Just Open the Door

Recently I’ve been noticing a lot of doors with signs on them. Sometimes they say simply “Push” or “Pull,” but often the directions are more labored. In the town where I live, a new library was built last year at great cost, and one of its front doors had a sign taped on it. “Careful—door can open suddenly,” the sign warned, presumably because small children could get knocked down by the massive wooden door swinging open. At my local grocery store, the doors resemble traditional country entries, with glass and mullions, but need a sign on the glass explaining that they open automatically.

Usually these signs are handwritten or some ad-hoc note that’s been printed out and slapped on the door because someone inside got fed up with the way no one outside could figure out how to get in. This convergence of visual, verbal, and haptic information makes for confusion—you don’t know whether you’re coming or going—and something as basic as opening the door becomes tinged with uncertainty. “The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still,” Macbeth said, and so might any of us less traumatized citizens faced with these conflicting bits of information.

Design history suggests that most doors managed to be operated without elaborate instructions. The number of variables, after all, is fixed: a door can open in, out, or both; it can slide; a knob can be turned; a lever pulled up or pushed down. The choices are not infinite. But how they’re resolved and how the gesture of the hand, the turn of the knob, and the motion of the door all collaborate can either be graceful and intuitive or awkward and uncertain. Still, the signals as to how a door opens—traffic flow, spatial cues, the hinge, the shape of the knob or handle—aren’t cues you register con­sciously. You take them in intuitively—­instantaneously—and then you open the door.

So why, at a time when we lay such claims to design literacy, do we need verbal and visual cues about how to open a door? What does it say about us that we have created such a mystery about so simple an act? Modern architects often suggested blurring the boundaries between indoors and out, but it’s not likely that this was what they had in mind.

I take my question to Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York office of Pentagram with decades of experience figuring out how people navigate the built environment, and ask him which set of cues people are most likely to follow. “My old boss Massimo Vignelli used to say—and probably still does—that any sign is an admission of architectural failure,” Bierut says. “This is really true with doors, where the physical cues—handles, push plates, transparency/­opacity—absolutely overwhelm ‘Push’ or ‘Pull’ or ‘Use Other Door’ signs, no matter how big. There is a deli near Pentagram with double glass doors. One doesn’t operate, and over the last, oh, dozen years has sported a variety of ‘Use Other Door’ signs of different sizes and styles. I still try to use it, even as recently as yesterday.”

This is a matter of information design at its most basic. And it confirms that different kinds of information—even facts presented by objects as simple as doors, handles, and signs—will always observe their own hierarchies. Bierut’s conviction that physical cues override any others reflects not only his own experience creating wayfinding systems, but some basic expectation most of us have about how the physical world operates. It’s not just that people don’t read. It’s that we still hang on to the expectation that things can and will announce themselves; that use can be revealed through shape, layout, or configuration.

As finding our way around the world becomes increasingly complex, we need and expect help. Whether it is a software program, home appliance, or digital camera, mastering complicated new technology requires us to read the directions. But I wonder also if our expectation for clarity in the physical world has somehow been compromised in the process, and if we have come to accept a diminishment in the intelligibility of physical things. Maybe this notion that having more information is always better is just another by-product of the information age. And maybe all these doors with signs on them expose that notion for the fraud it is. Not everything needs to be explained. And ­sometimes—when you’re opening a door, for instance—less information is better.

The massive wood doors in my library were eventually replaced a couple of months ago with some outfitted with glass panels that allow visitors to see who is coming and going. A simple set of bronzed handles signal, “Pull open the door,” an exercise that now has ceased being hazardous. There is no longer need for a written sign. “The most common things in the world are often invisible to us,” Henry Petroski writes in Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design, as he begins a lovely contemplation of doorknobs. And while this library entrance is not invisible, it has at least become a place you can get in and out of without giving it a thought.

Invisibility isn’t something many of us aspire to. Design today often involves objects, buildings, and places that, if they’re not screaming for attention, are certainly asking to be noticed. Italian manufacturer Fusital has commissioned contemporary architects and designers such as Ron Arad, Norman Foster, John Pawson, and Renzo Piano to create architectural hardware, and I wonder if its catalog of goods will include things that might slip by the eye and hand unnoticed. The polished metal levers and handles are all elegantly conceived, from the chunky geometric knobs of Pierluigi Cerri to Gae Aulenti’s decorative calligraphic handle. But I’m drawn to two quieter examples, a slender brass lever by Matteo Thun with just enough of a curve for the hand to grasp, and another by Piano that seems to trace a gentle arc. “A door handle opens on what is going to occur, and it closes on that which has already happened,” reads the design state­ment. Not that objects need to come with design statements, but when it comes to doorways and text, this is preferable to a sign taped on the door.

Both Thun’s and Piano’s levers suggest there is a world of difference between minimalism and invisibility. It’s a distinction worth noting. In his classic By Design, Ralph Caplan writes, “As objects go, the knob is not as insignificant as it looks at first glance. It is, after all, what you grab when peforming two of life’s most poignant acts—coming and going. How many scenes in drama and in life reach their peak when one party lays a hand on the doorknob and the other says, ‘Wait!’ ” But even Caplan goes on to wonder whether the kind of knob it is makes any difference. All of which makes me wonder if invisibility is the paradox and irony that infuse the ordinary objects we use every day—because increasingly I find that the most beautiful mystery in the design of physical things is how the best ones often escape your notice entirely.

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