The problem with tidiness: the Kindle and urban design


Summary: Scandalously breaking the rules of blog-writing best practice (make one point), this is a meandering post that touches on e-books, urbanism, lego, ESI product development and the poetry of Les Murray. An untidy post on tidiness and over-tidiness.

I’ve recently joined the ranks of Kindle users, and I was very excited to do so too.

I had run out of room for bookshelves, and never really got to grips with note-taking and ‘processing’ books. I like traveling light. I’ve been navigating the shift from print to digital content in construction information publishing at work. I was in the mood for a panacea.

I was looking forward to a simpler, more streamlined life.

I’m not particularly bookish. I didn’t start reading in a meaningful way until my late teens, so books aren’t amongst those childhood associations that we always fall back on. Those would probably be lego, telly and staring into the middle-distance for me, unglamorous and uncultured or not.

But with Kindle-reading it’s hard to find my bearings – an impression and gut feeling rather than commercial or technical analysis (for something more analytical try this link). But there we go; that’s the nature of changing media behaviour.

And being disorientated in a text made me think of some of the recurring themes of urban and suburban life, planning and design, like the benefits of a human scale.

Finding my place, knowing where I stand in relation to the start and the finish, pacing myself – for all the theorising about texts, content and the message vs media, I’ve not been able to shake off the habits that come with reading in print. Virtual bookmarks, numerical locations, progress as a percentage aren’t as intuitive (yet).

Likewise in urban planning. Where there are gains to be made in convenience or efficiency, or even aesthetics, that rub up against what people are familiar with, there’s a trade-off to be made or a balance to be found.

I can be as minimal as the next man. In the postmodern mess, I’ve been known to slope off with my copy of John Pawson’s Minimum for succour. But in publishing and in urban design, simplicity might just mean the obvious solution: leaving room for difference, the co-existence of technologies and ideas rather than homogenisation.

People are starting to see that websites and apps, for example, are different solutions to different problems (on which there’s a neat summary on Semantico’s Discovery blog).

This has been borne out at ESI too, with digital and print products heading on different trajectories (and social media in still different directions). Both have evolved to take the shape to which they’re best suited.

Digital information on covers the detailed, tabulated, technical data that used to dominate the books. There we can publish more of it and better use it to search, navigate, refine and compare product information.

At the same time, the books are now less densely packed with small print, and more fit for leafing, browsing, bookmarking, post-it-ing and immersion in big, colourful pictures.

New ESI Built Environment directory

Not either/or, then, at least at the moment.

‘Sprawl’ has become a dirty word amongst New Urbanists, a problem to be solved by planning for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities, which is fair enough. But, earlier on, the Australian poet Les Murray riffed on it, drawing out different, almost opposite, associations.

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
Reprimanded and dismissed,
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

(from The Quality of Sprawl)

I expect to get good use out of my Kindle. Rather than replacing my books, it’ll probably create a new role for itself, as a home for the documents that keep coming in new and various different types and formats, to be read in different ways – a kind of digital lever arch binder. Not the simple solution I would have liked, but one I can live with, with the least sense of loss.


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