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The Wiki Man

Have the people who design trains and airports noticed that laptops exist?

The public provision of tables is so bad that Starbucks now earns $15 ­billion a year renting out horizontal surfaces

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

It’s taken years to work this out, but there is a subtle art to designing an airport lounge. 1) Install power sockets and add useful tables and comfortable chairs… 2) make sure these three items are never located in the same place. You can sit comfortably, use a laptop or even charge it — but do not attempt more than one of these at the same time. In this way, almost all the gains made in information technology are being eroded by the uselessness of furniture designers and the mean-spiritedness of the people who design public spaces.

When I first installed a computer at home, I had something called ISDN which was only available from a socket in my second bedroom, so I set up a properly ergonomic desk and chair in the room, added a large screen, a proper keyboard and a mouse, and saw that it was good. Then WiFi came along and, finding that I could no longer be bothered to sit in the bedroom, I switched to using a laptop downstairs. This was generally smaller than the desktop and needed to be precariously balanced on the arm of a chair. Then, when I couldn’t be bothered to sit up straight any more, I bought a tablet. Tablets are basically a crappier version of the laptop without a proper keyboard, but you can use it on a sofa while adopting the position of the 12th man in an Edwardian cricket photograph — progress of a kind, I suppose.

Now my children find tablets too exerting, since they require two hands, so they interact with the world’s greatest ever repository of knowledge using pathetic little phones. Finally, since actually holding something in your hand is clearly too much effort, the latest development in portable tech is a bloody watch. Now, let’s be frank here, short of creating the i-butt plug or the i-gourd, it would be pretty hard to conceive of a worse wearable device with which to consume or process information than something the size of a postage stamp, but technologists love to make things smaller on the ‘Why do dogs lick their own balls?’ principle. Because they can.


Of all these, the laptop, I think, is the best compromise. But it is rendered largely useless because nobody who designs furniture or public spaces seems to be aware of its existence (the public provision of tables is so bad that Starbucks now earns $15 billion a year renting out horizontal surfaces under the pretence of selling coffee).

The worst offenders are the train companies. I recently checked the design for the new Thameslink trains. I wasn’t optimistic. One of the problems with trains in Britain is that they are built by Germans and Japanese, cultures which have mastered only two aesthetic modes: ruthless minimalism and revolting kitsch.

Since Network Rail have apparently rejected the ‘Hello Kitty’ format, the lace-curtains-embroidered-with-hearts approach and the doe-eyed-schoolgirl-being-fondled-by-a-squid theme, we’re left with train interiors which look like they were designed by Albert Speer on an off day. Not only will these new trains have no tables in second class, but there’s no WiFi, few power sockets and not even any folding laptop tables on the back of the spartan aircraft-style seats. The £1.6 billion budget doesn’t stretch to cup-holders either, so you’ll have to put your drink on the floor, where it will be kicked over by a Croydon accountant.

The only good reason for trains is not to get you to a meeting faster — trust me, the meeting is probably a waste of time anyway — it’s that you might actually get some work done while you get there. Britain doesn’t need HS2. It needs the LTT: the revolutionary Large Table Train.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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