Couchfish: Norman Doors

Couchfish: Norman Doors

Travel needs an effortless push.

Apologies for the radio silence. A couple of weeks ago my laptop imploded and it has taken north of two weeks to sort it out.

The other day I came across a post about Norman Doors. If, like me, you don’t know what a Norman Door is, you can start here. Better still, read You should not open a door and see someone pooping on Experimental History. Don’t want to read either? A Norman Door is a door that is confusing to use. Why are some things that should be simple not? It should come as no surprise that it got me thinking about travel.

Why is so much of travel badly designed?

When it comes to travel, bad design is everywhere. In some cases, more or less anything online, bad design is a feature not a bug. The point of websites more often than not is to squeeze every penny out of you. User experience? What’s that?

Welcome to Kupang, yes the airport grounds are on fire. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Who hasn’t picked the shortest queue at check-in only to find themselves behind a dude checking a cat in on a multi-leg flight? My belated apologies to the ever-lengthening queue behind me at the time. Why is “Express check-in” never express. Why after using an AirAsia check-in kiosk does one then need to join the main queue to check bags? Why keep carry-on to under seven kilos when fellow passengers are carrying seventy? In summary, why is every part of the airport experience 110% shit? Why are better alternatives not used? Travel is supposed to make us all better designers, and yet…

But rather than spending one thousand words whining about flying, I wanted to zoom out a bit more. Why is “travel” so badly designed? It isn’t like poor design is left for the plebs while the high flyers get a better product—they don’t. I mean, they’ll tell you they do, through their business class seats or member lounges, but it’s just a more fragrant garbage fire.

Will with an air-con upgrade to an overnight ferry trip. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Now that large parts of the planet have convinced themselves we are in a post-pandemic stage of the ongoing pandemic, there has been much talk about a need to reappraise travel. By and large this is blather, talk about “quality tourists” as if fatter wallet will make better ballast for keeping rising sea levels at bay. Asinine commentary from tourism boards struck a new high the other week when New Zealand’s tourism brain trust declared that two minute noodle eaters would no longer be welcome.

A moment to digress on this point. This statement was but that latest in an ongoing droll saga bemoaning backpackers as being a bad deal for destinations. This is of course complete rubbish—they stay longer and put more money in locally owned small businesses than any other segment. And in a world where sustainability is all the rage, they tick more boxes than anyone else. Yet, as far as New Zealand is concerned they seem to prefer high-spending two minute tourists rather than backpackers eating two minute noodles. For a nation as geographically isolated as it is, actively steering away from people who will stay longer—and thus defray the bazillion carbon kilos their flight expelled to get there—in favour of short stay carbon vandals, is, well, dumb.

Anyway, I digress.

NZ needs to go back to noodle school. Photo: Cindy Fan.

Sustainable or responsible travel has many touch points with much crossover to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but if I had to boil it down to five key points, they’d be:

  1. Fly as little as possible.

  2. Work to spend your money in a manner that leaves as much of it as possible with local communities.

  3. Stay in places that operate in an environmentally responsible fashion.

  4. Travel slowly—spend more time in fewer places.

  5. Eat local fare.

Much of travel does none of these things. I mean sure, some people travel this way, but they are in the minority.


Slow down and smell the coffee. Halfway down Tambora, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There was a good piece the other day on some of the challenges around sustainable travel in Southeast Asia. Two points stood out. First it highlighted that most countries in this region lack the legislation to enforce sustainable development. Second, it noted that the existing infrastructure was built to support pre-pandemic volumes of travellers. Thailand has an infrastructure to (in theory) support north of 40 million tourists a year. Apparently one shouldn’t expect the country to sit idle on 75% of its supposed capacity. Perish the thought they repurpose some of that infrastructure.

So this talk of making travel sustainable, at least from governments, is just that—talk. And while flogging tourists for the behaviour of some, or the impacts of their industry, might hold water, things are often more complicated. Take a look at national parks, are tourists really the primary threat vector? I don’t see much coverage of tourists illegally logging, or poaching (great story on this here), or expropriating national park land for residences. Maybe I’m reading the wrong outlets.

In Salavan go for the ant eggs rather than smashed avo. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

With the governments talking head outlets, responsibility for being responsible is left to private industry and travellers themselves. This too is a mixed bag, to say the least. One can flog the airlines for being the environmental vandals they are, but the hotel industry isn’t far behind. Southeast Asia is awash in basket cases of ill considered development projects—look to almost any island in the region to see evidence of this. Much of the luxury trade press ignores the environmental impacts of the places they feature.

Then there’s the inbound tour companies, where there are some bright indicators. Australian operator Intrepid for example continues to up their game, but at the end of the day, these businesses are extractive, and much of the money spent by passengers gets offshored. Choose your operator with the upmost care.

The international travel industry is a complex amalgam of many moving parts, yet few—if any—are well designed. Travel media is awash in brands declaring they are “doing things better” as if they deserve accolades for doing what they should have been all along. As I’ve written before, developing unsustainable eyesores then bragging about bamboo straws is ludicrous.

Do better. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This leaves us with the traveller—you dear reader. Everyone knows the embarrassment of pushing on a pull door, yet few notice how effortless it is when they push on a push one. Good design is good for everyone, it just works, and it shouldn’t be noteworthy. It should be the norm.

Travellers—and particularly destinations—deserve better than an industry built around Norman Doors. Demand better and take your business where you find it—it is right through that push or pull door over there.

Couchfish is 100 per cent independent and reader-supported. If you’re not already a subscriber, and you’d like to show your support, become a paying subscriber today for just US$7 per month—you can find out more about Couchfish here—or simply share this story with a friend.

Don’t forget, you can find the free podcasts on Apple, Pocket Casts and Spotify as well as right here on Couchfish.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.