Toulouse-Lautrec and escaping designed spaces

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec paints the underside of Paris nightlife. Like him, we can change our location to inform our work.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is based on a deep understanding of the late nineteenth century Paris nightlife. The graphic posters, illustrations, and paintings show not only the glamorous public side of the entertainment industry, but also the everyday life of the people who supported and worked in it.

He was able to get the insider view because he chose to make himself part of the people’s lives. As a member of a wealthy family, Toulouse-Lautrec had access to different parts of society, but he was not comfortable or fully accepted in the aristocratic circles due to his disability. Congenital health problems prevented him from participating in the sports and social activities common for men his age and position. He focused on art instead, and positioned himself in the brothels and cabarets, where he felt more at ease among other people also shunned by the contemporary high society.

In Salon of Rue des Moulins (1894)

In Salon of Rue des Moulins (1894)

Toulouse-Lautrec’s late work shows scenes from the everyday life of entertainers in a manner neither glamorous nor judgmental. The only way he was able to produce such work was to become part of these people’s lives, to move into the environment. In fact, he was known for setting up to work in the corner of a bar, and living for weeks at a time as a resident in a brothel.

Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins (1894)

Medical Examination, Rue des Moulins (1894)

It would’ve been impossible for an artist to produce work rooted in a deep understanding of the subjects’ lives without moving out of a familiar environment. I believe the same applies to designers.

Getting comfortable

As we carefully curate our lives to be as aesthetically pleasing and efficient as possible, we gravitate towards the environments designed specifically for people like us. As a middle-class North American “creative” with a day job, I am noticing that I’m very comfortable in a Starbucks, a J.Crew store, the art museum downtown, and at the well-funded public library. Maybe a bit too comfortable?

As we optimize our lives to include as much of these comfortable spaces as possible, our focus can narrow and we can stop noticing the alternatives. This also narrows the focus of our work. It becomes more difficult to see the use cases, defaults, and assumptions other people might have.

A curated life can be misleading

One example of the curated life I have seen recently is the Unsplash collection of free stock photography. The images are beautifully shot, and high quality — but they represent a singular curated life. The point of view of taking those photos, the people in them, and even the access to spaces (like national parks) in which they are taken are all parts of a specific lifestyle.

Having a focused, curated point of view in a product or experience is great. But it is dangerous to rely only on the things that feel comfortable because they have all been made specifically for us. Design work relies so much on understanding the needs and assumptions of others that we can’t afford to have a singular perspective ourselves.

Get out

It is our responsibility as designers to place ourselves in different environments so we can learn from them. Exposed to places we do not often visit, we will become more aware of what people in those places care about. It can be a physical space (new place to get food? Did you immediately think of a restaurant, or of a grocery store?) Or it can be a change in time (what do the streets you know well at rush hour look like at 5am? 11pm?) Or, consider the typical day’s path of a person in a different occupation. Why do construction crews often carry very large containers for lunch? Perhaps, in the absence of an office fridge or a place to sit, they serve both as a cooler and a stool or a table?

Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is just one of the examples - many artists draw inspiration from a space different from their own. Some artists design their entire lives, or travel far in order to get inspiration through a fresh understanding of others’ lives and environments.

To improve design work, we ought to make the same effort, if on a smaller scale. Take a different route on the daily commute. Wake up 3 hours early, or stay up late and just observe. Sit at a bus stop if you would normally take a train, and vice versa. Observation will broaden our perspective: it will allow us to ask the right questions, so that we can solve design problems.