Musings, Philosophy

Desire Lines

There’s a concept in design called a desire line. The idea is to figure out where point A is, and Point B being the destination for most people, and then find the easiest way between them. if you’ve ever walked through a park where there were concrete paths at right angles, and then a diagonal path worn in the grass by the treading of many feet… that’s a desire line. Or a lazy man’s path.  I was thinking about this recently, when a shelf was put up over a table I work at. Nothing was on the shelf (I’m not sure anything is planned to be on the shelf), and as part of my work there, I sort things into bins, then smaller bins, as they get progressively organized. Now, the bigger bins are supposed to go on shelves off to my left a few steps away, but I found myself stacking them on the shelf, an arm’s length away, instead. This is a classic desire line in action.

Humans tend to take the path of least resistance. You could pitch it to them that the longer walk to the corner, making the turn and then proceeding to where they would have gotten by walking through the grass is better for them: more exercise! less ecological damage! but still you will have those who will cut the corner. They need to get where they want to go, and they don’t have the time or the energy to do it the long way. You can post that there is no walking on the grass allowed, and then the desire becomes a scofflaw. Still, there will be a path in the grass. Perhaps in a different place… The best designers would, of course, anticipate the desire line in the grass, and pave a path there, saving the grass and making it easier for the park users to enjoy their walks.

Desire lines exist as far more than paths in the grass, of course. They can be used to enhance the efficiency of a workplace, or to design a better house. My mom draws houseplans, has all my life, and she’s very good at it. She has an innate sense (or maybe just very well trained) of workflow. If I every built a house from scratch, I’d want Mom to help me design it. She gets that if you’re using the stove, you need to be able to reach the fridge easily, and the sink, and a kitchen where you have to balance the chopping board an a little bitty counter will not see much use. That sort of thing.

More than the workflow of day-to-day life, desire lines appear in our lives in bigger ways. We set out on the path to college and a degree, and get distracted by a shiny new romantic prospect. Next thing we know, we look up and the goal we’d stated is way off there to the side, and we’re skipping gaily through the grass on our way to the altar and babies. Sometimes taking the easier path isn’t the best thing for long-term goals. it’s one thing to rush through the park and take a short-cut when you’re late for work. It’s quite another to short-circuit a career and take twenty years wandering down the garden path before you find your way back – if you ever do. I know a man who took the first job out of college, and eleven years later he shrugs, describes himself as ‘risk averse’ and keeps doing what he’s doing even though it’s not what he’d planned in life.

Which brings me to contentment. Can desire and contentment exist on the same plane? I’ve been thinking about that recently, as I’m content with my family, and work, but I still want more. I desire to reach a certain goal, and I’m willing to take the long path to avoid getting lost again. I am content, and I am ambitious. For many years my desire was to survive each day, and avoid pain and confrontation. I’ve got bigger goals now, and with the daily struggles removed, I can see all the further along my projected path. Makes it easier to stay on track. More like walking through a deep forest on a path, but then you break out into open fields and can see that your destination is over ‘there’ not on the path you’ve been taking. Does contentment with the easy path force you to keep taking it? No, of course not. Dare much, and don’t complain when it’s hard to win through. When you reach that goal, you can rest and be content. Until it’s time to get up and go back to work.