The Best Designed Thing Ever

Danielle Shapiro

Some people think that UX design was born in the past few minutes but this isn’t the case. Designers didn’t just make things “look pretty” so engineers could do the heavy lifting and make hard to use products. Rather, they thought about user interaction on the sensorial level, even way back in the 1930s when industrial design as a profession was just being born.

John Vassos, a Greek American immigrant who started out doing illustrations for books but soon became an industrial designer applied user experience themes to create objects that became standards in the field. Among his first commissions as a designer was to redo the turnstile, that humble piece of machinery in mass transit, sports arenas and event entrances that took tickets.

To get it right, he embarked on the first ethnographic research — watching subway users go through the propeller shaped turnstile — which he noticed popped them in the tush as they went through and frequently caught their coats and bags. He cheekily called this the “goosemeter” but more seriously acknowledged that an intrusive, bad design like this can have psychological effects. This was something he knew quite a bit about, having just written a book Phobia in 1931 with the guidance of the prominent Freudian psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan. In the book, Vassos graphically depicted human phobias, largely placing them in modern and urban settings, the places that trigger the fears. He sought to make something that was smoother, simpler, less contraption-y.

After thinking about the commuter for a bit, Vassos designed to change the whole mechanism of how you go through the turnstile, so no more goosing. He replaced the arm turning mechanism so that it was no longer like a propeller which you had to push your waist through and get whacked at the end. The one he added was “like a milk stool” on its side — nice job. Vassos drew from an older technology, a milk stool, to create a pathway for a new one — a common source for new ideas, the rearview window of technology. Now, travelers only needed to gently thrust their torso or upper thigh forward get the arm going, and not have to wiggle through a propeller style arm which was not one size fits all.

He gave the arms on the turning mechanism soft round embracing curves. On his thinking behind this choice he remarked that he considered the person who fears sharp objects — the aicmophobic — who he depicted in the book Phobia impaled on the gate outside of a skyscraper. Vassos described his inspiration, “Here my knowledge of the aicmophobic’s reaction — fear of pointed objects — guided me, and I produced a simple contrivance with gently curving surfaces, with any disturbing design around the feet of the user eliminated.”

Aicmophobia from Phobia

Vassos added a touch pad for the feed, a real way to let travelers know that they were entering the turnstile — a tactile foot reminder that yeah you now need to be aware and put your ticket in the right place or hand it to the conductor or whatever. It was a physical cue — much like the arm hitting your waist. Across from the touch pad, he added a small wall with a chrome arm for the passenger to hold on to, if needed. The turnstile was not just a thing you walked through but a supportive environment for the traveler to get their things together, get their ticket, get their balance. The little wall added solidity and privacy to the moment, literally carving out space for the transaction. Another clue that this was a machine that was going to need your attention were shiny visual additions like speed whiskers or three lines — a ubiquitous aesthetic equivalent of emoticons of the 1930s reminding everyone that they were now in the machine age and everything was speeding up.

Perey Turnstile designed by John Vassos

Visual, tactile, physical cues that this machine give eased the ticket taking activity. At the time, you have millions of people riding the subway, like today and there had to be a way to take charge of the traffic flow. They called it “science of crowd management” and the turnstile was an important part of it — slowing traffic down slightly in time to take a ticket but not so much that it interrupted the flow of humans.

The product was hugely successful for the Perey Company almost immediately, with orders from the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Subway System, The Bronx Zoo, and the Santa Anita Race Track in Los Angeles. The new tripod allowed subway stations to gain 66% gain in entrance capacity without structural change. The tripod turnstile with streamlined details is still manufactured today. According to the President of Perey Turnstiles, Ed Hendrickson, Vassos “designed the overall shape and character of the single most prevalent turnstile on the planet; our Model HD.” You have likely walked through the turnstile numerous times, if you have gone in the MTA NYC subway in the past 20 years or been in a sports arenas like baseball stadiums nation wide. It is woven into the experience of everyday life.

How something works and how it feels, this makes for good design and explains the longevity of the Vassos turning arm. Donald Norman in his classic book about user centered design The Design of Everyday Things coins the term Affordance to refer to an attribute of an object that communicates to people how to use it. Putting the turning arm at waist level, adding the metal foot pad, and using visual elements all show the person how to use the turnstile. You likely didn’t even feel yourself going through it. Norman uses the door as an example of an object that doesn’t always clearly communicate how it should be maneuvered. Do you push it? Pull it? The Turnstile communicated how you go through; you push through it with your torso. The ultimate insult is for the arm not to turn and jam you in the belly.

The turnstile is elegant, well designed and profitable. It was ordered by the thousands for the New York Transit system where it remained in place until the 2000s when it was replaced by machines synched with the metrocard. The turning arm and the use of chrome, however, remained the same.

If you think turnstiles aren’t important, think again. There was just a story other day in the New York Times , about turnstile jumpers, who the Mayor sees as the gateway drug to bigger crime. It is among other things this is a design issue — they could increase the height of the turning arm, making it harder to jump yet easier to crawl through. Yet, no one has dared changed the Vassos design yet, in the New York Transit System for almost 75 years. In DC, the opening mechanism is different — a triangular shape wooden barrier slides away when you swipe your card clearing the way for your passage. This has always been a bit scary to me, to think that it would slide back slicing my body, but to my knowledge this has never happened.

The Perey Company was proud of Vassos’s contribution writing in their newsletter, The Perey Pioneer, “Hardly any detail in the old order of things is safe from the radical changes originating in the mind of John Vassos. The humble turnstile which we have always regarded as a just and ugly commonplace necessity in the commercial world of today suddenly takes on a new individuality pleasing in appearance and miraculously harmonizing with its surroundings.”

Vassos went on to design many electronics for RCA as their leading industrial designer for almost four decades, including radios, broadcast equipment, televisions and computers. He never forgot to put the user centrally in all the products he shaped. Years before fellow industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’s Design for People came out, which is often heralded as the first book on user centered design, Vassos explicitly and consciously put the user first. It was his turnstile that became the standard in the field that put him on the map of important 20th century designers. Please think of him when you go through a turnstile.