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How to turn ordinary into extraordinary

April 8, 2021

There's this documentary series called How to with John Willson. John films people and events in New York he finds intriguing and tells stories about today's urban life. The stories make me laugh. Cringe. Wonder. Appreciate the quirks of being alive.

The episode How to put up scaffolding felt incredibly familiar. Then I realized: it reminded me of another film that shifted my gaze years ago.

Back in the 80s, William H. Whyte filmed the streets of New York for a documentary called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. He explores how people behave and interact in public spaces, with the goal to inform zoning regulations. It's difficult to find snippets of the film, but the first minute or two of this summary might give you a sense of what's it about:

Despite the differences, there's a common feel to these two films. Other than sharing NY as the scene, both authors bring grace and humor into the mundane, turning topics like small talk and park benches into poignant reflections on the messiness of reality, transience of human existence, and power of social connection.

A question both Whyte and Wilson ask is: what makes vibrant spaces work? It - turns out - is the ability of a space to bring people together. To give us something to rally around and talk about. Something that motivates us to come back and spread the word. Sound familiar?

People tend to sit where there are places to sit. This might not strike you as an intellectual bombshell, but this simple lesson is one that very few cities have ever headed.

William H. Whyte

The authors' care for the briefest of interactions and pursuit of opportunities that hide in plain sight are qualities that inspired me to study cities and people, and eventually practice design. Imagine turning a button into a gateway to opportunity. Turning a landing page into a promise delivered. Turning an app into a tool for goals accomplished. All while keeping in mind that in great products, as on vibrant streets:

The number one activity is people looking at other people. But it is a point overlooked in many, many designs.

William H. Whyte

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