Category Archives: designed things

Behaviour-shaping public signs

Public signs are good indicators of the prevalent behaviours, concerns, or ideal norms in the society. Here are a small collection of such public signs collected randomly during my travels in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Switzerland, India, China, Ghana, Vietnam, Denmark, and UK. I compiled these photos for THEME magazine article in 2008 (unfortunately the magazine is no longer in publication).

A few public signs are culturally unique. Most of them demonstrate the nuances of the expected norms of the public behaviours. One of my pet interests to write and dig more about in the future.

phone booth

Have you used a public phone booth with a door for purposes other than using the public phone? It is used as a shelter from a sudden rain, using mobile phones inside, changing clothes, rearranging the bag, or even crying for a while if you must, though being inside a phone booth proper is becoming a faded memory for many. With mobile phones, choosing the physical environment in which we make a call is often up to us. In the early phase of adoption of public phones, phone booths were advertised as essential tool for privacy, making the caller feel more comfortable. Now, some places force mobile phone users to use the phone booth for the comfort of others around the caller.


In any case, I reckon that designing a phone booth is a challenging task, satisfying the need for privacy as a comfort zone for a voice call (regardless of whose comfort that is) while minimizing the opportunity for exploitation and valdalism by making it too private and comfortable at the same time. With the vast diversity of the telecommunication culture, I always feel that the design of the surviving phone booths still communicates the attitude of the space that they reside in.




This booth, in front of Meguro station in Tokyo, has semi-ransparent brown walls. It is complete with emergency numbers and a printed phonebook. On the door is a sticker that bears a warning to those attempting to place pinkupira*, issued by the police.
* pinkupira: the kind of advertisements you would find in London’s landmark phonebooths, like this – though it seems to have become significantly less as sexual advertisement became illegal in 2001 in UK.


This is from London’s old street tube station. With space constraints and the heavy traffic of people, these public phones do not resonate with the concept of comfort or privacy, but serve the necessity of anyone who needs to reach out to someone quickly and efficiently (especially tourists, nowadays).


This phone booth design in Paris seemed fairly new, very spacious inside and totally transparent.



These pictures were taken in New Molden, Surrey – London’s suburbia. I never saw anyone using the email / text function in public phone. Booths for silent communication – through keyboards, gestures, screens, would probably require a whole new set of design brief.


The classic London phone booths, in Smithfield market.

displaced/fabricated nature

plants growing in tokyo metro station

plants growing in tokyo metro station

Living close to the nature is a privilege in many parts of the world. It is more so as cities become increasingly densely populated and expand. I grew up in a very human-constructed environment of South Korea’s former industrial hub, Busan, South Korea. Naturally, facing or getting too intimate with the real nature has always been a special, rare occasion to me. On the other hand I am very much familiar with the idea of miniaturized, sanitized, fake nature in the industrialized, completely made-up environment, simulating and sampling the idea of nature rather than providing the real experience of it [think a fake snow field in a department store window decoration rather than the deceivingly real artificial beach in Odaiba, Tokyo, Japan]. In doing so, we often mimic parts of the nature that takes minimal effort to maintain and is pleasing to our senses without unpleasant consequences.

a cafe in an underground passage in tokyo, japan

a cafe in an underground passage in tokyo, japan

In Seoul’s smaller city airport, Gimpo, there’s a airy lounge area that looks like a garden. Perhaps it is the obvious contradiction that makes it more charming, or acceptable, depending on where you are coming from. As a city child I didn’t even notice the ubiquity of mimicked nature until I came back to Korea after living in other countries. They are sometimes cute, but more often than not, can be repulsive, cheap, and horrifying. Like most animal cages in the zoo are simply sad to look at.

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea


gimpo airport lounge, seoul, south korea

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea

As depicted by numerous well-known science fictions, we will soon see the day when it is no longer interior decorator’s musings to create the artificial parts of the nature, as they may be required for the purpose of making people familiarized with the concept.

As a side story – in a Japanese manga series called ‘Five Star Stories’, the humanoid girls ‘Fatima’ who are specifically created for controlling the war robots are described. Their skin can only accommodate clothes made of real cotton, which in itself is an extreme luxury at the time. I was reminded of the story when I was shopping in India looking for a traditional cotton lungi in a local neighborhood: I tried almost 10 shops, and none of them had a single lungi made of pure cotton as it was too expensive.

shopping carts and independence

My neighborhood grocery provides two types of trolleys – one with a holder for shopping list (or whatever your reading material is), another with a baby seat. While I haven’t seen anyone making use of these considerate installations so far, the idea is easily understandable.

waitrose shopping cart, london

waitrose shopping carts, london


These handcarts by no means are provided as a standard in the society, so the question is how many of us are willing to and able to modify our future behaviors once they learn about the availability of these tools? To make use of these carts, it would involve writing the shopping list on something that can be clipped on the board, or bringing the baby without the buggy. Depending on your existing habit, this all may require planning in advance in order to turn these into your benefit – if you want so.

Leaping from this stream of thought (even though these shopping carts are not even a brilliant example), not many places in the world provide supporting tools in the first place for those who want to shop or take public transport with disability or carrying a baby without other people’s help. Even if there were tools, for one part, it is about how easy it is for people to discover the use. Once they discover them, it is a matter of how adaptable people are in planning their behavior accordingly to make the appropriate use of them.


I tried to put my folding bike into the shopping cart. I wasn’t told off by any of the staff, so not having a bike lock doesn’t discourage me from dropping by at the grocery on the way home anymore.

the local wisdom

the heavy snail-shaped door stopper shown in the picture below has an important function in this design office: without it, the door will automatically get shut.
automatically closing door

mark from experientia explains that it is a typical traditional door design in turin / torino, italy, quite suitable for the cold winter.
automatically closing door

energy-efficient traditional designs fascinates me. in light of the approaching energy crisis, i hope we will revive lots of local wisdoms. furthermore i hope we will make more use of other localities’ wisdoms that suit our own culture and environment. the picture below is the interior of a riad in marrakech, morocco. the center of the house is a huge open space, and rooms are with loft-style high ceilings to keep the air cool indoors.
riad in marrakech

the alleyways in the residential areas of marrakech are covered by buildings and therefore kept pleasant temperature even when the sun is shining blazingly hot.
residential alleyway in marrakech

below is a passage leading to guest rooms in hotel lingotto in turin, italy, designed by renzo piano. looking at photos from earlier trips – i am quite behind with my postings but looking forward to catching up as my carbon footprints become lower in november.
entrance to the hotel

the conference that brought me to turin (torino), italy left me with lots of thought-provoking experience, one of them being the death of my close family members. furthermore, spending time with friends and inspiring thought leaders like mark, elizabeth, adam, nicholas, jeffrey, and bruce+yasmina marked my last summer. my special thanks goes to mark who was an exceptional host for all the visitors.

entry stamps

i sent my passport to chinese embassy to get a visa – knowing that there are only 4 clean pages left, i am trying to push for multiple entry visa.

frequent travelers may understand very well the stressful moment when you find out your passport is expiring in less than 6 months or there’re not enough pages left for visa shortly before your trip. luckily korean government allows adding new pages to the passport once – my 3.5-yo passport got one extension already so running out of pages now means a new passport. and getting a new passport means carrying two passports or going through several embassies to transfer your valid visas to a new passport, not to mention being grounded in the country you live in without being able to travel for a while.

it is natural that i get quite picky at the passport control as to which page the entry stamp should be on. i try to instruct the inspector not to use a new page but try to find a used page to fit the stamp in. but considering that in many countries the border control inspectors seem to demand the ultimate respect from travelers, it does not always work to advise them on how to do their job. considering that some countries require looking up the last entry/departure stamps from that country, it is not a trivial matter to arrange a good spot for the entry stamp.

the design of the entry stamps vary a lot: my favorite ones are from south korea and japan. obviously these two countries not only have smallest stamps of all, but also clearly differentiate the color and the shape stamps between the entry and the departure.

european union countries have very clear design based on pictograms, probably because they had to be used by many countries. a page of the tidy array of stamps like this makes me smile.

the worst design for me is UK’s simply because it is so big with the bit that does not give any useful information to the traveler: it is impossible for the inspector to fit two stamps in a row. i hope there will be an opportunity for the talented designers to work on this soon. and if you ever wondered where these stamps are used anyway: i was asked to submit photocopies of all the entry stamps to UK from my passport to apply for tax payer identification number in UK.

will international mobility increase in the future? certainly people who recently have taken advantage in using services like dopplr probably started to think about it. traveling overseas has become easier in terms of getting to know the destinations beforehand and making reservations in advance, but very little progress has been made over past decades in the area where governments are involved. of course new technologies like retina scan are employed in making the in-out procedure easier but mostly for the country’s own citizens only. visa procedures and passport controls as foreigner are still slow – or have become more difficult since 2001. the more entry stamps my passport accumulates, the longer it takes for me to go through the passport control desk as the inspector flips through pages in search for suspicious traces, the last entry stamp, or purely out of his/her curiosity amongst the randomly placed stamps from around the world. missing flight connections because of long passport control queues happened twice in airports in USA last year, a queue that most people become equal with no privilege unless you are james bond from 007 movies or a diplomat. my colleague experienced a lost/damaged/stolen passport disaster which happened right before his joining our field research in ghana – it took him a travel to finland and france to get his passport and US visa back at least.

passport becomes such an important piece of document for anyone travel internationally. but changing the interaction design around it is so deeply tied to the complex forest of politics and international governments that do not work together that it seems almost a mission impossible. what technological solutions and design thinking could support people who are global trotters, or nomads?

to lighten up my sunday mood – i dug up photos of my favorite passport graphics design from iceland. it has a bright blue cover and all pages feature different patterns each incorporating a story.

counter-intuitive, or thought-provoking

my first days in london were hosted by a hotel in a bustling city center. the close-to minimalist interior of the hotel was compensated by the very mixed set of interface designs – mainly door knobs and light switches, which may be seen as annoying at a first glance or confusing, but which i came to enjoy as an experience of pondering on my temporary living space.

the room key literally looks like a mechanical key – but it was just an electromagnetic stick. so i could not put the key in and turn it. but then i tried to push the door in without turning the handle. the handle, in a smooth sphere shape, was quite difficult to turn to open the door.

key inserted
door opened

was it just my good mood that i took the counter-intuitive interface as an amusing opportunity to take a break from the routine of unconscious actions? without causing any harms to the user, i think it is important not falling too much into ‘annoyance upon the first time use’ in designing things and ideas. design that gets better over time – a dimension that is increasingly important for me in design – does not always cater well for the strangers.

st martins lane hotel room