Posts Tagged ‘engagement


Design Wisdom: Stimulate Senses and Soul

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

Stimulate Senses & Soul.

How often in a project do you find yourself or others taking leave of their senses?

Without question, as design professionals, we’ve been drilled to respond to schedules, budgets and functional needs. But don’t forget — ultimately we are designing for sensory beings.


Remembering the places of your childhood

Think back to touchstone places of your childhood. While many may be associated with other people, family and friends, or events – your first kiss, or the site of an injury – I’m asking you to think about the place itself. For instance, when I think of my grandmother’s house, I think of the smell of breakfast – strong coffee (for the adults), bacon, eggs and cantaloupe. My yard at home? A cherished place was the large wild cherry tree in the back yard with a scratchy limb crotch in which to sit, where I pealed the red bark curls and listened to the wind rustling the leaves while contemplating the “big questions” of life.

I would assert that most people, when they remember significant places, experience the recollection not as a detailed photographic image but rather more as a feeling – recalled sensations and emotional connections. This aspect of place is all but ignored in the course of architectural education and in many architectural practices as well.

Thinking beyond the brain

Architecture is a big subject. That’s part of its appeal. It’s a subject big enough to devote a lifetime to – several in fact. Students are asked: “What does it mean?” Heroism is lauded, as are big ideas and audacious images. Unfortunately an aspect which at best is given short shrift, and sometimes overlooked altogether, is the very definition of architecture itself – place of inhabitation. While our brains are certainly a part of our inhabiting places, first and foremost, we inhabit places with our bodies – and accompanying five senses.

Senses of inhabitation

Image is king in our present digital era. Our sensory experience of places is dominated by sight. If you stop with sight as your sole sensory input channel, you will find yourself with a very shallow, dare I say, flat experience. Your experience will be like seeing the world in black and white, two-dimensional silhouettes rather than in fully modeled, three-dimensional figures in color. Experiential depth, that is to say lasting emotional substance, comes from holistic sensual engagement.

Take an iconic example of furniture design: the “Wassily” chair designed by Marcel Breuer in 1925-26. One can certainly appreciate it in terms of aesthetics, technology, cultural history, etc.  However, to look at one strictly in terms of “meaning” and function is to miss the sensual experience of sitting in (inhabiting) one. In sitting, one usually first reaches for an arm and feels the smooth, cool of the slender chromed steel frame. Landing in the leather seat is often greeted with a squeak of the leather as it tensions around the frame. Its broad surface, initially cool and stiff as one sits, quickly warms and softens with one’s body heat. The tensile stretch of the leather is contrasted with the springy buoyancy of the slender steel frame. Depending on the age of the chair, one’s nose is treated to smells, somewhere between new leather and an olfactory patina of inhabitation and aging. What richness – and without a mention of sight! Our charge therefore as designers, as we look to enrich our work, is to think with our whole bodies – leaving until last, the input of our vision.

An example from design practice

When I was a teenager, already knowing I wanted to become an architect, my parents took me to visit Fallingwater, the famous house by Frank Lloyd Wright. Before visiting, all I really knew of it was the iconic image of the thin concrete trays perched over the stream waterfalls. I had assumed that that image captured one’s approach to and essence of the house. It doesn’t. In fact, a visitor never sees that view (unless they set off to bushwhacking in the adjoining woods).

Like the best of Wright’s work, Fallingwater rewards all of the senses and certainly is meant to be experienced bodily, that is to say, in person rather than as an image. One arrives to the house by crossing first the stream over which the house is built further downstream. The drive loops “behind” the house – leaving the expansive feel of the stream and replacing it with a sense of compression between the house and uphill bank of the forest valley. We are being prepared for changing places.

To enter any of his houses is to immediately feel intimacy – with an unusually low ceiling. Among the myriad of Frank Lloyd Wright quotes was his assertion that “anyone over 5’-10” tall was a towering weed”. The physicality of the house is palpable: Stone, wood, stucco/plaster, glass and steel –creating dramatic variations in textures. A boulder pushes up from the river bank into the fireplace. The fireplace, with its huge orifice becomes a place in and of itself, not merely a decorative feature.

The relationship of inhabitants to the river is nuanced and varied – not merely a single “perfect” vista. Indeed, from within much of the main living space, the stream isn’t visible at all! Yet, as one approaches the cantilevered edges, the stream beckons. A stair descends directly to the river “for bathing access”. Here is the most intimate of places, a place of private communion with the cool dampness in the shadows, smelling of woodlands and echoing the ripples of the flowing water. That is the immersive place I remember most vividly of that house – not the postcard view.

By cultivating the experience of place as being rewarding to all of the senses, not just sight and intellect, we nourish the soul.

Remember, Stimulate Senses & Soul.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter S, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Saphire and Sand, and a photo of the Streamside Spot at Fallingwater.


Design Wisdom: Own it. Share it.

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

Own it. Share it.

As it relates to design, ownership is about an emotional or intellectual relationship.

It is incumbent upon designers to engage all project participants along the way, enabling them to invest in the outcome of the project, and in so doing, share ownership.


It’s mine, all mine

In the world of business, people often use phrases like “holding an interest” or “having a stake” or “being invested” in a particular venture. Each is referring to the idea of ownership. But what is ownership? Most people think of ownership rather narrowly – in a legal or financial sense. If someone owns property, they must have the title to it or have paid someone else to possess it.

The kind of ownership I’m talking about isn’t that literal. Ownership, as it refers to design, is about one’s emotional or intellectual relationship to the design process and/or product – hopefully both.

Ownership means possessing a sense of responsibility for: a) shaping an outcome and/or b) maintaining the value it holds. For someone to really own something, an individual must value it for what it specifically means to them. Ownership needs to be personal.


As architects or designers who work with their clients, we shape not only the final physical artifact, but the process of designing as well. Ownership in a project is primarily about being emotionally and intellectually engaged; having participants who feel empowered and effectual in shaping the final outcome. This sense of ownership therefore must be cultivated and achieved as an essential part of the process of design.

By implementing practices that help consultants, clients and contractors feel confident, capable, and in control of the outcome of the project they are working on, they feel empowered to do their work effectively. Ideally, this ensures commitment to the project vision, which results in greater creativity and thoughtfulness about how to enhance that vision over the course of the project.

In terms of the completed project, people with ownership, those who have participated in the process and understand and value the decisions needed to get to the end product – share in the pride of authorship, and as a result, hold the results in higher esteem than their unengaged peers. The happiest of clients by the end of any project are the ones who have been in the trenches with you and faced the realities of the process.

Learning to share

In retrospect, looking back on my own maturation as an architect, it seems to have been analogous to how one thinks of a kid in a sandbox. I started out playing solo in the box – learning the potential of each toy and keeping them to myself. I sought to build the perfect castle or fort. Over time I gained confidence and delighted in mastery. Soon I wanted to share what I’d learned, and as a result, unexpectedly became exposed to new ideas of other playmates. Ultimately, the process of learning and sharing itself became as important as the results.

While our culture idealizes the solo genius artist, our day-to-day sustenance is found in sharing and learning from one another – engaging our humanity. As we gain experience, there comes a shift from the impetuous, narrow, idealistic intensity of youth, to a broader, more nuanced embrace of wholeness in maturity.

Architecture indeed is a social practice. This is perhaps the biggest lesson not taught in schools.

An example from design practice

My own lifelong apprenticeship to architecture mirrors my maturation as a person. Even before reaching my teens I started by designing houses. I imagined places I wanted to live in. So, design began as an extension of self.

Emerging from architecture school I was drawn to designing for institutions – not specific institutions mind you, but to the ideals represented by institutions. (Louis I. Kahn was a huge inspiration in this regard.) Accordingly, I sought out opportunities to design museums, places of education, and churches.

Having worked as a design principal in my own practices for well over a decade now, I have come to delight in working closely with home and business owners – creating places that they truly own for themselves, not with their wallets but with their hearts. Some times this is achieved by discovering new ways for them to see the world, and sometimes it is achieved by bringing along connective tissue from other parts of their lives.

An example of how ownership can be achieved in the smallest of details comes from a recent vacation house project. One doesn’t often think of driveways as an opportunity for reflection and ownership. In this case, I had designed the driveway as a series of concrete pads separated by river-washed stone bands (for storm water penetration). As a link for the owner, I collected leaves from the vegetation of their permanent residence and pressed them into the wet concrete of the driveway pads at their new vacation home. The leaves are impressed into memory for all to see – a bridge between their two homes.

In shaping things for ourselves and others it is essential that we involve others in the journey, not simply as witnesses, but as authors – cultivating a shared ownership. 

Remember,Own it. Share it. 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter O, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Olive and Orange, and a photo of Owner hugging his tree.


Design Wisdom: Materials Matter

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

Materials Matter.

As virtual reality becomes surreal, designers have the opportunity to make it real.

As we expand new digital design, modeling and fabrication technologies, we may find simultaneously a reawakening to the sensual potential of physical materials themselves.


Looking at history

As my 10th grade history teacher pointed out, in mankind’s quest to put an astronaut on the moon, the unexpected benefit was looking back and seeing the earth for the first time. In our present era, computational technology is at the forefront of our cultural imagination – constituting our present giant step forward. Computers and invention of the worldwide Web have, and will continue to, transform our contemporary culture in extraordinary ways. So, the question is: What will the exciting “look back” be with regards to our burgeoning digital revolution? I believe the answer lies in a re-evaluation of the nature of materials themselves.

One would be tempted to look to the Arts and Crafts movement as a somewhat comparable precedent. The origins of that movement however were rooted in reform of the practices and effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pioneer of the movement, artist and writer William Morris, sought an antidote to shoddily mass-produced decorative arts, often created under oppressive working conditions. In some respects the movement was reactionary – seeking a return to a simpler agrarian era. As such it’s not a good model for our present era.

I believe there’s a better art history precedent. The first photographs created and publically shown were unveiled in 1839 to the French Académie des Sciences, by artist-inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. These daguerreotypes as they were called were photographic images upon highly polished, silver-plated sheets of copper. Is it a coincidence that scarcely a quarter century later in the same culture, painters developed what came to be known as Impressionism?

Most contemporary art historians consider that it was primarily the development of photography which enabled, indeed provoked, artists to seriously explore the expressive potential of painting. Especially as the technology of photographic reproduction became more accurate in rendering realistic images, artists were, in some respects, “freed” from obligations of producing objectively faithful imagery. Ultimately color itself became “the subject” as painting moved into new realms by the “Fauves” and later Abstract Expressionist “Color Field” painters. That inquiry subsequently moved even beyond the use of pigmented paint as contemporary “light painters” such as James Turrell explore terrestrial optical color effects.

Real or virtual?

What is the design opportunity of the present era? The digital revolution is emphasizing conceptual thinking and virtual experiences. As a result we are becoming less bodily present. More and more, perhaps without realizing it, people are “walking with their brains”, not their bodies. As technology “frees us” to fly through virtual worlds inhabited by fantasy creatures, it unexpectedly concurrently creates a greater potential for physical (embodied) sensual experiences. Herein lays the unexpected opportunity of the present era. The newest frontier will be the re-engagement with our physical environment. We will again truly inhabit places, not merely use them in a functional way.

When was the last time you delighted in your actuality – the authentic, real-time presence of the where you were in the universe? The opportunity is to re-engage our bodies through all of our physical senses. It’s time to design to create that new bodily awareness. It’s time again to savor the smell of cedar shingles in the hot afternoon summer sun (or just smell the roses).

An example from design practice

As mentioned in an earlier post, one of my favorite buildings is the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark. A traditional house in a residential neighborhood was expanded into a world-class contemporary art museum. The site, abutting the coast, slopes significantly in all directions and has numerous mature trees. Rather than creating a “tabla rasa” (or clean slate) on which to efficiently set a flexible, generic exhibition gallery, the architects (Jørgen Bo and Wilhelm Wohlert) intentionally chose to respect and harness the natural particularities of the existing site. As a result, the exhibition space is attached to the original house, but is broken into discrete pavilions, strung together as a necklace, each oriented to unique site views. The connecting “string” is a casually mendering glazed corridor which actually slopes with the adjoining ground and bends here and there – at once showcasing and avoiding disruption of mature trees along the way. I can’t think of a more successful synthesis of culture and nature.

Clearly the architects and client could have found a cheaper alternative than literally working around trees and slopes, but not one that would have so substantially contributed to creating the most heavily visited museum in Denmark. It is a true joy experiencing a particular place, engaging ones mind and body.

The opportunity of our present era is to reawaken our senses and bodily awareness. In this pursuit, the materials of our craft will take on renewed significance.

Remember, Materials Matter

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter M, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Maroon and Mint, and a photo of Material-free (virtual) house.


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: 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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