The concept of ‘desire path’ is crucial in wayfinding studies.
Desire paths, also known as paths of least resistance, are the paths created when people walk the same ground wearing down the grass – or leaving any other form of erosion on the surface. They are fundamental features to study as they indicate the preferred (almost always the shortest) route between an origin and destination. Their emergence is the implicit indicator of poor planning. In a famous internet meme (see below) a desire path is shown to represent the crucial difference between Design and User Experience.
In the design of the paths crossing gardens and connecting buildings on University campuses, the preferred protocol is now to wait and observe for one year to see the natural emergence of desire paths and then paved them the following year. Such implementation happened at UC Berkeley and University of Maryland and in many other public spaces.
Students of my Wayfinding Class monitored our new campus on Saadiyat Island and proposed new paved routes following both the observation of people behaviour and the funny instances of remedial design put in place to contain that.
The emergence of one specific desire path – the consequence of people walking through a batch of grass awkwardly situated on the preferred route to the main cafeteria – generated an interesting debate, carried on via paper notes.
Some students obviously shocked by the fact that people preferred to walk through the grass rather than walk around it, left a paper note next to the path: “Please, don’t kill me! Signed: The Grass”.
It should be noted that maintaining a batch of grass in a campus in Abu Dhabi is way more complicated that in Oxford or Boston; so some emotion in seeing this precious feature being eroded is understandable. Still, the rebuttal that followed is exemplary. Another note, placed next to the previous one, stated: “killing the grass it’s nothing. I am on my way to the canteen: come and see what I do to salad…”