Television and interior design

One of the most under-rated developments in the world of architecture and interior design has been the rise of the flat-screen television. Its earlier avatar, the Cathode Ray Tube version, was big and bulky, and needed special arrangements to keep. One solution was to keep it in corners. Another was to have purpose-built deep “TV cabinets” into which these big screens would go.

In the house that I grew up in, there was a purpose-built corner to keep our televisions. Later on in life, we got a television cabinet to put in that place, that housed the television, music system, VCR and a host of other things.

For the last decade, which has largely coincided with the time when flat-screen LCD/LED TVs have replaced their CRT variations, I’ve seen various tenants struggle to find a good spot for the TVs. For the corner is too inelegant for the flat screen television – it needs to be placed flat against the middle of a large wall.

When the flat screen TV replaced the CRT TV, out went the bulky “TV cabinets” and in came the “console” – a short table on which you kept the TV, and below which you kept the accompanying accessories such as the “set top box” and DVD player. We had even got a purpose-built TV console with a drawer to store DVDs in.

Four years later, we’d dispensed with our DVD player (at a time when my wife’s job involved selling DVDs and CDs, we had no device at home that could play any of these storage devices!). And now we have “cut the cord”. After we returned to India earlier this year, we decided to not get cable TV, relying on streaming through our Fire stick instead.

And this heralds the next phase in which television drives interior design.

In the early days of flat screen TVs, it became common for people to “wall mount” them. This was usually a space-saving device, though people still needed a sort of console to store input devices such as set top boxes and DVD players.

Now, with the cable having been cut and DVD player not that common, wall mounting doesn’t make sense at all. For with WiFi-based streaming devices, the TV is now truly mobile.

In the last couple of months, the TV has nominally resided in our living room, but we’ve frequently taken it to whichever room we wanted to watch it in. All that we need to move the TV is a table to keep it on, and a pair of plug points to plug in the TV and the fire stick.

In our latest home reorganisation we’ve even dispensed with a permanent home for the TV in the living room, thus radically altering its design and creating more space (the default location of the TV now is in the study). The TV console doesn’t make any sense, and has been temporarily converted into a shoe rack. And the TV moves from room to room (it’s not that heavy, either), depending on where we want to watch it.

When the CRT TV gave way to the flat screen, architects responded by creating spaces where TVs could be put in the middle of a long wall, either mounted on the wall or kept on a console. That the TV’s position in the house changed meant that the overall architecture of houses changed as well.

Now it will be interesting to see what large-scale architectural changes get driven by cord-cutting and the realisation that the TV is essentially a mobile device.

Slider design

Not often that I comment on User Interface, but this has a quantitative aspect to it, so I thought I’ll write about it. Basically it’s with the use of sliders on websites that you move around to determine an amount or a limit.

More specifically, I’m in the process of planning an extended weekend in Bali next month (the wife is going to be based in Jakarta for two months starting this weekend), and checking out sites such as TripAdvisor and AirBnB for accommodation. This necessarily means using a slider to determine my maximum willingness to pay for a room.

The problem with such sliders is that they’re linear. So for example, on the Travelmob page where I’m looking for villas, the price per night varies from Rs. 650 to Rs. 65000, or a factor of 100. And the slider uses a linear scale. So considering that I consider about Rs. 3500 per night as my budget, in order to set that budget I have to move the right slider (my maximum willingness to pay) way over to the left, till it almost coincides with the left slider (which determines the minimum price). And considering the small distance between the two sliders, it is easy go wrong and not be precise on your limits. A rather frustrating experience!

Instead, if the slider were to use a logarithmic scale, then 6500 would be the midpoint (geometric average of minimum and maximum), and that would allow me to pull the slider to 3500 without much hassle, improving my experience!

But then I suspect the current poor design is by design – by making it hard for you to move sliders down to low prices, maybe they are nudging customers to go for higher priced rooms?

On a different note, while on the topic of sliders, there are “fin-tech” startups that determine whether you are good credit depending upon things like the amount of time you spend moving around a slider to determine how much money you want to borrow. Quoting from Sangeet’s blog:

As an example, most peer lending platforms have a slider allowing the borrower to decide what loan they would like to take. In an excellent whitepaper by Foundation Capital on the state of peer lending, Charles Moldow shares that  the longer a borrower spends moving the slider up and down (and hence, potentially, debating her ability to return the loan), the more likely is she to return the loan. Such correlations help platforms improve their ability to curate participants over time.

This slider also looks linear, rather than logarithmic! And so it goes.


AirBnB actually uses a logarithmic slider! Whatay!

Parks and Urban Safety

On Wednesday evening, I walked to Gandhi Bazaar for an evening snack. It’s not often that I do that, for it’s not a pleasant walk. Firstly, there is the Tagore circle underpass which was built after much controversy. The underpass has had the desired effect of clearing the traffic bottleneck at Tagore circle, but it has become a nightmare for pedestrians, for there is now unmitigated flow of traffic and footpaths are non-existent.

The second reason I don’t like walking to Gandhi Bazaar is Krishna Rao Park. Yes, you read that right. It’s a rather nice large park, and fairly well maintained. But the problem is that the structure of the park means that the roads around it don’t appear particularly safe to walk on, especially after dark. The presence of the park means that there aren’t enough “eyes on the street”. There is a third reason, too – the roundabout at Armugam Circle. Roundabouts are inherently pedestrian unfriendly.

If you ask anyone who grew up in or around Jayanagar what their favourite street is to drive on, the answer is likely to be one of “Rose Garden Road” or “4th Main Road” or “That nice road with Lakshman Rau park on both sides” or “The road where the metro has been built”. All of them refer to the same road, btw. However, if you were to ask the same people about their favourite road to walk on, you are unlikely to get that answer. For 4th Main (or Rose Garden Road or whatever else you call it) is simply unwalkable. The park on either side means that there are not enough eyes on the street, and for this reason, people prefer to not walk on this road, choosing one of the parallel roads instead.

While presence of parks is generally seen as desirable and creates valuable green space and makes the area more beautiful, careless design can mean that the roads around can be rendered unsafe. It mainly has to do with the entrances. In Bangalore, parks are usually fenced, with only the odd small gate here and there allowing for entry (a design element that is imperative due to stray cows). What this means is that while the area around the park entrance is usually crowded and well populated (and thus safe), there is little human traffic around the rest of the perimeter since there is nowhere to go to from there!

So the hypothesis is that for a road to be walkable, it needs to have a large number of “doors”, that is exits that get you somewhere – either a house or an office building or a park or a shop or whatever. Presence of a door means that users of the door have an incentive to step out of the door and walk along, which increases human traffic. Which makes the stretch a wee bit more walkable.

Absence of doors means that the only people who will want to walk along that stretch are those that intend to go from one end to the other, which means that there aren’t as many people. Absence of doors also means vehicles can move much faster along the stretch, making driving a more pleasant experience, but making walking even more unpleasant. And then you have positive feedback and network effects and all that, making such roads even less conducive for walking on!


Our cities here are simply not designed for walking, and features that ostensibly promote walking, such as parks, are so badly designed that they make walking even less pleasant!

Policy design and environmental variables

I’ve spent the last two days and a bit in Amsterdam, and as I move around the city I’m fascinated by how well so many things in the city are designed and implemented, and wondered what prevents us from implementing such design back home in India. I’m not talking only about design in terms of building architecture – which no doubt is beautiful in Amsterdam – but also in terms of infrastructure such as roads, public transport, pavements, railways, etc.

But then every time I think of translating some design, I start wondering whether it is conducive to the environment in India – in terms of our culture and climate and weather and population density.

The question then arises as to how much influence local environmental factors need to have on design, and the intuitive  answer is “probably a lot”. The next question that arises is as to how urban planning began as a profession, in terms of the basic design principles that came to define this profession. This is a relevant concept from the point of view that if environmental factors are a strong determinant of how a city is supposed to be architected and designed, can one really have a general set of principles on how a city needs to be developed, and if so, how this set of principles was originally arrived upon.

I’m thinking of a time a few hundred years ago when the first set of general principles of how to design a city came about. Did they really have enough data points in terms of what kind of cities worked and what didn’t when they came up with these principles? And once such principles had been arrived and agreed upon, how did they translate, especially when they had to be transplanted across continents and regions (as it had to happen with the coming of colonialism)?

Now that I have raised all these questions, I leave it to you, the readers, to try and answer them and fight it out in the comments section.

Raised seats for people on wheelchairs


I’m writing this from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris as I wait for my connection to Amsterdam. Just happened to notice this seat on front of me which is reserved for people in wheelchairs, motor disabilities, etc.

It’s extremely thoughtful that they’ve recognised that people with motor disabilities have trouble sitting on low seats and thus raised the seats reserved for such people.

Great example of truly inclusive design

Sri Lanka diaries: Hotel of the tour

The “hotel of the tour” award for my just-completed vacation in Sri Lanka goes to Pigeon Island Beach Resort in Trincomalee. Now, it is not that they had the best rooms. It is not that the rooms were the best maintained. It is not that the service there trumped the service at every other hotel that I stayed in. It was simply that they seemed to have given the most thought to the hotel design.

At first look I wasn’t particularly impressed with the hotel. Now, it is a highly rated hotel going by TripAdvisor, because of which we had booked it, but the first impressions weren’t great. The reception area was small – just one table, staffed with people not in any uniform (it’s a beach resort – so I should’ve figured that the T-shirts they were wearing was actually uniform!). The hotel was rather small and narrow, with access to a narrow sliver of the beach. The rooms were big, but the loo seemed uncomfortable, with the way the pot was wedged next to the shower cubicle. And the air conditioning never seemed to cool the room enough!

It was after a trip to the beach later in the afternoon that I figured out the value in the hotel design. Now, when you go to the beach, you can expect to get all dirty and muddy. So resorts usually have a shower installed on the way back from the beach to the rooms. This was there. What really impressed me, though, was the tap in the garden right in front of my room! Now, even after showering on the way back to the room, my feet and slippers had got all dirty and muddy. It would have been a mess to clean up the room had I walked in with my muddy feet. So this tap meant that I could wash my feet once again before stepping into the room, thus saving the hotel the trouble of cleaning all those rooms whose occupants had taken care to wash their feet!

Then there were the clothes hangers outside each room. Now, you don’t expect everyone who go to the beach to be wearing swimsuits, and that means a lot of wet clothes. People usually fill up the bathroom with these wet clothes and it can get uncomfortable! Again, it was great thought to put these clothes hangers so that you needn’t fill up your bathroom with the wet clothes! It was another matter that they didn’t have enough of those, and we had to dry our clothes on a chair outside the room!

The following night we stayed at Hotel Earl’s Regent in Kandy, a new hotel inaugurated by “His Excellency President” Mahinda Rajapakse in January this year. It is a hotel which showed a lot of promise, and we were even upgraded to rooms with Jacuzzis. But the detail in design was missing.

For example, at one end of the bathroom was the Jacuzzi and at the other end the shower cubicle. Now, the towel rack was right above the Jacuzzi, and there were no towel hangers on the doors of the shower cubicle. This meant that once you got out of the shower, you had to get all the way across the bathroom to pick up your towel, thus wetting it in its entirety! Then, despite having bathing spaces at either end of the bathroom, there was only one foot mat. Again, this meant that if you failed to move it to your side of the bathroom when you stepped in, the bathroom was again liable to get dirty!

It is amazing how much people are willing to invest in hotels, without getting these small details that can delight a customer right!

Then there was the issue of the plug points. Sri Lanka uses Indian plug points, which meant that we hadn’t bothered to take adapters along. Both in Earl’s Regent and in Cinnamon Grand in Colombo (a five star hotel), most of the plug points turned out to be British-style! Now, you might get a lot of your guests from Britain and it might make sense to have those plug points, but it is surprising that only one point in each room can take Sri Lankan plugs! Now, when each of you has a phone, and then you have an iPad, all of which need charging, it becomes real hard to manage with such plugs!

I don’t know what it is about five star hotels that they refuse to offer health faucets! Every hotel on tour offered them except Cinnamon Grand (the most expensive), where we were forced to use toilet paper. Now, you might get some Western guests who don’t know how to use health faucets, but having them in the room does no harm, while providing great value to Asian and Middle Eastern guests! On a similar note, the Palm Garden Village Hotel in Anuradhapura (a massive forested resort) didn’t offer a health faucet but instead had a separate arse-washing pot. It was again inconvenient and ineffective design, when a simple health faucet would have done the trick with less real estate wasted! And if they had space for a separate arse-washing pots, they might have as well put Sochi-style adjacent pots – it was after all a romantic hotel, with adjacent showers, etc!

Cinnamon Grand also had the worst showers. They had two taps – one for adjusting the level of the hot water, and one for the cold water, and they were the only two controls you had to adjust both the temperature and the pressure of the flow. So if you finally (after a lot of trial and error) got control over the temperature, and wanted to increase the pressure, you had the unenviable task of adjusting two taps simultaneously! Or if you wanted to stop the shower to soap yourself, you had to again do the trial and error thing of finding the right temperature!

The shower at my home has three controls – one tap each for hot and cold water, and another to adjust the overall pressure of the shower. This third tap can be used to adjust intensity after the first two have been used to adjust temperature! The other hotels on tour offered a single lever – right-left movement adjusted the temperature while up-down movement adjusted the pressure! Worked beautifully. Maybe there is a theorem somewhere that the best shower controls have an odd number of levers!