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Repainting the road markings

An updated story from my Refresh Edinburgh talk in 2012.

Have you ever noticed how road markings, the yellow and white lines painted on the ground, fade and crack over time? They end up looking messy and slowly deteriorate until they’re painted again. The thing is, the more the lines are repainted the messier they get.

Here’s an example (taken near Old Street last week).

Road markings at Old Street

Road markings use a type of hot melt thick marking paint applied (poured) with a hot melt kettle which heats the power paint to 200 °C when its applied to the surface [1].

This paint is made and applied to be as durable as possible but still starts to fade. Eventually the paint cracks, gets worn or washed away. So once you’ve started to paint the lines it’s hard to stop. The thicker the paint, the deeper the cracks that start to show.

The point to this story. There might not be a choice, but invariably things get messy when you keep painting over the same lines again and again.

Here’s another deteriorating line painted along the platform at Oxenholme railway station (and my new smart shoes).

Line on Oxenholme railway station and smart shoes

Eventually you’ll start to notice that there are broken and fading lines everywhere. Doing the same things again and again creates patterns and systems that become more fragile than certain, no matter how much we try to reinforce them.

The broken lines of public service design

The lines of policy and public service design are messy. The difference is these lines represent the broken experiences and unmet expectations of ordinary people.

Doing the same things again and again doesn’t fix this. It has the opposite effect. The more rigid our thinking is, the more the cracks start to show.

The question is this. What’s the alternative?

[1] Source: Wikipedia.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.