Human Scale

Switzerland is a wonderful country. I spent a week there last month for work – walking by shops, eating on it’s streets, and working in a building that overlooked a cobblestone plaza. In my off hours, I found myself wandering the streets exploring my surroundings. After arriving, I quickly became impressed with the strong quality of human scale that existed in the city where I was living. Everything from the streets, size of buildings, and landmarks expressed a harmony of scale with the people that lived there. This is what I describe as human scale.

Human scale is a design quality of an experience, system, or device that expresses a strong sense of the creator’s own scale as a limiting constraint of development. The quality of Human Scale is typically stronger in design outcomes where machines and technology limit the amplification of the human’s own ability to create. In the towns that I visited in Switzerland, the streets didn’t continue on and on for miles without a bend. Instead they split, curved, and merged with organic cadence, often strongly accounting for the topographic detail of the land. I frequently found myself walking and wondering, “what was around the next bend?” – afterwards finding out that I had walked 3-4 miles. Such distances “felt” shorter than they actually were. In contrast, the community where I live is organized, measured, and engineered around a cardinal grid system, where street names are numbered incrementally and continue in straight lines for miles. It’s hard to perceive where you are in the grid because the structures, traffic and cadence are designed for a predefined grid. It feels very mechanical – almost digital.

Additionally, none of the homes or buildings in the Swiss towns I visited were of the same size. Even though each home was connected to adjacent structures, it fit nicely in it’s “own” space. They almost looked like people: some big, some small, each with it’s own roof height and dormers. The spaces/lots on which the homes and shops were built varied in size while still maintaining a nice harmony. The pace of walking seemed to nicely match the materialization of a new store front or home door. I realized that this scaled rhythm and co-located variation, helped me more quickly learn my surroundings and landmarks. The net outcome was a feeling of “knowing the city”. Upon my return, I found myself telling anecdotes of my travels as it related to relative location of stores and discovered landmarks. “The chocolate store on the edge of the plaza” was mentioned time and time again. I feel like I could go back there in 5 years from now and easily find my way around.

My reflection reminded me that efficiency and reproduction are qualities of mechanical and industrial forces – their ability to measure and amplify most often extend boundaries perceived by humans. I wonder how this strong human scale quality, found so much in Switzerland, has influenced culture, design, and community there?

I would like to think of Human Scale as a design consideration, much like sustainability or accessibility. How can the experiences, systems, or devices that we design reflect this value? One of my common frustrations with digital systems is the inherent, binary nature to mask, distort, and compress elements of time and space. Do we design digital experiences to cheat or deliver more than the human experience can recognize? Do we design for human thresholds as much as computer thresholds? Do we measure and drive consistency to the point it becomes unperceivable to users – when instead, a thoughtful cadenced of variation should be considered? How can we break up the length of a given task in such a way that the user wants to know “what’s around the corner”? How can we provide organic landmarks for users to better learn complex systems? Can experiences be designed with less structure to encourage safe “wandering”?

I believe understanding the Human Scale of experiences can help us design better experiential scales in the world of computers that resonate with humans, and can help balance the ability to amplify information and experiences beyond the scale of perception, understanding, and even need. Other design themes that I believe are core to Human Scale are: thresholds, cadence, variation/harmony, and change rate of information. With that in mind, I leave you with this introduction of Human Scale design.

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