Silhouette of airplane with a beautiful sky.

Last week I wrote about how NOT to ask a question.  I pointed out that how we frame a question shapes the answers we get.

Or, as my father used to say (to my great annoyance): “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”  Maybe I should update (I didn’t like his smugness), “ask a question that comes from a limited, mechanical view of the universe, and get a corresponding answer”.

I’ve been walking around recently, thinking about the “energetics of space”*  – a.k.a. why some spaces make us feel good while others make us feel empty and dull.

I was pondering this question recently when I boarded a flight back to Seattle on United Airlines, a scene with which you might identify:

I walk past the Business Class folks (seated in airplane heaven), past the folks with extra legroom (in airplane purgatory) and look for my seat in the back (airplane hell).

I try to avoid getting hit by the little elderly woman ahead of me, struggling to put her fifty pound suitcase in the overhead.

With all the pushing and squeezing going on, I’m feeling like a new entrant to a cattle car. Why didn’t I wear my  “I am not a cow” t-shirt along with my anti-cattle prod Kevlar vest?

This is not fun. I slide my way carefully to the back where I see – OMG – my seat for the next six hours. I stuff myself in as the stewardess announces: “Out of the aisles, please!”

What race of people was United designing for?  The webbed pocket on the seat ahead of me is so small I can’t tuck my book into it.

I’m already regretting that I didn’t pack Valium.

The gentle giant seated in front of me looks at least 6 feet tall. I take perverted solace (shame on me) in the fact that someone will be suffering more than me: his knees can’t fit when he puts them straight ahead– so he splays them apart, his left knee sticking into his neighbor’s space.

Of course this is likely to mean….yep….BAM!  As soon as we’re airborne his seat lurches towards back towards my chest. I’m pinned.

WHAT WAS UNITED THINKING?  Or maybe (breathe, Sally, breathe) “What was the question they were answering when they designed this seat configuration?”

Midway through the flight, I put on my most “friendly skies voice” and ask the stewardess (it’s not her fault) if this plane is some kind of aberration.

Maybe we could bond and blame it on Airbus.

“Oh no”, she said with a hint of compassion as she responds in a matching “friendly” voice. “They’re changing all the airplanes to these new “thin seats”. They’ve learned that by making seat backs thinner, they can add 6 seats to a plane” [and threaten my air supply]. But they tell us it’s the same [nonexistent] leg room.”

I thank her and take another cup of water. I knew it! The question they were asking was:

“How do we squeeze more seats into a plane and make more money?”

In contrast, a few days earlier, I had flown Virgin America to Dallas. The seats were comfortable. I had enough room.  I could breathe. I even relaxed enough that I felt like connecting with other humans – leading to a super interesting conversation with my seatmate about the Alzheimer’s research she was doing. (Always checking if there are any hints for me just in case…)

If Virgin had a question, I bet it was:

“How can we give our customers a good experience and still make money?”

Ask a different question, get a different answer.

So I’m asking the question: “How can we design spaces and places where people feel good, and more alive, and want to connect with each other?”

Now “feel more alive” is a pretty squishy term and your research department might hate it.  But people intuitively understand the idea.  We walk into a space and know: “Does this feel good?  Does this make me feel more or less alive?”

When I visit Seattle’s Pike Place Public Market with its crowds, its smells (even the ones that aren’t good!), colors, noises, peoples and variety, I feel energized.

When I enter one of our downtown boxy skyscrapers where the lobby has eight big blocks of elevators supervised by a dour looking receptionist, I feel pretty dull as well. (And by the way, those potted trees and philodendrons don’t count as a nature-scape.)

In the early 70’s, Christopher Alexander, the iconoclastic British architect, wanted to know why some spaces felt good to us.  He asked himself what it was about old European towns, markets, and certain neighborhoods and houses that seemed so universally appealing.

His questions led to a lifetime of searching and the publication of his book, A Pattern Language, in which he and his co-authors tried to distill the patterns (they found about 250) essential for an environment to feel good, comfortable and alive.

So United. You can do it. It’s possible. Really. You’re transporting human beings, not commodities.  We want to feel good. Would it be too much to for you to start asking how you could help us feel more comfortable, connected and alive?

Or are you too busy asking if there is a way to turn the bathrooms into a “revenue center?”

Here’s to more human spaces and friendlier skies,


P.S.   *Teaser alert – listen to my upcoming podcast (yes, yes, yes it’s about to happen!) on the energetics of space with the international recognized architect/designer of pocket neighborhoods, Ross Chapin.

P.P.S.  Did I tell you that the Podcast launches soon? (smile)