Thursday, 11 March 2010

The London Underground and it's Population


Assignment 3

NOTE TO READER, unfortunately my camera was recently stolen along with the photographs for this assignment so thankfully Rachel Laing has kindly gave me a copy of her own photographs allowing me to illustrate my observations.

For design, observation plays a big part in your research process. It creates an opportunity to study the effects of objects, services or places allowing you to uncover design problems that you in turn can solve from your primary research. For this assignment we were to undertake some observation of our own to allow us to study they way people react to certain rules and how they react in different situations. As I have just recently been to London I took the opportunity to study the ideal location; The London Underground.

The London Underground is certainly no stranger to crowds; the direct Londoners, the hesitant newcomers and the excited tourists all taking part in the underground experience. So many people using this service everyday entails a great need for security especially since the 7/7 devastation and everyone whether local or not must follow a set of rules. These rules aren’t all plastered on the wall for all to read; they can take the form of technology, custom and sometimes it’s just a case of ‘following like sheep’.

There was a process to riding on the tube; your bought a ticket, went through the barrier, took the elevator or escalator underground, waited on a train, got on the train, waited for your stop and got off the train, back up the escalator, back through the ticket barriers and back out into the ‘fresh air’ of London. However within this process there was mannerisms and etiquette that certain people followed and others took time to catch on to.

As a group of students mostly from Scotland I would class our group between the hesitant newcomers and the excited tourists; it was all very new for some, not an everyday experience. Russell Square became our common ground, it’s where we started and ended our days. So it began…

Buying tickets eventually became like second nature to us as we got used to the process. What I noticed was that some people would double check their journey on the handy little underground maps first before queuing for their ticket; seemed a sensible start but it amazed me how many people got to the ticket machine and stared at it bemused. They were given the option of different zones and being new to the experience were not sure of what to select. This is where the first unwritten rule appears; these people did not initially turn and ask the next person for advice, they simple fussed about for a bit (holding everyone up) eventually giving up and apprehensively asking someone to help. The unsocialable rule had come to order. On the other hand the Londoners were pros, they’re process was instinctive, in and gone before any of us had figured out our zones.

Following the ticket success, you just had to make sure you had it ready to put through the machines; it was common sense really to make sure you didn’t hold up everyone waiting to get through. It was then the race to the first elevator. I have to give credit to efficiency of the elevator but for some reason everyone treated it as the last ever lift of the day. It was a guessing game of which lift would arrive first making sure you were in the optimum position to get there first. As soon as one appeared people would push through just to guarantee their place on it, even though in about a minute or so the next elevator would be waiting and willing. It was helpful that the lift took the form of a one way system allowing people to enter one way and leave in the opposite, it did it’s best to control the situation. It was a different story on the other side of the elevator doors though; awkward silence. People tended to fidget and avoid eye contact; there were a lot of eyes darting about the lift not really knowing where to look. Conversation was limited and if someone spoke louder than a whisper they were sure to get a few funny looks. That however ended as soon as the lift doors opened and the race was on again!

As the escalator took us down further there was no clearer rule than to KEEP TO THR RIGHT, standing on the left side of the elevator was unheard of and occasionally when a newcomer forgot this rule they’d be sure to remember it when a Londoner comes charging down adamant that he’ll be late for his train. The funny thing was that most of the time you’d meet the same person down at the platform waiting for the same train as you. However sometimes you could hear the train approaching the platform as you were on your way down and again everyone acted like it was the last train of the day. There were occasions when half our group would reach the bottom before us, see the train and tell us to ‘hurry up we’ll miss it!’ when the next train was literally a minute away. There was a real sense of urgency at this stage and it wasn’t just the newcomers that presented themselves this way, even those who knew the next train was a minute away still felt the need to rush about. Especially getting on the train was a race, once those doors had opened it was a case of if you weren’t first you were last. People would be so desperate to get on they would risk the doors closing on them!

Once again we got to the unsocialable rule. Ipods in, newspapers out, eyes locked on the adverts above. You’d catch a few eyes staring at certain people but quickly look away to avoid getting caught. The underground does present a big violation to people’s personal space, everyone is so crammed in but they do their best at shielding themselves and their belongings. Conversation between strangers is rare and limited, we usual conversed in our own groups in hushed tones but on one occasion I reacted typically to a stranger talking to me on the tube. I was instantly defensive, he only apologised because he thought he was in the way but I hadn’t heard him right. I assumed he was asking me to move so that he could get off at the next stop so I set him straight telling him I was getting off at the next stop too. Realising the innocence in the brief conversation I considered what the man must have thought about me – an angry Scot perhaps. In my own experience I reacted defensively because of the abnormal communication but while observing everyone else it didn’t surprise me that this response was instinctive. Talking to a stranger broke the unsociable rule so irregular activity brought on this defensive nature in me.

Whilst waiting on my stop I was able to observe the body language and flow of passengers on the train. Whenever there were available seats the Londoners were sure to get there first due to their direct nature, however newcomers were always hesitant and unsure whether they had a right to sit down before others. Yet you always saw those in the crowds crammed at the door ready to pounce on the next available seat. As the seats filled up an invisible barrier seemed to be created between the door area and the area between the seats. No one really stood beside anyone who sat, and after observing this pattern I came to the conclusion that they avoided this because it presented an awkward position regarding eyelevel. Also the potential to intrude personal space even further in case they fell onto someone’s lap became apparent.

Another issue that surrounded the activity of the underground was the safety of the passengers. Considering the terrorist attack on the underground very little police were present during the time I spent on the tube. I was wondering whether this was a tactic that prevented panic or worry from the public or whether an increase in their presence would reinsure people of their safety. As Russell Square station became an everyday location, travelling through different stations allowed us to see the difference in design between them. What struck me the most was when I got off at Westminster station and how an over whelming sense of safety came over me. The location of this station was obviously the reason behind the security of the design, its industrial look and strength in the structure reassured you that it was a safe place. Even the platform had reinforced security, a glass barrier was constructed between the platform and the rail only opening it's doors once the train had arrived. It wasn’t until a few days into the trip that I realised the 7/7 bombing in London actually took place between Russell Square and Kings Cross. A small indication of this was presented as a plaque in the entrance to the station, perhaps this was another form of keeping the panic and worry of the public and a minimum.

Overall the experience was a learning curve, I found it easier to adapt than others because I had experienced a smaller version of the London Underground; the Clockwork Orange in Glasgow. Allowing myself to look further at the affects of processes and designs made me realise the potential this sort of research can do to improve on you own designs and concepts. Just noticing the mannerisms of the public or the target audience you are design for makes you a better designer, thus allowing you to interact with the design potential rather than taking a back seat on design just assuming the reactions you want.

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