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The Weekliest Think: Breaking Windows, and why you should listen to 99% Invisible

October 13, 2014

broken-windowYesterday I was listening to 99% Invisible. It’s a podcast series, and if you don’t listen to it already you should try, because it’s well produced and tells interesting, concise stories about design. This is design in a wider sense, a sense that always makes me think of something that ex-Naughty Dog developer and current academic Richard Lemarchand said when I profiled him for Edge a few years back:

At the end of the day design is about human psychology, and that’s a subject that’s always been fascinating to me. Who are we? What makes us tick? How do we see the world, and how do we interact with it? To my mind it’s really just to do with being inquisitive about everything in life.

So 99% Invisible is about design in a larger way, which means it can be about anything to do with things which are deliberately crafted, or how we interact with them. Episodes I recommend particularly urgently include Thomassons, which is about vestiges of maintained but non-functional civic infrastructure, Future Screens Are Mostly Blue, about the imagined interfaces of science fiction consoles, and Hand Painted Signs, about the fading art of manual sign-making. Listening to the show will make you think about dozens of small, constructed areas of life and your relationship to them, from priority queues to pedestrian crossings. They are always relevant.

The one I listened to this evening, as I did the washing up, was called Broken Window. It was a story about Melissa Lee who, as a teenager in Baltimore, accidentally broke an apartment window with her friend. They’d fled, initially – they were good kids and felt a drop of panic and dread – but then tried, and failed, to find the owner of the apartment. Melissa grew up and went to college, travelled the world and began a career, but every time she came home, for more than 20 years, she would see the window, and it would still be broken.

There’s no grand or subtle hook to this episode. It’s a story about how an event marked physically in the space around us can draw us back to a particular time and moment. Melissa is always 13, always sad and sorry when she sees the window. But also, as it so unfailingly seems to manage, the show broke in on my experience and included more than one ‘Oh, man, me too’ moments.

Well, three, specifically. That is the number of windows I can distinctly remember breaking in my life. The first was with a football, in the garden of the Victorian terraced house we lived in for a few years after we left London – actually it was the next-door garden, and not our window, and I remember watching with a prescient horror as the ball, half-deflated and heavy, swung and dipped and couldn’t miss. That drop of panic and dread – I shared that with Melissa (‘Oh man, me too’) as I hopped and turned from the house like I could wish it all away. It’s why I wanted to write about the episode. The ball left an impossible circle in the frosted bathroom glass, a cartoon mark of my crime, which stayed there until my dad took it out and replaced the pane.

The second window left a different mark, that I can still see on my hand. Six years later, I am 14, and out aimlessly with aimless, bored friends. Running down a street in town and banging on every door seems like a good idea, the houses tightly boxed together and pushed up to the pavement with no front garden. We’re banging and laughing and running, and then my hand goes through one of the doors, the noise and the empty air something I don’t understand, until I look down at my wet, red hand. Unlike Melissa, I do not even try to find the owner of the house to explain. The S-shaped sliver between the furthest knuckles of my left hand reminds me of this every time it catches the light. (‘Oh man, me too’).

The last window I remember the clearest of all. It’s April in 2000, and I am 18 and at university in Sheffield. This is the night I see Fight Club for the first time. At university I am studying film for the first time and trying very hard to become a person, and Fight Club seems important because of this. We see it in a mixed crowd, the guys from my flat, the girls from the flat above, a few months after the theatrical run, in the Union auditorium. We have a drink, before or after, and there’s an electricity to having seen something powerful (we group-read American Psycho in this first year, a year of fumbling ironically and frantically with being men). None of this had any bearing on the window, though. We walked back up to Broomhill from the Union, the rain that settles over Sheffield from October to May greasing pavements and roads, and I run over a crossing with hands in jean pockets, slipping on a wooden trap door, up the step of an Indian restaurant, and shoulder-first into their menu board.

There’s a drop of panic and dread, and I run 30 yards down the road. But then I stop, and think, and go back to say something. (‘Oh man, me too’). The restaurant is busy, and the guy I speak to listens at first and then looks through me, says it’s fine. I offer to leave my details – I remember writing them down – but there’s a sense of me wasting their time on top of their money, and the meaninglessness of my contrition. There’s a suggestion among my friends, the ones further back down the road, that Fight Club made me break a window instead of rain and pockets, but none of them know that I’ve already broken a window through mischief, and I won’t do it again because I am becoming a person, just slower than all subsequent versions of me would like.

This is what reflecting on design can do: bring you to the realisation that you’ve had the answer to Ed Norton’s question for 14 years already. ‘Is that what a man looks like?’ A man looks like someone slipping on wooden boards with his hands trapped inside his pocket, and then saying sorry.

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