Desire Lines



Desire lines are originally something that were used in architecture, and are the result of human desires ruling over official routes. They are very important within design, and interaction is about finding and understanding these lines in order to produce effective design. Desire lines are often based on experience and intuition.

An example of how desire lines have been used can be seen in New York central park. Here the designers allowed people to walk across the park, creating dirt paths, they then built concrete paths over the dirt paths. By doing so, they have not dictated to people where they should be walking, but instead placed paths where people wanted to walk.

Gjon Mili mapped desire lines in his photograph ‘Efficient house wife making a bed’ 1946

gjon mili

Affordance is the property to do something, e.g. a fridge has a cooling affordance.

Where there is affordance, there is an affordance shadow. People will instinctively use things according to where their desire line dictates. In the example of a door, people will usually use only a fraction of the space that the open door allows,  meaning that the space that doesn’t get used is called an affordance shadow.

door example

Bad design is often a result of neglected desire lines.


The brief instructed that as our outcome we were to produce a printed A4 booklet containing 15 visual examples of desire lines that we have documented. This booklet needed to be self-explanatory, looking at desire lines from the perspective of a first time observer. We had two weeks to do this and I found myself panicking and the idea of 15 examples seemed to be a huge task.


My experimentation within this project was made up of finding and documenting examples of desire lines.

1. Unofficial Paths

The simplest way of describing and introducing desire lines I feel is using the unofficial path. This is the area worn away in between two roads. People chose to use this path, instead of the dictated routes and have consequently formed a defined unofficial path. However people will instinctively use this path instead, because it is the quickest route and this is their desire line. The images below show my documentation of these paths.

human line IMG_0392IMG_0389

2. Cat Paths

Animals too design routes to best suit their needs. In this example I have photographed a grooved trail in the grass made by my cats, running from the bottom far left of my garden to the top. There is a similar trail on the far right as well. As far as my cats are concerned, there might as well be boiling hot lava on either side of the paths, they stick to them religiously. My previous cats also had their own track, down the centre of the garden, meaning that something must have changed to cause the new cats to create a new desire line.   

cat line 23. Where cats sit

From personal experience, I know that sometimes a cats choice of seat can sometimes be seen as bizarre. Over the years I have bought multiple cat beds, only to find that they would rather sleep in somewhere like the bath instead. After doing some research i’ve learnt that a cats desire line is so sit where it is either warm, where they have your attention, or where they have a good vantage point.

“If it fits, I sits!”

Found Images:

cat in water_fountain cat in kettle cat in oven cat in shoe_box cat in stump cat inwashing_machine cat on car bonnet cat on vent cat radiator beds cat_in_jar cats on mat


My own images of my cats (and dog) sitting in questionable places:cat in box 2 cat in box dog on desk IMG_0554 IMG_2393 IMG_5625 Photo 22-11-2013 16 19 18 Photo 22-11-2013 17 22 41 (1)


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4. Supermarket Layouts

There are many elements of design within supermarkets, most of which are aimed at changing your desire line and making you buy more. Below I have created the layout of the supermarket, It includes a desire line mapped by footprints of someone who is popping in quickly to pick up some bread and milk. The supermarket has been designed so that these popular products are at opposite ends of the shop. In following this simple route the customer passes 18 promotional bays containing stock which is on offer. The result is you have to pass hundreds of other products, none of which you came in intending to buy, but your desire line may change and you might find yourself being persuaded.

SUPERMARKET PLANbSupermarkets also feature ‘impulse bays’, often located near the checkouts, which appeal to the emotions of the customer. They interrupt their logical decision making, and instead make an unplanned purchase providing themselves with a treat. These items are often sweets, chocolate, gum, drinks, or promotional offers.

supermarkets IMG_0382

5. Ryanair website redesign

Ryanair are an airline who are renowned for cheap flights and poor service, and the process of navigating their website is no exception. On 30/10/2013 the airline announced that as part of it’s attempt to improve customer happiness, it was to redesign it’s website. The desire line of the Ryanair website user is to book a flight, however to do so, they must go through 17 separate web pages, taking far longer than other competitors. As part of the redesign, it will only take customers 5 clicks, instead of 17, creating a far better desire line. Some of the web pages that will be scrapped include the ‘Recapture code’, to prove that you are human, pages that advertise Ryanair phone cards, Ryanair cabin bags, car hire, hotel hire, airport transfers, sponsoring an orphan, and a ‘Play to win your trip for free’ game. These are pages that you currently cannot skip through, but instead you have to click elsewhere to select the ‘No thank you’ button, causing frustration.

“Let’s eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off” – Michael O’Leary

The new design is shown first and examples of the old design follow.

new-ryanairold ryanair ryanair_2719365c

6. Paper Folds

More often then not when I am given a sheet of A4 paper, like a project brief, I instinctively fold it in half, in an attempt to preserve the condition of the paper because I will be referring to it over the course of the project. And as a result I get a clear crease across the centre. Folds in paper as desire lines are an interesting topic, because we may see something that is very creased as something that is insignificant and has been crumpled up and pushed to the bottom of a bag. But in reality, it may be creased because it is important, and is handled frequently as a result.

brief 2I find myself always screwing up receipts when they are handed to me, because logic tells me that I would not have bought the item if I intended on returning it, and won’t need the receipt. However then when I do need it, I handle it in a far different way. I fold it over once or twice, and try and smooth the creases out in an attempt to make it easier for the cashier to read and use, in exchange for their help with refunding me the item.

These are very subtle desire lines, but there nonetheless. The lines vary on how we intend to use the paper. For example, when we ask for a gift receipt, we tend to look after it, because there is the possibility that you’ll need to give this as part of the gift, and want to appear as if you’ve taken care with their gift.


 7. My badly designed bag

One of the affordances of this bag is holding and containing my belongings. Being right-handed like the majority of people, I wear my bag on my right shoulder. The bag has been designed to have a studded design on one side and a zip on the top, which has an affordance to keep my things secure. However due to the placement of the design and the zip, the desire lines clash. The design has been placed on the wrong side of the bag, meaning that if my desire line is to have the design facing away from my body, the zip is behind me and a thief could easily open it and steal from my bag. My desire line to have a secure bag is greater than my desire line to show off the design, so I choose to have the bag’s design facing my boy, despite the studs digging into my body. I can only assume that this bag was designed with a left handed person in mind, or the issue of these conflicting desire lines had been neglected.

mixture Untitled-1 IMG_03518. Cracked Pavement

Bromley South train station is a very busy station, located on a main road with double yellow lines and no parking. As a result, the adjacent road is used by cars dropping and picking up people who use the train. Consequently, the concrete pavement is damaged from cars constantly driving over it. There is evidence of where the paving slabs have been completely crushed and the gaps left have been filled with concrete, which has then also cracked. The desire line here is that people want somewhere close to the station where they can pull over and drop/pick people up, and the broken pavement is proof of this.

The use of these pavement slabs might be evidence of this desire line. Perhaps the council realise that cars are going to frequently pull up here, and as a result have used a type of pavement which is quite easy to replace. Or perhaps they haven’t considered it at all, and this is just evidence of design not meeting people’s needs.

cracked pavement 2 cracked pavement

Pavements cracking outside bromley south from maisie bowes on Vimeo.

9. Sat Nav Routes

There are many occasions when I am using my sat nav, where I know from experience that the route calculated, is not the quickest route. My fundamental desire line when I am driving to get to my destination in as little time as possible, and sometimes the route that the sat nav has provided clashes with that desire line. Sat navs often stick to calculating routes that use main roads because they are more straightforward, however as we gain experience we learn that sometimes the smaller roads are often less congested. The image below shows two journeys, both arrive at the same location, the blue line representing the course that the sat nav is advising me to take, and the green representing the route that I know from experience is quicker. It is now possible to buy sat navs that are aware of traffic, however human intuition and experience almost always provides better judgement.

altered map copy

10. Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are examples of desire lines that we use everyday, without giving it a second thought. We use them so frequently that just the idea of not having keyboard shortcuts is exhausting. Their design means that we do not have to move our hands from the keyboard to the mouse every time we want to perform a command. The more keyboard shortcuts we apply, the more fluid our use of the keyboard.

 keyboard shortcuts 3 keyboard

11. Bird Control Spikes

Bird control spikes, or anti-roosting spikes are often attached to building ledges, street lighting and signage, as a method of preventing wild birds from perching or roosting. They are designed to have long (30 cm) angled spikes, which reduces the area available for the birds to land on, causing them to land elsewhere. These particular spikes were designed to counter large birds like seagulls, pigeons and crows. The bird control spikes are commonly used in city centres and coastal areas, where the birds are most likely to come into contact with humans.

The desire lines of the birds are to find places: to perch, to roost, to defecate, to rest, and to gain a good viewing point (mainly looking for food). Whereas the desire line of the people who have the bird control spikes installed are: to stop them having somewhere to defecate, to stop them from making loud calls, to prevent them hanging around looking for food and to reduce to general presence of birds.

IMG_0384 IMG_0385b


12. boxing day shoppers

The boxing day sales are the busiest, most anticipated day of the year for sale shoppers, their desire line being to snap up bargains. Although hundreds of thousands of people take to the shops every day on this day, the shoppers who take this day very seriously will have already worked out what they are going to buy, where they’re going to buy it, how much they’re willing to spend and where it’s located within the shop. So when the doors open and the initial flood of ‘crazed’ shoppers pile in, their individual desire lines are very clear. For people who do not know what they want, and have no structured plan, the experience is far more chaotic. Instead their desire line is to look for bargains, and then buy them.

The desire lines of the shops are to take the shoppers money and spur the hysteria, to exaggerate in order to make it feel like madness, build adrenaline and encourage impulse buys.

image 1

image 2

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Shoppers run into Selfridges as the doors open for the start of the Boxing Day sale at their flagship store on Oxford Street in London

13. Navigating train carriages

When I use the train or tube, and have experience navigating the stations that I will be using, I will often choose to sit in the carriage which is closest to the exit at my destination, as my desire line it to get there quickly, save time and avoid getting stuck behind slow moving people. For example, when I journey from home to uni, I start at West Wickham station, and sit in the last carriage. This is because when I arrive to swap platforms at Catford station, the last carriage is the closest to the exit.


Other people who consider these factors sit in accordance to the exit at their stations, especially people use the trains/tubes regularly such as people commuting to work. However unless you have prior knowledge of the stations, you might end up sitting in a carriage really far from the exit.

As a solution for this, there is an app. It asks you to enter your starting and destination stations, then calculates a route and generates which carriages you should use, in order to arrive adjacent to the platform exit. At the moment this only applies to using the tube.

example 1 example 2

14. queueing

There are many occasions in our lives when we must join a queue to order to obtain what we desire. Queues operate using a logical order of people awaiting their turn to be attended to, without them it would be a free for all. We wait in queues often dictated by control barriers, meaning that although our fundamental desire line is to obtain what we are queueing for, the desire line we follow is the one imposed by the barriers, because that is the route society tells us to take. The desire line of the organisation who imposed the barriers, is to create a system which regulates the people there to acquire a desired object.

 diagram Photo 18-11-2013 13 21 15

15. navigating the newspaper

Hours of each day are put into designing the front page of newspapers, making sure the photographs are eye catching and the headlines entice you. However in my experience, it doesn’t matter how gripping the cover stories are, people who follow sport will go follow their desire line and go straight to the back page, without a glance at the front. Someone who completes the puzzles inside the paper each day may have memorised it’s location and will flick to this page. When I’m on break at work I always skip to the agony aunt pages, to judge the humourous situations.

 IMG_0393 IMG_0394b


By the time of the critique I had been so fixated with the content of the book, that I had not given any thought to the presentation of the book itself. I had been told that indesign is an excellent program to design books in, so it took me a little while to get my head around that. At this point I realised I had not allowed myself enough time to print my book at A4 size, so I had to present in an A5 format, simply held together using staples. I also designed a temporary front page for the book for this critique, but intended on using a far nicer design for the hand in.

Photo 05-12-2013 23 05 00

The feedback on the presentation was what I expected (shown by the yellow sticky notes), and the feedback on the content was far better than I had expected (shown on the pink sticky notes).

glasto 120

This praise was very comforting because there were times were I had felt that because of the what felt to be, large number of examples we had to produce, that perhaps the quality of the ideas may have suffered. I know that some of the ideas, e.g. the newspaper example, were not as strong as others, like the supermarket desire lines, but I felt that overall each of the ideas were worth being included in the book.

I took the comments on board and proceeded to go home and tweak the wording of the content and spend more time on the design. This included designing a better front cover, altering the leading of the text to avoid rivers appearing and changing the layout.

Photo 12-12-2013 19 12 36

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