Desire Lines

Wishing for an ashtray

While waiting near the Lavender MRT stop the other day I stumbled upon this site. This pile of cigarette butts at the base of this tree, just next to the sidewalk is the anonymous public’s way of declaring their desire for a ashtray/trashcan to be near-at-hand. There were actually several of these piles around the tree and at the edge of a small fence nearby.

Putting aside the fact that I think cigarettes ought to be slapped with a punitive littering tax, I can’t think of anything that so many people willfully litter about, let’s consider this pile of butts a cry for help from our anonymous smokers. From this spot the nearest ashtray/trash can is about 30 meters away at the MRT entrance. You can’t smoke at MRT entrances—or most other public places, good on Singapore for that. So the smokers have to walk away some distance to have their fix. Of course the logical place to up the ashtray/trash cans was at the MRT entrance. Very convenient for anyone who wants to toss a food wrapper (you can’t eat or drink in the MRT) or a advertisement (there are always a dozen people handing out spam at the Lavender MRT…) but this is now a very inconvenient place for the smokers banished to the tree line some distance away.

The pile of cigarette butts represents the smokers equivalent of a ‘desire line‘ []. The smokers want an ashtray/trash can here and the landlords or maintenance crew should put one here—or get the cops to come and ticket the smokers until they learn not the litter here, but that’s not a realistic solution, as much as I like to see people get ticketed.

I first learned about desire lines in a class on software design, in discussions about usability of software and interface design. The idea of desire lines originates from architecture and landscaping. Basically the idea is that no matter how beautiful your building or park, if you failed to provide a convenient way to get from point A to point B people are going to make a shortcut, even if that means walking through your wonderfully manicured flowerbeds. You can’t stop it, only try to anticipate it at design time. By asking yourself “how are users going to actually use my design,” you can mitigate how much damage they do by not following your prescribed paths. This might be done by placing the paths where the users will naturally want them—through the flowerbed—or by building obstacles to remove the temptation to take a shortcut (‘put a fish pond there’).

Of course you can’t predict everything before hand, so you have to study the desire lines that users create after the fact. Then you can improve the existing work and have a better understanding next time. In the case of Lavender MRT the fix for this little ‘desire marker’ is simple, put an additional ashtray/trashcan next to the tree.