Posts Tagged ‘design


Design Wisdom: Leave Leavening

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

Leave Leavening.

Most times the best answers (and designs) are open-ended and invite further inquiry.

Ever been in a conversation with a “know-it-all”? First, it’s not really a conversation if someone feels they already have all the answers. Great design, however, is like good conversation: it invites participation.


Why leavening?

Leavening is essentially a fermentation process used in baking to produce air bubbles that cause breads to rise. The metaphor here is about making space – literally and figuratively. Without leavening, breads can be dense and impenetrable. As a designer, you’re creating (in whatever medium) objects, performances, or buildings that you want others (your audience or user) to find engaging and accessible. For our purposes, then, leavening is about providing space for audience members to inhabit in some form – physically, emotionally and/or intellectually.

Leaving room for the imagination

Think of a world devoid of imagination. Everything would be reduced to nuts-and-bolts knowledge. Just the facts. There would be no room for “What if?” Without imagination, our world would be a pretty dull, predictable, mechanistic environment.

It might be tempting to say that imagination is in the eye of the beholder. After all, anyone who’s spent any time around young children has witnessed their endless capacity to imagine all sorts of amazing things in the most banal of environments – like the laundry basket transformed into an intergalactic space station. But simply to leave imagination to the beholder is a cop-out by you, the designer — and a serious lost opportunity for the audience.

An essential mission of a designer is to engage others – to provide room and encouragement to experiment, wonder and fill in the blanks. Leavening is what makes the design all the more engaging for the consumer.

Leaving room for serendipity

Besides creating space for the consumer’s imagination, you need to leave room for serendipity. By serendipity, I mean chance encounters or juxtapositions, or more fundamentally, room for discovery. In this sense, “leave leavening” means allowing some openness for spontaneous and even quirky personal responses, which in turn means surrendering some control over how other people will experience your design. Like a place without room for the imagination, a hermetically self-contained “know-it-all” design is also dead. Having chance encounters is an essential part of the human condition.

Making room for serendipity is easily illustrated in architectural practice. Dating back to at least when Louis I. Kahn was designing the Salk Institute laboratories, there was increasing awareness that scientific breakthroughs weren’t the sole provenance of the lone scientist toiling in his laboratory, but rather often occurred at the nexus of private reflection and collegial exchange. At least since that time, we’ve understood that providing space for random social interaction can be as essential as places for structured work in learning and research environments.

Think about it this way: If students were found to learn best from staring at an instructor or display surface, why would any classrooms have windows? The passing bird may offer more to the lesson than anyone might expect!

An example from design practice

As this “Design Wisdom” series has evolved, I’ve realized that I use the label “design practice” to mean any form of creative authorship for public consumption. In that sense, it applies to virtually all artistic fields — so it’s not unfitting that I turn to creative writing as the source of an example from design practice.

Back in college, I took a writing class as an elective. It was a crash course in looking structurally at stories – with the twin goals of increasing our appreciation of the craft of writing and helping us write better ourselves.

One of the exercises involved writing a careful description of a specific place from memory. It was important that it not be an invented place, but rather a real place from our personal experience… a place we knew intimately. We then exchanged papers with another student and silently read each other’s place descriptions. Finally, the entire class was given a list of specific questions such as: How big was the place? What was the predominant color? How would you describe the smell of the place? How did the place make you feel? What kind of light was there?

We had to answer the questions based on the other person’s description. The results amazed me. I had described my grandmother’s long wooden Greek Revival porch in Upstate New York, choked with concord grape vines in the summertime. My partner in the exercise intuited some answers right in line with my own memory – the size of the porch, for example. Other characteristics, like the quality of light and sense of feeling I had in the place, were rendered in a quite different (but very compelling) way by the other student – based on his own sensibilities.

The “take-away” for me was two-fold. First, as definitively as we might try to “nail down” every detail of our project, some features will inevitably remain (and should remain) ambiguous. Secondly, a reader (or viewer, or audience member) must be able to find room in your design to inhabit and make their own. In that long-ago classroom exercise, I realized that “my” place description became richer for having shared it with someone who could enhance it with his own perceptions.

If you’re designing to engage an audience, your work shouldn’t end the conversation. It must leave space for the imagination and serendipitous discoveries. 

Remember, Leave Leavening.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter L, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Lapis Lazuli and Liver, and a photo of statues which Leave us wondering.


Design Wisdom: Humans have needs

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

Humans have needs.

When was the last time you were somewhere you thought you didn’t belong?

Probably within the last 24 hours. I’m talking about buildings and places where your comfort as a human user seemed to have been the last thing anyone took seriously.


Who are you designing for?

Surprisingly, it often seems that the accommodation of users and their needs is secondary to some other agenda. How many times have you walked into a corporate lobby and said “Wow!” (wondering why they created such a vast 3-story glass-walled atrium) only to end up feeling sorry for the poor receptionist, blinded by sun glare and buffeted by blasts of frigid outdoor air every time the door opened?

You may be the owner or architect, but the question is the same: Who are you designing for? Are you designing to impress your competition? Are you designing things simply “because you can”? Or are you actually designing to deliver the best experience for the users?

Good design shouldn’t ever have to say it’s sorry. By that I mean to say that a well-designed building or space doesn’t require apologies for what it didn’t get right – because good design means getting the things that matter right. And guess what? People matter. One of the most fundamental aspects of “getting it right” is achieving ease of use and providing a sense of comfort for the occupants.

Suffering for (your) art

It’s fine for designers to suffer for their art. That’s their choice. However, they should never impose suffering on their clients without their consent. As a designer I would argue that our mandate, in terms of suffering for our art, is to achieve the “both-and” of beauty and functionality, not allowing one to fall aside at the expense of the other. Owners and architects alike should take as “standard operating procedure” that the buildings they commission or design both inspire and comfort users.

Interestingly, the size or complexity of a project isn’t relevant to whether it can offer both inspiration and comfort. Let’s look at a few notable famous failures and successes. All of them are inspiring. (They wouldn’t be in the history books if they didn’t inspire.) However, only some of them are comforting.

In terms of size and functional demands, single-family homes should top the list for comfort and ready accommodation of user needs. Apparently Mies van der Rohe needed a reminder: after completion of his all-glass Farnsworth House, Mrs. Farnsworth sued him for creating an “unlivable house.” The Franks didn’t fare much better when architect Peter Eisenman created a house that forced the owner couple to sleep in separate beds.

Museums arguably have more complex functional demands to meet – and yet they can achieve sublime comfort. For example, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (located, oddly enough, in Denmark) is quietly nestled, in a very unassuming way, in a residential neighborhood north of Copenhagen. Your experience as a visitor is like walking through a garden in full bloom in beautiful weather. Similarly, architect Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, offers a tranquil oasis – heroic in its transcendent luminosity, yet humble in scale.

An example from design practice

In most projects there are power struggles among the various stakeholders. Corporate departments or married partners often fight against a real or perceived constraint to obtain more of whatever their interests are. In these cases, your role as designer is as referee or counselor. Surprisingly, you often find yourself fighting to defend the most basic human accommodations in your designs.

In one case, I was working for a very dynamic and forward-looking CEO who had commissioned my firm to design some large meeting spaces for his institution. At some point, in exasperation, he demanded that the number of toilets be reduced by half. I explained that the number shown was required by the building code as proportional to the number of people being accommodated in the meeting spaces. When I asked why the restroom quantity was a problem, his response was: “I can’t find donors for bathrooms.” In the end, the code requirements were met – but not without my insisting that I would resign from the job if he insisted that we provide any fewer! Funny thing is, after graduating from architecture school, I had never imagined myself fighting a client in order to provide more toilets!

As architects we revel in designing spaces that inspire. Yet it is equally important that we provide comfort and utility for the joy of the humans using our buildings.

Remember, Humans have needs

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter H, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Harvest Gold and Hunter Green, and a photo of a Human happily hanging out.


Design Wisdom: Find the Figure

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

Find the Figure. 

When was the last time you were accused of not seeing the forest for the trees?

In our caffeinated, attention-deficit inducing Information Age, the deluge of imagery in our daily lives makes it far more likely that you’ll fail to notice, let alone get captivated by, individual trees. And yet, successful design requires that we recover the ability to do so.


Problem Solving

As a designer you’re typically hired to solve a specific problem. It could be designing a website or a skyscraper. Sometimes your client comes to you without a clue about where to begin because the problem seems so complicated. Other times, what looks like a simple task at the outset quickly gets bogged down in conflicting details and secondary agendas. Either way, most design projects at some point run the risk of capsizing under too heavy a burden of options and information. How do you work through all the details to find a cohesive solution? Where do you begin?

Being Subjective

Your primary skill as a designer isn’t your likeness to a computer, crunching huge multi-variable simultaneous equations. Your skill is in your subjectivity (and your persuasiveness, but we’ll get to that in a subsequent article). What’s the root word of subjectivity? Subject. A singularity. A point of reference selected by someone with a unique vision, just as an artist selects the central figure for a portrait or still life painting.

But let me be clear:  while the “figure” I’m talking about can be a concrete object, like a table or a tree, it doesn’t need to be. It can be a color, shape, concept, or feeling. The essential idea is that whatever it is, it is a palpable entity. This thingness can be achieved in many different ways, but the result is in differentiating one tree as unique within the forest. It is the capturing of focus that enables meaning to be created and savored. As a designer, one of your most valuable skills lies in making this subjective choice of what that the focus or figure of a given project will be.

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Think of going on a camping trip. At some point you’ll need to find a spot to spend the night. More often than not, you select that spot by finding a figure that serves as a focal point. It might be a view to a distant mountain or the flatness of a large rock at your feet. Finding a figure gives you a starting point. Establishing that figure puts everything else in some kind of relationship to it. Rather than roaming aimlessly in an undifferentiated forest, your perceptions and actions become relational to the thing you’ve claimed.

Granted, having found the figure doesn’t mean your work is done. Think of it as Thomas Edison’s 1% inspiration in relation to the remaining 99% perspiration of work. You still have to shape the subsequent relationships with everything else to make them meaningful and positive. But once you’ve settled on the focal point or theme of your project, you’ve essentially built the foundation for everything that follows.

An Example from Design Practice

A project of mine currently nearing completion is a residential retreat with guesthouse in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. The client acquired the site for its primal natural qualities – a lakefront property surrounded by a mature forest, mostly hemlock. As with any project it had its share of impediments. The 10-acre site had three major zones: a moderately sloped portion which had previously been logged a decade earlier, a steeply sloped portion with virgin forest, and a low, boggy wetlands area. The most readily accessible portions of the site had previously been left visibly scarred from the earlier logging activity. The areas of greatest beauty and best views were deep within the site, heavily forested and steeply sloped with rock ledges just below the surface. The wetlands areas, of course, were environmentally protected and needed to be kept intact.

From the outset of the project it was clear that how we dealt with the existing conditions of the site would be the key to success. We gathered as much information about the site as possible, including surveying the slopes, mapping the major trees, and assessing view sheds. So, you could say we began with a soft- focus impression of site, without knowing the key to knitting the assets and challenges of the site together into a seamless whole.

At some point during our surveying I saw one remarkable tree — a mature hemlock — whose deeply textured bark was being highlighted by the direct rays of a late afternoon sun. Suddenly I realized that the central motif of our project would be a tree – more specifically, seeing a tree through the forest. The story of trees became our narrative glue – starting with reclaiming much of the original logging road as our site access. The largest area of the logging slash became a meadow within which we sited the guesthouse. The site for the main house was nestled into the wooded hillside, enabling approaching visitors to view past the house, through the under-canopy silhouettes of tree trunks down to the shimmering blue surface of the lake below.

While much of our effort was spent in preserving trees and shaping views of them (and through them), some trees inevitably required removal. Rather than treating them as nuisance waste, we chose to transform them into a featured element of our project. With careful handling we stacked the felled trees under a temporary shelter and air-cured them into building-usable logs. The logs became the “signature” front features of both houses – serving as loggia columns on the guesthouse and primary exposed structural elements for the roof and porches of the main residence. A visit to the property now inspires admiration for the many faces of trees, in all their forms of beauty and strength.

Finding a specific idea or object to provide a palpable presence in a project enables you to build meaningful relationships with the greater whole. 

Remember, Find the Figure

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter F, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Fuchsia and Flax, and a photo of a Forest


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.


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.


Design Wisdom: Create Courage

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

          Create Courage.

                  Design is a journey to a new place. New means risk. Why go there?

If you don’t have a reason to take a risk, you won’t. Courage means having a bold vision that overshadows the difficulty of taking the first step and persevering to reach a goal.


Why do you design?

Before considering how and why to take risks, ask yourself “Why do I design? Why is the client hiring me?” Namely: to make a difference. To create something that is different.

“Different” means risk. If you can’t accept risk, you’ll be consigned to maintaining the status quo. So, let me repeat: “Why would someone hire you?” For the new places you can take them. Your brand is the sum of the risks you are willing to take.

Start with yourself

As a designer you undoubtedly strive to make the proverbial “better mousetrap” (or at least one that commands attention). If you believe that making something better means turning it upside down, then you’ll need the courage to face whomever or whatever you’re accountable to – a boss, a client or the bottom line of your business ledger.

The path to courage is redefining failure. Most of us are conditioned to see failure as having made a mistake (or being told that we’ve made a mistake). Cautious souls keep reminding us that practice makes perfect, and the pursuit of perfection overtakes our need to make a difference. In other words, if you’re not doing the same thing over and over again, you’re bound to be making mistakes as you take risks on new ideas. This mindset is fatal to creativity.  Condition yourself to see not taking risk as failure.

One of the lessons I learned from working with Peter Bohlin, FAIA, was his ability to take mistakes in stride. At a design critique he would invariably start a sentence with something like, “Well, I might be wrong here, but let’s try this and see where it takes us.” Ever armed with sincerity of intent, Peter seemed incapable of feeling embarrassed by an awkward idea or change of direction. That was inspiring. It’s not coincidental that he was selected by the AIA as their Gold Medal recipient in 2010.

Make it happen

All committed designers struggle to do the best work they can. A common lament is: “I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right client.The truth is, clients, and opportunities in general, are more often made than found.

Every client carries a load of fears and inertia similar to your own. Start by doing your due diligence. Hear out the problems and fears. Do your research and analysis of options and alternatives. Assess risks and possible consequences. Then find the compelling vision to get past them.

Your mission as a designer is to engage and excite yourself, your client and everyone else on the project sufficiently so as to redefine failure as not pursuing the compelling vision. If your vision is powerful enough, it pushes past the risks in the foreground and enables everyone’s courage to go the distance.

An example from design practice

The Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) is a cultural institution devoted to preserving the history of the chemical sciences and promoting awareness of the role of chemistry in society. CHF’s headquarters faces Independence National Historical Park in the historic Old City section of Philadelphia, two blocks from the Liberty Bell. Their anchoring structure is a five-story historic 19th century granite bank building.

Following several renovations to their existing buildings, CHF decided to move ahead with its first addition – a new wing that would accommodate meetings for up to 300 people. When I was hired for the project, the construction manager had already been selected and I was assigned to sub-contract to them as the designer side of a joint design-build team.

Given the historic context of the CHF headquarters on a street lined with 19th century masonry facades, both the client and my construction partner assumed that the addition would also be masonry. I saw this as problematic. First of all, we didn’t have a budget sufficient to construct anything as ambitious as the historic bank building. Just as important, the institution was interested in distinguishing itself as preeminent in its field. Philadelphia is a masonry city. You don’t distinguish yourself by being indistinguishable from your neighbors.

My client needed the courage to go in an unexpected direction. I saw the existing historic building as embodying half of the institutional mission – preserving history. Now we needed to create its complement: a structure that embodied the present and future of chemistry. What if the exterior were to be constructed using materials from the periodic table of elements? After researching potential materials I settled on using solid zinc panels as the dominant element. The oxidized grey of the panels not only demonstrated “chemistry in action” but also harmonized with color of the historic granite.

The CHF addition was the first zinc rainscreen panel building ever constructed in Philadelphia. It went on to receive several design awards as a lesson in how to successfully utilize contemporary design in a historic context.

Redefining failure as not pursuing a vision can give you the courage you need to overcome the fear of making mistakes along the way.

Remember, Create Courage.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter C, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Cobalt and Catawba, and a photo of surfer with the courage to ride a wave.


Design Wisdom: Balance Beautifully

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

          Balance beautifully.

                 Whether you’re arranging flowers or designing a building, this concept is crucial.

We tend to think of balance as a state of harmony between extremes. We find it with difficulty and lose it too easily. Certainly, the process of finding (and maintaining) balance must be at the heart of any design practice. But balance alone isn’t enough. It’s really just the beginning.


Begin by balancing

Finding balance is about the process of inquiry – learning what works. In terms of design, finding your balance really means learning your craft. Without a fundamental understanding or mastery of craft, it’s as though you’re a toddler learning to walk – you put all your effort into merely staying upright. You might have plenty of brilliant artistic ideas, but unless you can demonstrate mastery of your craft, you’re not likely to communicate your creative ideas effectively enough to have them embraced.

Basic mastery is about achieving fluency in a medium. It’s like learning a language – the process by which you gain the ability to explore ideas and communicate them to others.

Learning your craft means equipping yourself with a first-rate set of intellectual, creative and professional tools. This learning process has a pretty steep admission price for architects. Aesthetic mastery alone involves developing an understanding of how to work with proportion, color, form, texture, and light and shadow. Furthermore, the craft of an architect requires an ability to translate ideas to real “bricks and mortar”. A fundamental grasp of the nature of materials, structure, technology, and construction methods is essential if you want to gain competence in real-world practice.

Creating beauty

In truth, though, finding your balance is a lifelong pursuit. Even masters of the craft continually try to take their mastery to the next level. This is where beauty comes into play.

Unfortunately, since the advent of Modernism, the concept of “beauty” is often seen as being morally suspect or superficial. However, I’d challenge anyone to look at Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and say that a search for beauty wasn’t integral to the design of the building.

Seeking a deeper level of balance is what I’m referring to as the search for beauty. Without beauty, all that remains is utility. Beauty is the notion of investing a level of craft sufficiently to convey a sense of effortlessness or grace. Think of a ballet. If the principal dancer were grimacing in pain, wobbling through her steps, the audience would hardly be enchanted. Harnessing techniques (or tools) adeptly enough so that they’re no longer the focus enables you to envelop others in a search for something larger and deeper – a place where beauty is revealed.

It is significant that beauty is subjective. Your searching to achieve a level of beauty puts you in control of how to harness your craft. Your unique vision and set of abilities will differentiate you from everyone else as you seek and ultimately find what balances beautifully.

An example from design practice

Shortly after becoming a registered architect I joined the office of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia. It was a heady time for the firm, which was involved in a multitude of projects — including museums in London, Seattle and Austin. My first project there was working on the new Sainsbury Wing of England’s National Gallery of Art.

Venturi’s three-story office was crammed with models, full-sized mock-ups and drawings tacked up everywhere. At first I wondered why there seemed to be an infinite number of versions of any given portion of each project. But as I worked on the museum addition, I came to understand the vast difference between merely “solving the problem” and finding a beautiful balance.

In addition to being a brilliant theorist, Robert Venturi had an incredible sense of proportion and visual rhythm. Nothing was ever “just pick a product.” Even the skylights for the galleries, visible only from neighboring buildings, were composed as minor fugues — featuring four mullion sizes and carefully proportioned glass panes. Every detail of that project was considered and re-considered for meanings beyond utility. As a result, the pieces of the completed project don’t just balance… they balance beautifully.

Only after we’ve attained sufficient mastery of our craft — so that it no longer consumes our conscious thoughts (or those of our benefactors) — do we have the freedom to invest our fullest imagination and effort toward shaping designs that inspire.

Remember, Balance beautifully

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter B, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Burgundy and Brass, and a photo of boulders balanced at Stonehenge.



Design Wisdom: Anticipate but…

The first element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

          Anticipate but…

            This involves a dance between two forces – preparedness and stillness.

Consider meetings, for example. They’re a regular fixture of any architecture or design practice.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of meeting it is — it could be with a client, consultant, or in-house design team. How do you arrive at a meeting? Prepared.



What does “arriving prepared” really look like? Many people think that unless they’re running the meeting or making a presentation, all they need to do is show up and stay awake. Let me tell you, if someone felt it was important enough for you to attend a meeting, just “showing up” won’t cut it. I don’t care if you’re an intern who just got hired yesterday… you need to be actively prepared.

Being prepared starts with anticipating what should, could or can’t happen in any given situation. You need to get yourself mentally engaged well before a meeting begins. Who is attending and why? What’s the agenda? Is there a hidden agenda? What do you want to get from the meeting? Is there something you can offer?

Even if you’re not a designated presenter at a meeting, preparing actively lifts your participation to a higher level. It means that you’ve probably come up with questions and maybe done some research or talked to others beforehand. Your curiosity and preparation help you get ready to connect ideas, while others are just warming up. You might not even utter a word at the meeting, but I guarantee that your deeper level of engagement will pay off by enhancing your creativity, knowledge and professionalism.


The “but…” portion of the mnemonic title above refers to stillness. It means: Don’t rush in with preconceived assumptions or with answers. In the world of design, where creative thought is paramount, we often refer to having a “beginner’s mind.” This doesn’t mean you need to be a blank slate. It’s more about having receptive capacity – the ability to take in more. Don’t underestimate the importance of this ability. It represents the “still” side of being prepared, the anticipation of new ideas.

After arriving prepared to your meeting, stay still. You might think you have the answers or know the outcome of whatever endeavor you’re undertaking. But don’t assume that you’re right. In almost any activity, your collaborators will have different ideas as to what the problems are and how to define success. It takes time for everyone to get onto the same playing field. That playing field may or may not be the one that was in your head when you entered the meeting.

If you leave a meeting thinking exactly what you did when you entered the room, the meeting was a failure. Entering a meeting prepared – to both absorb and offer new questions and ideas – means that you and everyone else in the meeting are likely to leave in a different (and better) place than when you arrived.

An example from design practice
Midway into the design of a university library addition we were having difficulty reconciling the client’s “wish list” of needs with their available funding. A meeting was called with the client. In anticipation of that meeting, I prepared by looking at alternative storage systems, trade-offs between seating and media storage, remote storage options, cheaper construction techniques and a host of other strategies for packing the proverbial ten pounds into the five-pound bag. Nevertheless, I was anticipating a cranky client.

I began the meeting, not by verbalizing my assumption that the client would be disappointed, but rather by inviting him to join me in sharing ideas. Fortunately the client had anticipated and arrived prepared for our meeting too. He had evaluated options for: a more robust program of interlibrary loan participation, elimination of the redundancy of materials stored in multiple format types, and increased reliance on digital sources of information, including a variety of on-line subscriptions.

By the end of the meeting we were both pleasantly surprised. Instead of reconciling ourselves to not being able to achieve the original objectives, we found ourselves re-energized – envisioning the library in an expanded role for social engagement on campus. We were able to formulate a workable approach for: meeting the collection needs, while increasing the quantity and diversity of seating and meeting places, and at a cost lower than initially thought possible.

That’s what happens when prepared minds come together: you can always expect to arrive someplace other than where you expected. And remember, this dance of “Anticipate but…” applies to virtually every phase of the design process, not just meetings.

Remember, Anticipate but…

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter A, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Avocado and Azure, and a photo of river rapids representing an anticipated journey.

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