Desire lines generally refer to worn paths where people naturally walk – the beaten path that trails off the sidewalk, usually as a shortcut to a destination – but can be applied more broadly to any signs or traces of user activity in an object or environment. The implicit claim of desire lines is that they represent an unbiased indication of how an object or environment is actually used by people.
From Universal Principles of Design: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design.
My grandfather introduced me to desire lines, but he didn’t call them by name. I can’t be sure that he knew what they were called. We were crossing the Quad at the University of Washington, cherry trees in bloom, and he pointed out the gentle ruts in the grass left by renegade feet in oblique purpose to the University’s imposed paths.
“Those are the paths they should pave,” he said, pointing out the bald earth. I think of him now whenever I see a transgressive groove slice through the corners of trim, paved plaza geometries.
Rem Koolhaas oriented his IIT Student Center around the desire lines that students wore into the wasteland beneath the El tracks on their passage to class, long before the building was sited. In the belly of his building there’s a placard that maps the original paths so you can see at a macro level what you experience when you walk through the structure: his building breathes with a unique kind of respiration because it is so well-aligned with the passage of people through that place. It doesn’t obstruct their passage from point A to B: It shelters it.
I’m surprised that I’ve only just discovered this name for the thing. It startled me when I stumbled across it yesterday, and left me to wonder if maybe I knew it before but didn’t notice it; am noticing it now only because of these first tentative steps off my trim path; this early attempt at letting my feet find the way they would prefer to go.