During May I traveled to Japan on a design study trip. The itinerary included meetings with several Japanese designers as well as group visits to interesting sites in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. But I also knew that I would have unexpected moments of free time for which I would need tools to help me explore the cities and their design heritage. When choosing these tools, I found it helpful to recognize my own travel interests and values. I like to diversify the types of communication platforms I depend on, so I chose both digital and paper-based tools. I delight in deep learning, so these tools needed to be rich content sources that could be easily explored on-the-move. They also needed to be scaled to my day bag. Finally, because I teach design history and theory, I always measure my choices according to the three-part standard written down by the ancient Roman writer, Vitruvius: utilitas, firmitas, venustas – roughly translated as useful, solid, and beautiful. One example of how I applied these criteria is my choice of the paper guide book series the Wallpaper City Guides.
“A tightly edited, discreetly packaged selection of city highlights for the design-conscious visitor. Each Wallpaper* City Guide unearths the most happening restaurants and nightlife, the buzziest hotels, the most influential art galleries and enticing retail, the very best in local design, and the historical styles and contemporary architecture that define a destination. Local writers have delved deep into the urban psyche to enable you to come away from your trip, however brief, with a real flavour of the creative scene and the satisfaction you’ve seen all that you should.” From https://www.wallpaper.com/travel/wallpaper-city-guides
Utilitas – that is, it must be useful. Multi-functional. I stumbled across this series of guide books in the travel section of my local bookstore. The city emphasis, as opposed to a more familiar regional or country focus, is what first caught my eye. I appreciated the integrated, colour-coded map of popular neighbourhoods and choice destinations. The editorial focus on design-related travel interests aligned perfectly with my needs. Chapters covering well-chosen topics – Landmarks, Hotels, 24 Hours, Urban Life, Art/Design, Architour, Shops, and Escapes – were separated with die cut tabs, thus removing need for a bookmark. Also, the note-taking and sketching pages bound into the back ensured that one volume would be very useful on the road. Much like an ideal kitchen tool that has many uses, travel tools need to serve many functions and support many approaches to use.
Firmitas – that is, it must be solid. Made well and Well-made. The ‘solidness’ of a design travel resource tool not only considers material composition and craftsmanship (Is it going to hold together?), but also its intellectual, ethical and economic justification (Does it present well-researched information from an admired point of view? Does it use resources well? Is it sensibly-priced according to its material quality?). The Wallpaper City Guides are sturdy, perfect-bound, printed paperbacks with fold-out paperboard endpapers that do double-duty as maps and page markers. The front endpaper reveals a view of the city with the major skyline landmarks identified. The back endpaper shows the key, colour-coded map. Printed on sturdy card, this navigational overlay provides just enough orientation to kick start a side trip.
Venustas – that is, it must be beautiful. If I’m going to make a book, device, or service part of my daily routine, it needs to please my aesthetic sensibility not just in terms of attractive visual control of the elements and principles of design, but also in terms of its ability to activate pleasure using the other senses. The way it feels to the touch, its weight in my hand, the legibility and readability of its graphic design, the cleverness of its user interface – all of these intellectual aspects of use are just as important as visual qualities. As material objects, the Wallpaper City Guides are nicely-designed. Small [160 x 108 mm (6 1/4 x 4 1/4 in)], they are only a little larger than an A6 size manga book and each fits nicely into my hand and my travel bag. The cover design focuses on colour and letterform rather than image, and such unobtrusive jacket design allows this slim volume to pass for a notebook in the hands of an initiate (rather than a garish guide clutched by a tourist). Page layout is dominated by beautiful, singular photographs by credited photographers, emphasizing the view on location.
Like any travel experience, design-focused travel needs solid information sources. Today’s internet-enabled traveler however, risks becoming overwhelmed with content both during the planning stage and while touring. The challenge, therefore, is to find a trusted tool that shifts effortlessly from an obvious task-based function to serving unanticipated needs. Good tools need to provide a multi-disciplinary perspective, and their main function may be to spark curiosity. By giving careful consideration to my choice of paper guide-book, I was able to focus my limited preparation time on quickly getting to know my tools rather than trying to pre-learn all of the trip’s lessons.
Images: Karen R. White