One Among Many

The self in social context

Dutch Design

Creative minds at play

Ablutomania

I shared my views on bad (and good) bathroom design earlier in a Jongian post (think Erica). Here’s an advanced case of how well-meaning designers ignore psychology at your scalding risk. The photo shows the controls of a shower in the Rijksuniversity’s guest house in Groningen, NL. The basic design feature is the handlebar, seen earlier in this part of Europe, and evocative of the universal “fiets” (bike). The red push-down button on the right suggests that water temperature is controlled there. This impression is correct, although the red color does not (although it should) signify heat (there is no blue

button for cold). Instead, the red button needs to be pushed down if you want water that is hotter than the ecologically responsible temperature. Turning the handle with your wrist tilting up hits a barrier; pushing the red button down overrides it. On the left, there is a green button signaling green conscience. Turning the handle with your wrist tilting down (this turns out to be significant), water flow increases. When hitting the barrier at the ecologically responsible maximum, you have the option of depressing the green button to satisfy your craving for more water. Now you are enjoying a nice hot shower. When you are done, all you need to do is turn the left (not the dominant side for most people) handle towards you (turning it away to make the water stop would be more natural). For those who instinctively engage in holistic (bilateral) full-body behavior, this design spells trouble. If you have figured out that the left handle needs to be turned away, and you apply the same motion on both sides simultaneously, as your instinct for symmetry demands, you get scalded before the water stops.

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After changing rooms for reasons unrelated to showering, I encountered a fixture that almost got it right: a single lever controlling both volume and temperature. Pulling it up increases volume and turning it to one side (guess which) provides heat. The problem is that in the position for high volume, the lever protrudes toward the bather, who is apt to turn this way of the other, with the result that buttocks or other body parts will push the lever out of the way, which again produces inadvertent scalding or icing.

Let there be light

The bathroom with the bike handle shower is entered through a sliding door. When the door opens, it hides the light switch. I.e., the bathroom light will come on only if turned on while you cannot see it (through the closed door). Some switches for the bathroom lights in

this world are on the outside, but most are on the inside. In general, operating switches are in the same room in which the things are that are operated. On that expectation, you may open the door first, and then go into God mode (fiat lux, Genesis 1). The Groningen design disrupts this flow of events. Worse, if you initiate the door-opening process and then (a split-second too late) bring the light-making process online, your hand is already caught between wall and door. This can be rather painful.

Go to church—have a beer

They say that the world’s most beautiful bookstore is located in the city of Maastricht in the Southeastern NL. I agree that this particular store is fabulous. It is located within the hulk of a former Jesuit church. The Jesuits have gone on to bigger things, but they might be pleased by the rededication of their space. The book people only removed the ecclesiastical furniture, the busts of saints, and such. They left the architecture intact; they did not hide anything with paint or behind shelves. The bookshelves are arranged within the inner space of the nave. As you walk about, you can see the stained glass of a more pious period. I regard this solution as a creative act. It allows the visitor to have a quasi-synesthetic experience of being in two eras and two spaces simultaneously.

In Haarlem I found another note from the same tune. Haarlem is home to the Jopenkerk, where Jopen is a brewery and kerk means church. On the outside, you can still see an inscription saying that the “freethinking reformed church” used to congregate here. On the inside, it’s all brewery and brew pub. Again, I regard this use of space as an act of creativity under constraint. Space is a constraint (and more so in The Netherlands). Its active use trumps leaving it fallow, and the conspicuous absence of any attempt to hide the building’s past is an expression of joyful affirmation.

citizenM

When overnighting at Schiphol airport near Amsterdam, check out citizenM. This hotel overflows with creative design ideas. From the outside it looks like a boring box; on the inside, it’s a whole other story. Here too, space is the constraint. Not as much as in a Yotel perhaps, but still. The first floor is designed in what my untutored mind wants to call a Post-Ikea Bauhaus Revival theme. Lots of color, with red and black dominating. Lounging spaces reminiscent of modern-style living rooms adorned with objets. The reception is barely recognizable as such. It looks rather like a check-in station at the airport where most of the checking-in you do yourself at a kiosk. This is Schiphol, after all. A look down the hallway on floors 2 and + foreshadows the space constraint. The doors are tightly spaced, giving the hall a prison-type appearance, in a good way, if that makes sense. The room itself is

a Yotel design on steroids. On a few square feet (I did not measure, just experienced), there is a king bed, a small table with a chair, a shower, a toilet, a sink, and a coat rack, all pleasingly designed. The innovative breakthrough is to place the shower and the toilet in the room. There is no separate bathroom. A certain type of prudish American recoils. Knowing that the toilet can be closed in by opaque class doors in a perfect circle will be small consolation. The shower area is also circular, and when the two doors slide shut the showering can begin. Indeed, the water will not flow before the doors meet. If they are opened the water stops even if it has not been turned off.

You might have thought that with so much creative energy at play, the good people at citizenM would have gotten the shower fixtures right. No such luck. Here we have a variation of the handlebar design. This time, the handles stick out at you (and not sideways) and are arranged vertically. Should the top one control volume or temperature? Who knows? There is no natural affordance and no population stereotype (convention) to consult. You must try (at the risk of getting iced or scalded) or get out your reading glasses and decipher the small engravings.

Turns out the top bar controls volume. But it does more.

Again, there’s one of those little knobs sticking out. When that knob points up, there’s no water. When the bar is turned to the left, water comes from showerhead above. When the bar is turned to the right, water comes from the handset. Not bad, but not risk-free either. People expect to turn water off with a vigorous movement that is be stopped only by physical resistance. There’s no such resistance here. To turn the water off, you need to find a balance. It’s a zen thing.

Finally, and briefly, citizenM has mastered the design of the all-purpose remote control. One device does it all: lights, temperature, TV, alarm clock, and moving the shades and blinds. Brilliantly, this little device guides the user along through all the relevant psychological affordances. Example: What kind of alarm sound would you like? Selected one of these icons by pressing it: a sheep, a ping-pong handle with ball, an elephant, a shouter (a head with a speech bubble that has an exclamation mark within it). I woke up to the sound of ping-pong balls. Again, a brilliant design because the ping and pong sounds come at irregular intervals, thus frustrating your brain’s attempts to entrain to it and protect your sleep. You will wake up. At the same time, the lights come on, gently, and the TV screen lights up. I will now go and see (hear) what’s up with the sheep and the elephant. I think I know what to expect from the screamer.

PS: The name citizenM may not be an ideal choice, but I fault the Microsoft company for that. Try to type citizenM into MSWord and see what happens. This is an example of software design trying to be too smart.

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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