Walkable Cities and Shouting “Fire!” in a Crowded Theater

The phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” was coined in the 1919 Supreme court case of Schenck v. United States. In this case, Justice Holmes makes in his analogy that the protest of the WWI draft by Charles T. Schenck was akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. In other words, it was the creation of unnecessary panic. To quote the indelible Wikipedia:


“Holmes wrote of falsely shouting fire, because, of course, if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly indeed shout “Fire!”; one may, depending on the law in operation, even be obliged to. Falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, i.e. shouting “Fire!” when one believes there to be no fire in order to cause panic, was interpreted not to be protected by the First Amendment.”


Over the past week, I have been muddling over this phrase and its function. If Holmes is correct, then we should assume that false claims are careless. This I can agree to. But as designers, could it also be argued that we make false claims on a regular basis. The livelihood of many designers relies on their ability to stir a frenzy and need in the masses. In fact, many professions rely on this. From politicians and journalists to advertisers and lobbyists, these parties thrive off of bringing order to disorder but are often the creates of the disorder in the first place. That’s what makes them good at their jobs.

How, then, do we distinguish from a farce and the truth? When we are surrounded by the next best solution to a problem that didn’t exist in the first place, how do we know when there is a problem in the first place?

This brings me to today. I recently began a summer internship, and will likely be working on a project with the city of Atlanta’s transit department (I’d love to say more, but cant disclose any details yet!). In planning our proposal, the design team met with local designer and transit advocate Alison Tallman.

We talked at length about applicability of good local transit and the public reputation of Atlanta’s current system. Alison turned me on the phrase “Transit Oriented Development,” or TOD, and one of its biggest supporters Jeff Speck. In his TED Talk, Speck eloquently talks about the radical changes that can happen in a city when we start to prioritize people over cars, sidewalks over turn lanes, bus routes over rush hour traffic. He advocates for building centers around transit stations, rather than supporting urban sprawl. In his aptly titled book, “Walkable City” he goes into detail about the revitalization of urban communities and the importance this will have as record numbers of people move back into urban environments.

My research also led me to a talk by former New York City transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan. She echoed Speck’s sentiments and furthered by highlighting examples of New York investing in pedestrian and bike traffic over that of cars. I highly recommend watching both of their talks if you are interested in transit issues.

Commissioner Sadik-Khan and Speck bring up incredible valid concerns and make compelling calls to action. They present a very real need for TOD and support it with substantial research. So, why then, is there not a greater alarm. Who is shouting fire? Perhaps this is the greatest issue. We as a culture are saturated with calls to action. At every turn our attention and heart strings are asked of. Sometimes for very real causes, and sometimes not. Its left to us to wade through the pool of marketing to figure out what is actually a fire, and what is just hot air. Its exhausting and overwhelming.

I truly believe that at the end of the day, the public wants to do the right thing. How then, can design communicate the importance of TOD without overwhelming. How can we empower the residents of  urban communities to advocate for walkable cities, and in turn allow them to live more productive and health lives.

Well, sound the alarm. It’s time to light a fire. We just want to make sure that no one is burned in the process.

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A Wearable Tech Extravaganza

As of my last post, I was about to head back to Atlanta. Well, after 2 straight days of driving, I arrived in Atlanta late Thursday night. My thirst for sightseeing and the quest to take the ultimate travelogue photo with my 35mm put me significantly behind schedule, but I am hoping that the photos will make it worth it. Highlights included a fruitless search for Iowa’s largest frying pan, a visit to Metropolis, U.S.A., and some absolutely stunning Kentucky farm towns. All I need to do now is finish half a role of film and find a developer. Once that’s done, I’ll take these pictures and my other remnants to make a sort of “road trip info graphic” if you will.

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To the main event, however. For the next two days after my return to Atlanta I was running around as a volunteer for Georgia Tech’s 2015 Wearable Symposium. Like many areas of design, I knew very little about wearable tech. When you hear the term, most people think Fit Bits and Google Glass. While that’s not incorrect, those mass marketed product only scratch the surface of what wearable technology can be.

The speakers were as diverse as the field and ranged from textile companies developing chip integrated fabrics, to a researcher developing custom fit head products in Asian markets, and local firm talking about the role of cadence in interactive products. Every presenter and speaker had a new perspective to offer, and discussions ranged from fashion and planned obsolescence, to strategies for technology adoption. Tech was even able to toot their own horn and show off a range of projects including shoes that would allow parents to track children and a circuit embedded tee shirt that encouraged kids to learn about technology.

By the end of the event, I was exhausted and slap happy. All I could think is that if I was exhausted, I couldn’t imagine how our rock star organizers felt. After the final exhibit was taken down, the remaining volunteers sat around and popped the left over white wine, poured in a little Sprite and orange juice, and toasted to an incredible weekend. We divvied up the last of the food, loaded up our cars and parted ways.

I cannot say for certain if wearable tech will be part of my future, but I can say with complete certainty that it is an incredibly exciting field and one that is filled with tremendous potential and innovation.

Road Trip Design Trip

A recent class speaker said “you can make anything into a design project.” So, as my upcoming road trip came into focus, I decided to take this to heart. I’ve spent the past few days with family in my home state of Minnesota recovering from the end of the semester, and will be driving my car from from Minneapolis to Atlanta tomorrow. It will take 2 days and over 18 hours.

How then, does one fill 18 hours in a car driving across America? Make it into a design project! I don’t know exactly what this turn out like, but I have a few rules set for myself:

  1. Take a photo with my 35mm camera every hour, on the hour
  2. “Humans of New York” style interview one stranger in every state I visit and try to take their picture
  3. Make a Vine length video blog once an hour
  4. Stop at at least one ridiculous road side attraction per day
  5. Get “lost” at least twice and/or stumble upon some picturesque Iowa farm town (…and If I find Chris Soules, that wouldn’t hurt, either)

Also in tow, a few roles of b&w and color film, an early birthday present in the form of Yes Please and What Do You Do With An Idea, Ellen on audio book, my sewing machine, a few canvases and my mom’s vintage Robin Hood bike I plan to fix up over the summer. With that, I ask you to wish me luck and safe travels!! The Honda’s filled with gas and the road trip bag of snacks is plentiful. See you on the other side!

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