The latest issue of Granta is devoted to travel writing. There are some fantastic pieces but one stands out thus far: Tim Parks writing about Trenitalia, the Italian state railway system.
Parks writes beautifully about the details in the system's fabric. He also manages to write about the entire social framework its canvas is stretched over. In reinforcing why I enjoy travel writing so much, 'Trenitalia' also made me think about 'the total experience' and how that relates to high-level design work.
Arguably, taking on design should involve taking on the entire experience, including purpose, function and representation. For this, skills include observing, researching, modeling and conjuring. This high-level design work includes what architects would call the program e.g. see Rem Koolhaas/OMA and their projects for the Seattle Public Library or Serpentine Pavilion. The building work to create the physical product is of course part of the job, but fundamentally it also means taking a look at the very idea and function of the library or the gallery itself. Yes, you might call this experience design, but you could just call it design. Or another word altogether; the name doesn't really matter. You could call it marketing, strategy or writing without words for all I care. I'll call it Total Design for fun, as a nod to an earlier thought. It's just not a more detailed functional subset of interaction design or information design, say. It's the whole thing - history, future, culture, purpose. For instance, the 'BBC 2.0' project (not my name) I'm working on at the moment is really more like 'Media 2.0' much of the time (see the 'Lost' piece for a hint of that kind of thinking.)
But to approach this kind of work at all you need to take everything in. To eat the world with your eyes. Which, to me, involves doing what Parks does with Trenitalia - he links the 1866 battle of Custoza, via the Pope's stance on condoms, to the vagaries of the 'FastTicket' (including why it's got an English name), to the North's opposition to being linked to the South and therefore to the very idea of a coherent Italian national character at all. All within a couple of paragraphs. That kind of flourish indicates the good travel writer's skill - looking backwards, around and forwards, for the subjective as well as the objective - and also the required level of contextual interrogation and communication for this kind of design work, I'd suggest.
There are only twenty-two pages to Park's piece, yet they contain at least six pages on the patterns of behaviour involved in queueing at the ticket office. It's not ethnographic; it's more personal than that. But still genuinely useful. Just as Geoff Dyer's new introduction to Rebecca West's 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' notes its efficacy for understanding the former Yugoslavia:
"As a book about Yugoslavia, then, it is of "extraordinary usefulness" - a kind of metaphysical Lonely Planet that never requires updating. (West herself observed, "sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time".) The book's practical worth is nicely suggested by the journalist Robert Kaplan, who remembers taking the book with him everywhere in Yugoslavia. "I would rather have lost my passport and money than my heavily thumbed and annotated copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon." ['Journeys Into History', Geoff Dyer in The Guardian]
Similarly, like all good writers about place - or travel writers, as bookshops file them - Parks has a sociologist's vision combined with the writer's communication skills, as well as a craftsman's eye for the detail. Here's a passage on the carriage's buttons on Verona to Milano Intercity which interaction designers would do well to re-read. (It's actually two passages sewn together - please excuse the edit.)
"I check that I have my stamped supplemento at hand to show the inspector when he comes. I open my book. The lighting is decent and has three settings - off, medium and bright - which can be operated from a knob above the compartment door. This knob has a delightfully old-fashioned design of a light bulb beside it, with radiating lines to suggest the bulb is emitting light, though in fact the light source is neon ..."
"... At around 21.20, the train has begun to pull out of the station and I'm just settling down to read when an ear-splitting voice erupts from the loudspeaker in the panel over the door, the panel with the knob that adjusts the neon. 'Bienvenuti abbordi a treno seicentoventiquattro Michelangelo per Venezia Santa Lucia!'"
"I jump to my feet. Beside the knob that controls the lighting, there are two other knobs above the compartment door. They too are of the quaintly old-fashioned design, black plastic hemispheres sprouting little pointy fingers. One controls heat and cold. Supposedly. I know that because there are two small thermometers, one each side of the knob, the one to the left coloured blue, the one to the right red, with, over the top, a widening curved line to suggest the gradual passage from blue to red, cold to heat, as the knob turns. It is pointless to fiddle with this knob since it just turns round and round and round and makes no difference at all to the temperature. This service, like the individual lamps, has long been discontinued, the temperature is centrally controlled, though the passenger isn't informed of this, just as he isn't informed that the image of a smoking cigarette on the glass door of the compartment no longer means that you can smoke in here. 'Ave a good journey!' The capotreno winds up his English performance. If I'm quick I can still escape his French."
"The volume control can be recognized by the design of a little loudspeaker emitting radiating lines and tiny quavers and semi-quavers, though I can't recall music ever being played on the train. The knob has three clicks, supposedly loud, medium and off, though again, you will get little joy from moving it to these settings. Yet the volume control does work in its way: if you can get the knob to stick between any two clicks, the sound abruptly disappears. The thing has a propensity to slip, so this adjustment is a delicate operation. 'Mesdames et messieurs! Bien...' Done it. The voice is only a rumour in the distance, a radio in someone else's apartment. Finally I can read." [Excerpt from 'Trenitalia', by Tim Parks, Granta #94]
Parks isn't just writing about the physical form and affordances of these controls, but about what they mean. This reading of the, well, symbolic nature of symbols supports interesting conclusions about an Italian facility with representation and reality: "a nation at ease with the distance between ideal and real". Almost as if Calvino had a sideline in designing heating systems. As well as being good intellectual provocations, insights and suppositions such as these could be crucial to understanding how to build anything in Italy. The recent, excellent signage and information design textbook Wayshowing seems to understand these multiple definitions of 'sign'. As do travel writers.
Parks details the frenetic flow of social interaction within a compartment, including via MMS to an adjoining carriage. He notes how it's near impossible to find somewhere to quietly read, as opposed to English trains, where it's near impossible to strike up a conversation. The unfolding of the Lombardy landscape past the windows. The place of commuting in Italian culture. A relationship between a comfortable physicality and love of accessories. I read it enjoying the evocation of people and place, culture and cities, noting this slight, tangential relationship to design work - but this permeability indicates why travel writing is so affecting and engaging. It's necessarily inconsistent, subjective and incomplete, despite the ambitious scale of the good stuff, and therefore essentially human. Dyer again:
"The best travel writers may be of only limited reliability when it comes to bus times but they express timeless truths about the buses of a given country - or at least about their relationship with those buses."
Parks takes the train instead of the bus, but it's great writing none the less.