Monthly Archives: December 2005

Emergencies and Design

Sitting here stranded in my apartment during the NYC Transit strike has got me thinking about the relationship between design and emergencies (ok, compared to real emergencies like Katrina and the Atche Tsunami, this strike is more a major headache, though for some, such as those who are losing money or access to healthcare, it is a true hardship.)
Emergencies are, in most cases, sudden and unexpected; design work is traditionally carefully planned and relatively time-consuming.  At the same time, it is often exactly in times of emergency when the need for good design is the greatest. But because there are so many unknowns in an emergency situation (since they inherently are rare and unpredictable), the design challenges can be staggering. Of course, people design for emergencies all the time, such as the strike contingency plan currently in place by the city (which, by the way, appears to be working tolerably well.)
But what about all those needs which only are discovered after the emergency has occurred? I remember, during the blackout of 2004, returning to my apartment building, planning on simply taking the ten flights of stairs up to my apartment. But since I had never experienced a blackout while living in that building, I had completely disregarded the fact that there are no windows in the stairwells, and also consequently realizing why modern build have windows in their stairwells. And since there also was no emergency lighting in our stairwells (clearly, no planning for an emergency here), they would be pitch black.
After taking one look into the completely opaque stairwell, I realized trying to scale ten floors could be treacherous (also considering that, while NYC has gotten a lot safer of late, it’s still a city where you need to watch your back.)  I don’t remember exactly what gave me the idea, but I somehow realized that my cell phone could double as a flashlight. When it’s pitch black, even such a weak light source turned out to be sufficient to illuminate my way up to my apartment.
And so it goes with emergency, or ad hoc, design–you have very limited resources, usually little or no time (in my case, I happened to have that one luxury, sitting on a bench outside my building, pondering my situations), and are basically iterating on the fly, and you have to effctively take an out-of-the-box perspective on the resources you have. (Reminds me of how Tom Hank’s character in Cast Awayused the blades from a pair of skates as a cutting tool.)
But ironically, I think it is exactly those constraints that have the potential to allow for truly innovative solutions (what’s that saying about how times of need sharpen the senses?), to be forced to solve the problem now with whatever paltry resources you have immediately available to you.
I wonder how taking such an approach, as in simulating an emergency soituation in a design exercise, would affect the overall quality of the design.  Maybe it’s not possible to artificially create a sense of emergency in an everyday design context (other than imposing completely unrealistic deadlines or have super-short design/prototype iteration cycles), but assuming it was, would the design team, effectively use the limitation as a tool, produce something they may not have been able to produce had they followed a more traditional model?  Too often, the luxury of time (and wide-ranging design choices), are more a hinderance than a help. I guess it’s a bit ironic, then, that the one thing I do have due to this strike is a bunch of extra time to ponder questions like this.