Five Ideas

Five Ideas for Public Space: Yen Trinh

Yen Trinh with her Priority Seating signage

Yen Trinh with her Priority Seating signage

This summer, GOOD and the BMW Guggenheim Lab launched a worldwide, online call for ideas, inviting the public to respond to the question, “How would you transform a public space?” Curator Maria Nicanor recently selected five top ideas from the one hundred twenty submissions. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be presenting profiles of the people whose ideas were selected. Follow along here on Lab | Log as they discuss their innovative projects.

As far as Yen Trinh is concerned, the adage “don’t talk to strangers” is a limited sentiment. To encourage more impromptu conversations among bus and train travelers, the thirty-year-old designer from Brisbane, Australia, created a set of posters and placards using the public-service style fonts and graphics familiar to anyone who has ridden a subway. Trinh’s signs deliver a moment of surprise: at first glance, you think you recognize the message—“give your seat to a pregnant woman or a disabled rider”—but then you realize the sign is, in fact, declaring “priority seating for people who want conversation.”

Priority Seating for Conversation

Trinh’s signs in action

Trinh, who is currently an experience design manager at Queensland Museum, doesn’t find public interaction particularly easy herself, but still feels that talking to strangers is frequently a worthwhile experience. “I think talking to other people is how you’re going to learn about yourself and others. The signs give you permission to interact. You’ve made the choice to sit there; you’re open to it,” she says.

The signs came out of a freelance project Trinh was working on for the Museum of Brisbane in 2010. The aim of the project was to motivate citizens of Brisbane—a place where people largely depend on cars—to take public transportation. Paradoxically, Trinh looked to car advertisements to learn how to create desire in a potential customer. “How do you improve public transport—make it really cool that you’d want to be on the bus instead of taking your cars?” Trinh asked herself. She hit on the idea of using social interaction as the added value of public commuting. “I found that meeting people and running into friends is something that would not ever happen if you were in a car.”

In addition to their appearance on the subways and buses of Brisbane, Trinh’s conversation-starting signs have shown up on public transportation in New York and Toronto, where she showed them at festivals and also mounted several of the signs in subways, guerrilla-art style.

Trinh has been trying to create a Google Map of the conversations resulting from the posters. The map will show both locations of conversations and some stories from those encounters provided by users. This second phase of the project, she says, will let more potential users see the degree to which other people are participating. In addition, Trinh’s posters can be downloaded and displayed by anyone who wants to get people talking. Trinh is hopeful that by making the signs so accessible, she will encourage users to take her idea, amplify it, and generate new ideas for different settings. In this way, Trinh’s project itself embodies a larger, ongoing conversation about how, when, and why we talk to each other.

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Photos: courtesy Yen Trinh