is on any given week. The term “marketing takeover” certainly seems applicable, as the garish Mamma Mia paraphernalia had literally taken over the entire center. The front window was almost completely covered with huge sticker that prevented anyone seeing inside the store. The interactive disks had nothing but the Mamma Mia logo on them. The original disks had ‘You Are Here’ written on them, a phrase we all recognize from traditional maps. Although this may seem insignificant, the ‘You Are Here’ was essential for most people’s understanding of the smart table. These marketing takeovers damage the integrity and usability of the space when they don’t take these nuances into consideration.

I was not surprised when Amit Maharaj informed us that most visitors are walked through the entire process, as there is almost no signage or instructions. Providing reusable laminated pamphlets would mean the visitors could show themselves around the center more easily. The brochures along the walls have been organized into categories such as sights, restaurants and museums but this isn’t indicated anywhere. The Center would also benefit from labeling the FAQ walls and smart tables to distinguish them from each other. NYC & Company has a bright, distinctive brand and typographic identity using cyan, magenta and yellow. Simple signage additions in vinyl in these colors would be inexpensive and not only increase usability but would add some much needed color to the stark interior. It is also interesting to think that if the smart tables and FAQ walls themselves included all necessary information such as opening hours and prices then these additional brochures would not be needed.

The center is the first of its kind in the world. This newness is exciting, but it also causes problems, as the Center can’t learn from the shortcomings of similar institutions. Ian Curry notes, “was a lot of emphasis on having software interesting enough to carry the space”[3] And although the focus seems to be on software, there is certainly something to be said for a well-designed “vessel”. Up-to-the-minute technology still needs a comfortable, open and engaging environment. WXY architects may need to reconsider the “vessel” for this data or at the very least add some much needed signage. Greater consideration on behalf of Local Projects to the many opportunities of their data will not only make the center more exciting but more informative. Fortunately for Local Projects, most of the hardest work is now done. The NYC Information Center has so much potential but the designers seem to have got caught up in the grandiose nature of the project and failed to realize that the devil (and the data!) really is in the detail.

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Time Square’s Social Truth

Ruskin begins ‘The Lamp of Truth’ by noting, “there is a marked likeness between the virtue of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits” He argues that architecture is a reflection of the society that built it. Is Time Square a true reflection of the values and aspirations of the society we live in?

Whereas Ruskin’s beliefs and the buildings he discussed were religious in nature, Time Square celebrates the ‘religion’ of capitalism. And like any religion, capitalism has its own rules and beliefs system. Times Square is the only neighborhood in New York with zoning laws requiring building owners to display illuminated signs. To not display billboards would be a crime against capitalism. But religion is also about community, as socializing and communal experiences are another way its ideals is re-enforced.

Time Square is an immense sluice of entertainment and commerce but also of humanity. The crowds that flock there illustrate our love of public spaces and people watching. And although this crowd consists mainly of strangers, depending on the day or event it becomes a kind of community. At the Metropolitan Opera Simulcasts, it is a community of opera enthusiasts and at the Jersey Shore premiere it consists of Jersey Shore fans.

Like Charle’s Moore’s discusses in ‘You Have to Pay for Public Life’, nobody believes that Disneyland’s mountain is real just like nobody believes the giant plastic M&M in Time’s Square is filled with chocolate, yet the experience of being in the space is a real and immensly exciting one.[1]

Photography is an integral part of how people experience Times Square. Almost everyone is snapping away on their camera or iPhone and most likely posting them to social networking sites to say, “I was here. I took part.” I watched in amazement as hoards of people, young and old, stood in the middle of the street taking photos of themselves on the Forever21 billboard. The billboard sits above a pedestrianized part of Broadway and features a virtual model, dressed in what I assume is a Forever21 dress, who interacts with the people below. The model takes a Polaroid photo of the crowd and brandishes it in front of her showing a close-up image. At times, she appears to pluck someone out of the crowd, kisses them or drops them in her bag. And although the billboard can be seen as some kind of strange commercialized surveillance camera, it also illustrates our own increasing obsession with documenting and sharing every part of our lives. People love to see themselves in Times Square and the billboard acts as a huge mirror. One can’t help but be reminded of Andy Warhol’s prediction that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” however in this case most people only get 15 seconds.

Although obviously concerned with promoting Forever21 it doesn’t directly coax you into that store. In fact, it does the opposite. The interaction extends how long someone looks at the billboard and encourages them to stay on the street. It is as if companies have property in Time’s Square to promote their brand and selling their products is not necessarily a main priority.

Having your image projected in Times Square relates is another way that Time Square attempts to make you feel like a celebrity. If someone goes into the Forever21 store, there are sensors that detect them causing the flash bulbs surrounding the threshold to go off, simulating dozens of paparazzi. Similarly, the TKTS booth 27 ruby-red steps rising 16 feet above the sidewalk are everyone’s personal red carpet to literally rise above everything to see and be seen.

The TKTS booth has more than doubled the amount of pedestrian space in the area. TV premieres are screened in the open air where the TKTS steps are transformed into a giant communal sofa where people gather to share in the collective excitement. These communal media experiences give Time Square a purpose and re-affirm it as real, social space. William Whyte refers to these kinds of events as ‘triangualtion’, external stimuli which provide linkage between strangers to talk to eachother as though they are not.[2] Eating and drinking are expected and encouraged as TV dinners are replaced by McDonalds takeout. You can look down on the lowbrow nature of Times Square all you want, but for many people it is a true and meaningful experience to. So, let them eat cake. Or fries. Or whatever they want.


 

[2] Whyte, William, ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, Project for Public Spaces Inc, 2001


 

[1] Moore, Charles, ‘You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W’. Moore, MIT Press, 2001

Minetta Tavern and Mad Men

As a newcomer to New York, I made a lot of  mistakes in my first few weeks – wrong subways, wrong way, wrong change – and it was awfully irritating.  Because of this I spent most of my time wandering around with my nose in any of the four guidebooks I owned. I relied on them to show me the way and followed their advice religiously.

I had originally planned to visit  Brooklyn’s Academy of Music to see a movie about the city. But after several subway mistakes suffering through dodgy Brooklyn neighborhoods I decided to get back on my reliable L train and go to Manhattan. Manhattan is safe. It has a grid. Surely I couldn’t get lost. But I did get lost and ended up on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

“Why am I already familiar with MacDougal Street?” I wondered to myself. It sounds like a vaguely Irish name, but that’s not the reason. As I passed a small, understated restaurant on the corner, I remembered … Of course, The Minetta Tavern! The Minetta Tavern’s ‘Black Label’ burger is mentioned in no less than four separate articles in my Time Out guide. It also frequently features in the Mad Men series as one of the bars where Rodger Sterling and company have their after-work martinis. After my disastrous trip, I decided to treat myself and wandered in.

I almost stumbled inside the door because the interior was so dark. But as my eyes adjusted I began to recognize the classic interior; deep red velvet chairs, framed vintage caricatures and old-fashioned cream lamps. I really felt like I had gone back to an older, more glamorous time. The waiter was pleasant without resorting to the smiling fakery that I was growing tired of in other New York establishments. He showed me to my seat and I began to make my way through the incredibly expensive menu. I looked at the Black Label price tag – 28 dollars, not including tax or tip – and felt a pang of guilt. I was being excessive. I was going to waste most of my savings on my silly attempt to feel as important as a Sterling Cooper executive.

The guilt must have subsided, or the delicious rhubarb cocktail must have kicked in, because I found myself ordering a starter as well as the Black Label burger. The pâté was distinctly average and this brought back my feelings of guilt and stupidity. But the Black Label cured all those feelings. It was a simple creation: bread bun, caramelized onions and a beef patty. No frills. But the soft ground steak mince melted in my mouth like no burger has ever done before, or since. The meat had a distinctive smoky flavor that complimented the bun’s subtle sweetness. It was smaller than it had looked in the pictures in Time Out but I ate it slowly, savoring each tiny bite.

I watched as each new person entered the restaurant and ordered the same. It seems the Black Label burger has quite a reputation beyond the pages of Time Out Guide. It cannot be denied that the price tag is ostentatious, but luckily for me, it felt completely worth it. Was I mad to pay so much for it? Probably!

Melbourne Memories. NY Dreams…

Talking about ‘Frankie’ magazine earlier reminded me what an exciting city Melbourne is for graphic designers. The only problem is that it seems like everyone second person is a qualified graphic designer so I’m guessing it could be quite difficult to find work. 2 out of the 5 people I lived with were graphic designers. That said, I was lucky enough to do a month’s internship at R-Co. Design.

In the short few months that I was there, I was lucky enough to go to two design festivals. The most exciting and more elaborate of the two was the ‘State of Design’ festival. The festival is divided into different sections including Design for Everyone, Design Capital and Design Made Trade.  It seems it’s also on this year so I’d recommend anyone over that way to check out the events on the website –  http://www.stateofdesign.com.au/

And of course, memories of the past excitement of Melbourne got me thinking about my potential excitement in New York… I can only imagine that New York will be an even more inspirational place for a young designer and design critic. I was recently accepted into the D-Crit program in the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. The course is incredible. The tutors on the course, including as Stephen Heller and Alice Twemlow, have influenced my written and practical work immensely. And although I still have to wait to hear back about funding before I know I afford to attend, I haven’t been able to prevent myself from getting very very very excited about it.

I’ve danced around like giant cliché to this..

Right now I’m far too nervous to put into words so I’ll just finish with some visual “reasons” why I could love to study design in NYC…