My studio window looks out on a dog-leg junction where Hackney Road and two side streets meet in an awkward configuration. A few steps east is a push-button Pelican Crossing armed with traffic lights, CCTV, illuminated bollards, solar panels, audible signals, flashing countdown numerals, metal railings and access ramps mounted on a raised granite block traffic island. Pedestrians have to wait so long before the WALK symbol goes green, they prefer to cross at random points nearby. Parents heading for Shoreditch Medical Centre brandish babies at oncoming drivers and bully them into submission. Bunches of uniformed kids going to-and-from Haggerston School amble vaguely through the rush hour chaos taking selfies and arrive at the other side by sheer serendipity. Urban art spotters doing the Hoxton Graffiti Tour wander obliquely along the centre line snapping tags, and veer back to the pavement for the next photo opportunity. Tattooed executives grabbing a breather from Board meetings in the Hells Angels UK headquarters cause gridlock as they scrape between bumpers to buy Chechnyan vodka at the Vietnamese off-licence. Teatime gamblers escaping the Mecca Bingo hall are dragged over the road by small dogs desperate to relieve themselves in Columbia Park. Crack dealers on Muddyfox trick-bikes scoot out of Fellows Court, bounce into the near lane, recoil onto the far lane, and zoom down the alley by Simonart picture framers. My neighbour Peggy eases her Comfi-Rider electric wheelchair off the kerb and onto the tarmac, dispensing royal waves as she weaves through vans and buses to the Post Office.
The authorised crossing is a monument to Health & Safety compliance that irritates and inconveniences. It is heavily weighted in favour of vehicles, so my local heroes invent Desire Lines that go where they want to go – in the way they want to go. These idiosyncratic detours are intensely human interactions that generate eye contact and collaboration between road users. They are negotiated agreements that inspire a mutual sense of empowerment and belonging.
Every right-of-way began as a Desire Line – to traverse a ravine, to ford a stream, to make a shortcut, to get to where the grass was greener. Twists and turns were dictated by boundaries, properties and geographical features: a blip in a track became a kink on a path that formed a curve in a thoroughfare which is now a bend on a six lane motorway. Stores, offices, cafes, petrol stations and homes sprang up to consolidate its trajectory. Instead of going where your fancy took you, you went where the infrastructure funneled you.
Many new enterprises start up to plough fresh furrows through established sectors, but become bogged down by habit, process and fear of the unknown. The joy of working with NB is that we open clients’ minds to the Desire Lines that lurk inside their cultures and operations. We pinpoint their reason for being, amplify their attributes, and create narratives that invite audiences to dive in. Consumers are bombarded with similar products and services, so brand experiences have to be dramatic encounters that take risks and shout louder. We evoke subtexts using metaphor, wit and paradox, which encourage individuals to discover their own Desire Lines within the brands they befriend.
Brands must constantly reinvent themselves and communicate intriguing rationales and delightful surprises. An organisation powered by imagination will steer clear of generic behaviours. Rather than thinking in straight lines, seeking out Desire Lines should become second nature. You have to lose yourself to find yourself, because if the journey doesn’t shape the arrival, then you are just another train on a track shunting from A to B and back again.
Thanks to Alan Dye and Nick Finney at N B Studio for inspiring this post with thoughts and images and many marvellous collaborations.