A newsletter on audience research and development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

I attended an MCN session (last week? maybe?) that got me thinking that 2020 may be remembered as the year of the cow path for museums.

A cow path is, according to Wikipedia, “a path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot traffic.”

If you live on the East Coast, some of the main thoroughfares you’re familiar with were once likely cow paths. The next time you’re stopped at a spaghetti-like intersection with 29 traffic lights, imagine the year is 1746 and you’re honking at an actual cow ahead of you rather than using the word as an epithet. (Yes, I see you, Boston drivers.)

Cow paths are a form of critique

Before there was Yelp, there were cow paths. And Yelp has not disrupted cow paths — They’ll be around long after Yelp is absorbed by some larger corporate sun. Cow paths are the feedback mechanism planners never asked for.

Some esteemed planner lays out the sidewalks of a college campus in an aesthetically pleasing way, and then, when winter arrives and students are looking for the shortest path from one building to another, a cow path will emerge as they scurry from one class to another.

Photo of a cow path — an eroded footpath connected two sidewalks.
Users leave feedback for the designer. Image: Metro Centric, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cow paths are a sign of ignorance, indifference, or intransigence

A cow path can also be a sign that something has gone wrong. In that case, it’s not that the planners chose aesthetics over serviceability, it’s that they didn’t understand people’s goals, or they never tried to understand their goals, or they ignored what they learned in trying to understand people’s aims.

When things don’t go as planned, or when we forego planning around audience goals, we get cow paths.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cow paths get the job done. They minimize students’ discomfort in foul weather and, presumably, keep cows happy.

Cow paths are an opportunity

In that sense, a cow path — also known as a desire path — represents an opportunity.

The path shows us what people want, not what people say they want.

A planner can ask someone if they like their plan for sidewalks in a new park or if they’re satisfied with the sidewalks on their college campus, and people will say, “Oh, yes. That’s a fine sidewalk you have there. I mean, I’ve seen some sidewalks in my time, but this sidewalk — your sidewalk has few equals.”

And then the next day that same person starts cowpathing you. (Yes, it’s a verb now.)

You can scorn the cowpather, or you can view them as a — gods, don’t say ‘trailblazer’, Kyle, please don’t say — trailblazer. Yes, you can see them as a trailblazer. Groan.

Cow paths are the show that must go on

About that MCN session I mentioned earlier — I was dropped in a breakout room with someone who shared how hard the shift to virtual programming has been for their organization because their institution’s culture had certain expectations around the quality of what they produce for “the public”.

What I heard this person saying was that the pandemic had revealed something that people within the organization hadn’t given much thought to up to now. 2020 swept in and blocked all the organization’s usual habits and highways. Going “digital” spelled a disruption of workflows and procedures. (Maybe power, too?) In any case, suddenly curators were standing over the shoulders of communications teams — “Why haven’t you posted that to Instagram yet?”

What had been slow found speed, and what had been speedy was dipped in lead and told to swim.

2020 has created all sorts of cow paths for cultural organizations, but they’re not the usual cow paths, in that many of them are not create by “users” — Many of them have been created by employees who have had to forge their own paths. Some paths are critiques, some reveal organizations’ indifference, some (many?) represent opportunities — and some are all of the above.

Inventory your cow paths

Grab a piece of paper and write down what cow paths you’ve found yourself walking along in your work over the past however-many-months.

What cow paths have your colleagues created? How have they intersected with your paths?

And which of those cow paths — which opportunities — might become overgrown and disappear in the wake of a vaccine or a return to “normal”?

Seriously, write down the paths — or draw the paths. Then, share them in a reply to this email, or keep the paths for yourself as a reminder should the paths you described become overgrown and be forgotten in the months or years to come.


P.S. Today’s letter originally included appearances by John Oliver, John Bender, and James Boswell. They all have lots to say about cow paths, but they’re going to have to wait their turn. I don’t think we’re done with cow paths.

Drawing of a cow
You’ve successfully subscribed to SuperHelpful Letters
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for a magic link to sign-in.