Posts Tagged ‘design enthusiasm

17
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: Yearning isn’t enough

The “Y” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Yearning isn’t enough.

Yearning for the perfect design opportunity is like waiting for the perfect lover.

A college education opens worlds of possibilities and inspires a yearning for realizing the potential of one’s chosen medium. But yearning isn’t enough. You need to find ways to make it happen.

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How does opportunity happen?

Think of some of the seminal buildings of 20th Century architecture:
— Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Alto
— Church on the Water by Tadao Ando
— Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas by Luis Barragan
— Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry
— Chapel of Saint Ignatius by Steven Holl
— Kimbell Art Museum by Louis I. Kahn
— Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut by Le Corbusier
— Douglas House by Richard Meier
— Sidney Opera House by Jorn Utzon
— American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsein
— Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
— Val Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

Do you think the respective clients of the projects above were just sitting there awaiting those particular buildings to arrive? Absolutely not! Take Disney Hall for example. Several years ago I took the architectural audio tour of the building. The recording included architect Frank Gehry relating conversations he’d had with the patron Lillian Disney. At the outset of the project she described how she and Walt were enchanted by masonry castles of Europe, encumbered with climbing vines. She asked Frank Gehry to capture that spirit. There was assuredly no mention of curving stainless steel panels! And yet, she was presumably enchanted by the final built concert hall – with nary a vine or castle-like feature.

The point is, with rare exception does one encounter a patron who shares your yearnings / aspirations. Your job therefore doesn’t end with your being able to imagine a fabulous new world. You need to educate and excite others to join the expedition. And ideally, they are enlisting you to join on their own expedition simultaneously in the project. The best projects are those where client and architects are both realizing their own goals alongside others and finding themselves in a landscape of realization beyond their own ideas.

Realizing good design

To me, the phrase “realizing good design” is rather a double entendre. The first meaning is “becoming aware”, learning to understand and appreciate what good design is – like becoming a detective or connoisseur. The second meaning is “making it happen”. Our education and apprenticeship aim primarily at instilling mastery in the first arena. But it is unquestionably a mastery of the second arena which enables our success in practice.

How to make it happen

How do we as designers “make it happen”? Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer. It really comes down to learning what your own strengths are and how to use them effectively with others. And yet there are some general truisms, some of which have been touched upon earlier in the “Wisdom” series. For instance, having and displaying passion goes a long way. Passion tends to be contagious. Also, taking risks, or “having skin in the game” facilitates people believing in you and taking a risk with you – not having them feel like you’re asking them to assume all of the risks alone.

Most often though, making it happen involves your going the extra mile. This is where yearning is needed as a start. Yearning is what gets you to aspire to more than the client envisions or is asking for. The yearning is what drives you to come up with that idea that no one else has seen or even looked for. Harness that yearning to get yourself to find ways to make things happen – rather than waiting for people to realize the possibilities which you have to offer.

An example from design practice

Early in my career as an architect, my boss “handed off” an interior design project to me for a small town drugstore. Everyone, the client and my boss alike, looked at the project as “routine” without much room for creative input. The functional layout, largely predetermined by operational considerations for staffing efficiencies, resulted in the customer service pharmacy counter being positioned in the rear, as is often the case. The shelving and displays between the entrance and the counter, while critical for merchandizing, felt to be at odds with customer service in the rear.

Analyzing the problem I yearned for there to be some synergy, rather than conflict, between the merchandizing and customer service needs. I recalled the radial geometries of the stacks employed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in several of his libraries. Ultimately I was able to produce a design using radial display shelving (and accompanying radial overhead lighting) which resulted in a more inviting merchandizing environment and an emphasizing of the pharmacy counter. The “surprises” created between the interactions of the rectangular building shell and the radial interior fit-out enabled a richness of spaces for display, customer services and seating. The results exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Use a yearning for better design to serve as your springboard to exceed what’s expected.

Remember, Yearning isn’t enough.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter Y, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Yellow and Yellow-green, and a photo of a Yearning adventurer jumping to action.

10
Sep
13

Design Wisdom: Practice Passionately.

The “P” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Practice Passionately.

When you are “in the zone” of your craft, you feel it, and others do too. Cultivate it.

If you’re not engaged in what you’re doing, no one else will be either. If you’re not learning and passionate about what you’re doing, it’s time you made some changes – for everyone’s sake.

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Feel the excitement

One of the most fundamental joys we experience as human beings is the mastery of a skill. Starting as a beginner one feels exhilaration in doing something successfully for the first time. But this isn’t true mastery. Mastery isn’t about if you will succeed, but how well you succeed. True mastery, in art forms especially, isn’t just a matter of attaining a result – it’s about how well you performed in getting there. Think about a chef or a musician. Their mastery is not about being able to reproduce a recipe or tune, but in how they perfected or subtly transformed the composition.

In the company of a Master

Ironically, it seems to me, the pleasure experienced by witnessing someone else’s mastery is often far more intense than that felt by the artisan themself. (Indeed, masters are far more likely to be self-critical than self-congratulatory!) Think of the last time you were in the presence of someone at the top of their game. It’s enough to give you goose bumps.

The witnessing of mastery is a large part of why watching the Olympics or many other spectator sporting events are so popular. And it’s not just sports. Television has profiled people in virtually every walk of life from fishing to sculpting to car repair – showcasing people’s expertise and passions. In literature, John McPhee has written numerous penetrating accounts of people and their vocations (e.g. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed on body development, Looking for a Ship about a U.S. Merchant Marine, and A Sense of Where You Are which chronicled Bill Bradley’s college basketball career. As we become witnesses (spectators) to mastery, we feel respect and awe for the accrued knowledge and heart that the specialist has brought to bear on their chosen vocation.

The rewards of passion

As an architect (or designer of any type) you want to be at the top of your game. You want to be challenged and excited – indeed passionate – about the work you are doing. It makes life more interesting – for you, and everyone else. The greater your mastery and passion about your art, the more likely you are to attract people who get energized by you and your passions. So it’s a win-win.

An example from design practice

Probably the most damning praise I have ever gotten was from a residential client. It went something like this: “My husband and I know that we didn’t take your design advice on one particular issue and proceeded otherwise, but in retrospect we wish you had advocated more strongly for what you believed. You were right.” Ouch. Double ouch.

The lesson there was that one’s role as a designer is definitely a balancing act. While a designer has to listen and be attentive to a client’s interests and requests, it can’t be at the expense of their own experience, intuition and passions.

In working on another residential commission, I presented an initial design scheme to a client. I felt that I had addressed all of the issues that the client had put forth in her brief and responded to the context of the community very deferentially. After asking a few clarifying questions, she asked: “How do you feel about the design?” I paused a minute, wondering how candid I could afford to be. Somewhat ruefully I replied that although I thought the design was very efficient and that her neighbors would be very happy with it, truthfully I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the design. It wasn’t really expressing what was unique about her family or the site. To my surprise, she responded “If you’re not happy with the design, than you need to go back to the drawing board!”

I felt myself very lucky to have had a second chance. The redesign was everything that the first one wasn’t. I felt my design passions re-energized in developing a scheme I wholeheartedly could get excited about. As a result the client also caught the excitement and it went on to receive an architectural design award as well. The lesson learned is to prepare what you’re passionate about on the first go ‘round. One might not be lucky enough to get a second chance.

Do your homework in approaching each design project and then proceed with passion. The enthusiasm will likely be contagious.

Remember, Practice Passionately.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter P, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Pistachio and Persimmon, and a photo of a violinist Practicing Passionately.

12
Mar
13

Design Wisdom: Engage Enthusiastically

The “E” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Engage Enthusiastically.

Are you enthusiastically engaged and passionately sharing the work you are doing?

If you’re not feeling fully engaged in your work, and you’re not enthusiastically engaging others in your vision, it’s far less likely that your endeavor will succeed.

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The Enthusiasm Litmus Test

Be honest with yourself: are you excited about what you’re doing (or trying to do)? Are you engaged and passionate about your work as a design professional? If not, something needs to change. It might be your attitude, or it might be your circumstances. But this much is clear: you need to take the lead in cultivating your own enthusiasm and sense of engagement.

If you’re experiencing a deficit of enthusiasm, it usually means you’re not optimistic about the process and/or the results you anticipate. Ask yourself why you have doubts. Examining your attitude should spark in you a quest to at least identify the source of the problem. Once you identify it, you’ll either be able to remedy the situation or find that you can’t. But even in the worst-case scenario, you can seize upon the enthusiasm you feel for other aspects of the project rather than letting your doubts cast a pall over the entire works.

The point is, if you want to get others on board, you need to be selling them on your ideas. Nothing builds success and buy-in better than your enthusiasm for the ways and means of realizing a project.

So, What About Others?

Architecture involves a client, designer, materials suppliers and a builder at the very least. They’re all dynamic and essential players, so their engagement is crucial. Think of the gears of a watch or bike that need to interlock to produce results.

At the most basic level, engagement is about communication. The designer must be able to open channels of communication with as many stakeholders in each project as possible at the outset, then work to assure the open flow of information for the duration of the project.

When I was fresh out of architecture school, I used to picture the ideal client as someone who told you what they wanted, handed you a check and said they’d be back a year later for the finished product after taking a ‘round-the-world cruise. While the part about being paid in advance would be nice (!), trust me, you don’t want an absentee client – despite how tempting it might seem. If a client disappears during the design process and fails to communicate with you, I can assure you that you’ll be dealing with a different person when he returns. Even if you designed something perfectly suited to his expressly stated yearnings a year ago, his sense of what he wants will have changed during the course of his adventures.

You can see that communication is a key to engagement. But it’s not the only key. Think of it as the “what” of engaging a project participant. The “how” of engaging them is enthusiastically. Enthusiasm conveys the feelings — your feelings – your excitement and confidence about things to come. Enthusiasm is contagious. People naturally want to be part of a winning team. Your enthusiasm is critical in assuring them that they’ve found that team.

An Example from Design Practice

My first year out of college was the most demoralizing year of my life. Although I haven’t taken a poll, I’m guessing this isn’t uncommon among graduates of architecture, fine arts, and design schools. The reason? The transition from the lofty idealism of academia to the grittiness of real-world practice is akin to a high-speed car crash. Gone is the sense that you’re striving to change the world – replaced instead with the brain-numbing ennui of wading through an endless stream of “redline” drafting corrections.

The first major project I worked on that first summer out of school was for 185 units of public housing in Upstate New York. At the time hand-drafting was still the norm, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to “mirror-image” or otherwise make repetitive design changes to 185 bathrooms or kitchens by hand. The “joke” among the four drafting interns was: “Don’t draw more in the morning than you can erase in the afternoon.” Boredom and cynicism ruled. After a year, the corrosive nature of that environment finally got to me and I realized that I needed to move along for my own survival.

The school-to-practice transition probably isn’t any easier now than it has been for earlier generations of graduates. It pays to remember, though, that it’s not someone else’s job to make sure you stay enthusiastic and engaged. At least initially, you probably won’t find everything you’re looking for in one place. You might have to assemble your life a la carte to create the right conditions for enthusiastic engagement.  Don’t shy away from this task: it will help ensure your sanity and success.

You are the steward of your own passions. It’s your responsibility to actively cultivate your interests and enthusiasms so you can engage others with your optimism.

Remember, Engage Enthusiastically

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter E, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Eggplant and Emerald, and a photo of Engaged gears.




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