Although you may not notice, desire paths pop up throughout our daily life. Next time you walk from one place to another, note the route you choose. Do you stick to the designed paths? Do you stick to the paved path, the gravel road, the marked route? Or do you choose an alternate route, a quicker or better way? Do you walk on the grass? Is this way crisp and laid out, or has it been trod before?
A desire path is this non-designed but worn path, created casually by people finding the shortest distance between two points. It is created by experience, not by explicit design. The concept has existed in architecture for decades. Landscape designers can apply the concept to let people choose their preferred paths, and then formally pave the paths once established. To see many examples of desire paths, check out the pictures in this Flickr group dedicated to observed desire paths.
The concept has recently popped up as a principle to apply to other methods of industrial, product and even software design to allow usage patterns to help inform design choices. Customers use products, making choices as they go, forming behaviors, and hopefully best practices emerge that can be used to guide design and product decisions.
Whether created by a single designer or by the wisdom of the masses, we create norms, standardized choices, and we follow. We see the choices people have made, we see the paths, and we follow them.
And not just in our walking routes, but throughout our lives. Laws, rules, understood norms for behavior, societal expectations: all created by the history of choices of the masses.
Desire paths are how people have chosen the best route to navigate their physical world, whether it is the “intended” path or not.
How can we cut our own desire paths through life?
Most conventional ideas about success go wrong because they focus on outcomes and results instead of on the processes of living. Outcomes come around from time to time, but life itself — the process of living, acting, thinking, and being — happens all the time.
Focus on the process, not the results. Spend your time on doing what you enjoy, follow your own process, because if you don’t enjoy the process, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy the results.
Successful businesses are founded on the idea of creating processes that can be understood, repeated, replicated, broken down step-by-step, because they know that in the business world sometimes the results go a bit astray. Companies use past performance to benchmark and create expectations for the future, and it helps them understand mistakes, failures, opportunities for improvement. They develop history, core competencies, establish cultures, a history of shared experiences that becomes their DNA for success.
Do the same in your life. Take time to figure out what you want, whether it is on the established path or not. Then do it, consistently, with purpose. Make mistakes, and ruthlessly learn from them. Create your desire path in life: maybe others will follow, maybe not, but in the end at least it’s your path.