A/D/O by MINI | Designing Days

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Designing Days

Time is a constant. But the zones we’ve designed that dictate how it is observed around the world have more varying impacts on daily life than we might think.

What time is it? This simple question has multiple answers, depending where you are in the world. That’s because our planet is round (yes, it is round, Flat Earthers), and to make sure that waking hours correspond with our bodies’ natural rhythms dictated by daylight, time at different longitudes is adjusted accordingly.

The difference in time from place to place may not heavily affect your day-to-day activities and decisions. But for those who do business with another part of the world, have family or friends living away, or are traveling somewhere else, the variations can become confusing, annoying and physically draining. Think about the last time you experienced jet lag – a result of venturing across several time zones, and putting your body clock out of sync with man-made timepieces.

So how is time decided in different places? In a perfectly logical world, the globe would be divided by 24 longitudinal lines – running from the north to south poles – into equal segments. But geographical factors, political borders and government policies have all complicated this somewhat. Through decisions made about time zones over the years, we have effectively been able to design our own days.

The Greenwich Meridian bisects the Royal Observatory in south-east London. Photo by Joy of Museums.

The system that we base all of the world’s clocks around today revolves around a set of lines that originates in the United Kingdom. The Greenwich Meridian, which bisects the Royal Observatory in south-east London, is the line that international scientists and astronomers decided would be referred to as zero degrees longitude in 1884. At this precise location, the sun is at the highest point in the sky at noon, or 12pm, aligning perfectly with solar time. Therefore, the time zone that the UK follows is called Greenwich Mean Time, and since 1928, this has also become known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Zones around the world are measured as either plus or minus this time in hours, but where these fall and how they are designated is far from simple.

Across the Atlantic, several hours “behind” the UK, the United States operates primarily across six separate time zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Alaskan, and Hawaii-Aleutian. Delineating between some of these zones divides up the country in odd ways, and cuts a handful of states down the middle, leaving neighboring counties an hour apart. Studies have shown that which side of a time-zone border you live, and how far deviated you are from solar time, can dramatically impact health and productivity. Just west of these borders, sunrise comes earlier in the day so the body naturally kickstarts better, and on average people go to sleep earlier too. Meanwhile, residing just east of a time-zone boundary usually means staying up later and less rest.

The majority of American states participate in Daylight Savings Time (DST): they instruct residents to move their clocks forward an hour in the spring, and back again in the autumn, to extend the length of summer evenings. But not all states comply. The Hawaiian archipelago keeps the same time year-round, and Arizona – in the Mountain time zone – decided to do the same in 1968. However, the Navajo Indian Reservation, northeast Arizona, still follows DST, but the Hopi Reservation within the Navajo borders does not. And since Hopi land is also designated in patches, this means that – if so inclined – one can drive through Arizona and change their clocks back and forth eight times.

Some nations have thrown these imaginary boundaries out of the window completely. China, a country so large that it would typically straddle five time zones, is entirely aligned to the time in its north-easterly capital, Beijing. This decision was made by the Communist Party in 1949 to help create national unity, but those living in the western-most province of Xinjiang sometimes don’t see the sunrise in the winter until 10am – a staggering three hours from solar time. And crossing the border between China and Afghanistan – which in theory takes minutes – involves putting watches back three and a half hours.

The International Date Line is distorted by South Pacific island nations. Image by Jailbird.

Things get even messier along the International Date Line, which cuts down a seemingly empty expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Crossing this line, most commonly by air, can strip a full day off the calendar if traveling west, or allow anyone to go back in time to yesterday if heading east. But instead of a straight north-south boundary, the date line is distorted by the island nations dotted across the sea.

The biggest disparity is created by Kiribati, which stretches far into the territory that would typically be considered east of the longitudinal date divide, into yesterday, but the entire country moved over to join the majority of Australasia’s day in 1995. The resulting shape of the date line as it loops around the islands means that during a voyage sailing due south through this region, it is possible to “time travel” between days four times. It also puts part of the Kiribati archipelago at UTC+14:00, the earliest time zone in the world and the first to ring in each new year.

Even more recently, Samoa decided to realign its time, and date, to be closer to Australia rather than the US – as its economy shifted closer to its neighbors to the west rather than the east. To do this, the country completely skipped December 30, 2011, and put itself a full day ahead in time to celebrate the new year. American Samoa, on the other hand, is just 100 miles away but remains almost a full day behind.

Worldwide, no time-zone boundaries are set in stone and still have the potential to change, giving countries and municipalities the opportunity to redesign their days should they wish. Plans in parts of Europe and the US to eradicate Daylight Savings Time are slowly gaining traction after lengthy campaigns, and shifting political borders might also impact how time is experienced in places. We think of time as a constant, unwavering entity that we have little control over. But the ways in which we manipulate the borders that define time have more of an impact on our lives than we think.

This article forms part of At The Border – the third research program initiated by A/D/O. Spanning a full year from August 2019 to July 2020, the program is curated in partnership with Jan Boelen and Charlotte Dumoncel d’Argence. 

Text by Dan Howarth.

Image of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich used under Creative Commons licensing.

Image of the International Date Line used under Creative Commons licensing.

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