The Why, When, and Who of Where: Place, Meaning, and Context

A coffee mug professing love for New York, in Nashville
Oddly, this NY-loving mug picture was taken at a coffee shop in Nashville. I love it when the places in my life collide in interesting ways. ☕️


I often work at coffee shops. A lot of other people do, too, of course. But since it’s my nature to think about meaning and what makes different human experiences meaningful in different ways, I sometimes find myself deconstructing the experience of what it means to work in a coffee shop. Overthinking it? OK, maybe. But I’m looking for what we can learn about designing experiences, both online and offline.

The “Why” of Place

The opening question is “why?” What is the value of working on my smallish laptop screen on a hard chair at a crowded coffee shop as opposed to sitting at my desk in my apartment, where I have a big display to dock my laptop into and access to a huge supply of teas, and where I can put on slippers and make myself as comfortable as I like? What possible explanation could there be for why I and so many others choose to pay and be inconvenienced for discomfort and fewer amenities?

You could propose “because there are no distractions,” and yes, for some people, including myself, that’s probably a piece of it. (After all, if you live with cats, you know they can get pretty insistent about getting attention. I can only imagine how insistent kids might be.) But then again, you’re adding a whole new set of distractions when you work in a coffee shop, or other “third place.” You’re introducing whole villages of people to have to tune out and ignore.

But ignore them you can. In general you’re likely to perceive less of a sense of obligation to acknowledge and respond to the distractions you encounter in a coffee shop like you would, say, at the office, when your colleague shows up at your desk asking for that TPS report. Beyond that, I don’t have to think about the small stack of paperwork on my desk — I’ve effectively eliminated it from my context and can concentrate on the work I’ve come to do.

Also, you’re trading in familiar distractions for more interesting distractions, and perhaps more stimulating distractions, in a sense. But for someone who thrives on creative inspiration, that can make a tremendous difference, whether tackling creative or mundane tasks.

The “When” of Place

The next question that occurs to me is “when?” How often is it productive and beneficial to work in a third place versus the usual place? What’s the ideal combination of familiar and new to inspire but not distract?

For example, I find that I do really powerful brainstorming and big, think-y, strategic work in airplanes. I always assume there’s a combination of factors in play: turning off internet connectivity, probably first and foremost, but also being in a constrained environment where it is literally a challenge to get up from the seat and do anything other than focus on the space right in front of me — all of that seems to come together to reward me with some of the clearest thinking work I ever do. But then I wonder: would I be able to rely on having such breakthrough thinking if I increased my frequency of travel? Maybe it’s the pacing of it that works. I travel far more than the average person, but not as much as many frequent business travelers do, and perhaps the relatively limited availability of the airplane context keeps it fresh. I’m looking to experiment with that a bit over the next year or two.

In any case, asking “when” in relation to changing the context of place is important in designing optimally meaningful experiences. At a certain level, it’s the heart of what work-life balance is about.

Meaningful Experience and the Third Place

You’re probably already ahead of me on thinking through the next questions: “where,” “what,” “how,” and “who.”

Well, “where” is already all about place, so we’re fundamentally examining it already, not to get too meta. But to frame it up in a way we can try to apply in designing experiences, the place you’re in is a significant part of the context of your interactions. And place creates opportunities for stories and interactions.

In your home, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. But home is where, in some respects, you probably have the most control over your environment and experiences.
In your office or fixed workplace, the opportunity for interactions is limited to a small and mostly repeating set. Depending on your position, you probably have some degree of control over your environment and experiences.
In a third place, though, like a coffee shop, a bar, an airport, a park, etc, the opportunities are pretty much unlimited and the opportunity for novelty is much higher. And although you have little control within the place itself, you have in some ways the most important kind of control: you get to choose to be in this place (“where”) for however long (“when”) for whatever purpose (“what and why”) and how much you acknowledge your surroundings (“who”).

It’s not that one is inherently better than the others; sometimes the interactions and novelty introduce too much of a distraction and annoyance.

Today, for example, an uncommonly beautiful woman was seated to my right at the window bench, and for a while (until I put headphones on and drowned it out) I was privy to overhearing her being constantly hit on by strange men. Some were one-and-done approaches; one in particular was a prolonged attempt to wear her down and get her interest. She was unfailingly polite, but I thought (and tweeted) if this is as tedious as it is for me, I can’t imagine how tedious it must be for her.

I digress. But that digression is more or less the point. In a coffee shop or other third place, you’re placed in proximity of these kinds of micro-happenings that don’t really add up to much and don’t change your life, really, but taken as a whole they add color and perspective and dimension to our lives. It’s an opportunity for empathy and framing up your perspective alongside countless other people you can observe.

In an upcoming post, I’ll take these ideas about the meaning of place and apply them to online experiences, and some of the nuances of how we can intentionally create meaningful experiences of place will start to become more evident. Until next time, I’m headed home to give some cats a little attention.

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