Posts Tagged ‘engaging others

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.

03
Dec
13

Design Wisdom: X means here

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

X means here.

While we all have memories and dreams, only here are we fully present.

As an elemental form of signature, an “X” records a human presence. We have only the present and our presence to make a mark, producing work uniquely expressive of our being at this time and place.

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Beyond somewhere else

If there were a way of recording how much of the time our thoughts were spent “being somewhere else” versus being engaged and absorbed in what’s at hand, I think most of us would be shocked. I’d venture to say that people’s thoughts are mostly about imagining being elsewhere – in time, location and/or activity. Why is this? There are a lot of reasons, and there are plenty that are not bad.

Indeed, one could argue that creative thought, almost by definition is about imagining something different – a future of sorts. As designers we inherently spend much of our time imagining a better future. Also, as students of history, by interest and necessity alike, we spend time trying to imagine and re-construct things from the past. The skills of “looking forward and looking backward” are indeed well developed for most people. I’d argue that the “muscle” that deserves the most strengthening is being present.

Why be present?

As it goes for a having chance in winning a door prize, you must be present to win. One of the extraordinary aspects of our being human is our skill at adaptation to diverse circumstances. Indeed part of our nature is to seek diverse forms of stimulation and engagement. So, while exercising our imaginations for fantasy or history is essential in providing diversity, it is through real-time, authentic experience that we are truly engaged and find occasion to fully realize our essential nature.

And yet, there are innumerable factors as to why people so often want to do anything but have authentic experience – matters of economy, expedience, fear of engagement, etc.  Perhaps that’s the new American dream – being able to win without being present.

What are we to do?

So then, what can and should, we as designers do, facing a public increasingly drawn to fast, cheap and disposable design? Unfortunately, we’re not going to gain any traction on the basis of intellectual or moral arguments. We have to make the benefits of authentic engagement and experience – well, palpable. As designers, we have to take the lead – demonstrating how it’s done, and letting people experience the difference.

Unfortunately too many designers spend too much of their time producing the equivalent of ‘fast-food architecture” – pandering to the quick fix rather than cultivating a nourishing and memorable experience. As architects we must learn how to deliver the most palpable experience we can — engaging the hearts, minds, bodies and souls of others.

An example from design practice

To provide a more concrete example of what I’m touching on with “X means here”, let me use one of my favorite buildings: the library at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire designed by Louis I. Kahn. As it happens, it literally has an “X”.

Before going further, I should point out that, in the best sense, that building indeed was of its time. It pre-dated the internet and personal computers. While the strength of its design endures, allowing it to continue to fulfill its original core purpose, it would not be expressive of what it would mean to design a library today.

Ok, what’s so great about it? Libraries aren’t intrinsically exciting places, inasmuch as they primarily provide storage of and access to books. And yet Kahn rendered the experience of its use as poetic and sublime.

Having essentially eight floors, the library is roughly a cube, enclosing a cubic central atrium space – creating a cubic doughnut if you will. Entering the building one immediately ascends a stair and arrives, a story higher, at the edge of the sky lit central atrium. One immediately feels in the presence of “hallowed space”. A giant “X” hovers over the atrium, formed by giant crossing of concrete beam/walls filtering the natural light from above.

Each of the four perimeter walls of the interior atrium features a single four-story diameter, circular aperture. The apertures reveal the atrium as encircled by the book stacks. Surely we feel ourselves standing at the very core of knowledge. At the outer corners of the square we ascend intimate staircases to access these books, being reminded in so climbing, of the intimate, personal nature of the pursuit of knowledge.

One of Kahn’s more famous concepts was “bringing the book to the light. Accordingly, the perimeter of the building is designed primarily for individual study carrels. Kahn went so far as to give each reader their own sliding wooden shutter to mediate their relationship with outside light and view.

I dare say there isn’t a place in the building that one wouldn’t know where they were – horizontally between orientation of each windowed perimeter façade and atrium core, and vertically, assessing the visible portion of the circular atrium apertures.

Experiencing the building one feels the noblest aspirations of what it means to be human, fully engaging ones senses and intellect.

It is incumbent on designers to produce work of authenticity, expressive of its own time and place, as a means of realizing our fullest nature as humans.

Remember, X means here.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter X, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Xanadu and onyX, and a photo of EXeter Library atrium.

26
Nov
13

Design Wisdom: Woo Wonder

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

Woo Wonder.

Sometimes it’s best to turn off the amplifiers and simply listen.

“Unplugging” is a wonderful tool. Not only does it reconnect you with who you are, it enables you to reconnect with that most basic instinct of childhood: wonder.

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Remember wonder?

I’m sure you remember numerous occasions from your childhood where you felt awe or wonder –seeing a meteor shower, hearing a symphony of insects, watching a magician, or looking down at the earth from a plane for the first time. Those experiences of getting goose bumps are truly gifts – which seem to get rarer with age.

As adults, although we might work hard to give others a sense of awe or wonder – as a parent and/or working within the mastery of our respective crafts – we often fail to remember to cultivate wonder for ourselves. And it seems to get harder to do, amidst the business of life and sheer weight of accrued experience. But the path to reconnecting with wonder is probably more accessible than you might think.

Making it happen

Based on my experience, there are three “simple” steps to accessing wonder:

  1. Turn OFF your… Put your agenda and to-do lists on “pause”. Allow yourself to take a break.
  2. Turn ON your “beginner’s mind”. This means setting aside your filters of experience and habit; suspending analysis and judgment.
  3. LISTEN actively. Observe. Hear. Smell. Taste. … as if for the first time.

Let’s look at each step a little more closely.

First, turn off your…

As anyone with an active brain knows, it takes effort to turn off all of the voices in your own head; things to accomplish, questions to answer, people to meet, etc.  However, even amidst an active schedule you can practice the path to recovering wonder in your own life. Give yourself permission – whether it’s for five minutes, an hour or a weekend – to pause. Do it once and wonder why it took you so long to give yourself a break.

Beginner’s mind

Turning off the calendar and commitments isn’t enough. You also need to turn off the critics, analysts and project managers in your head. Actively keep yourself from analyzing and objecting. You’ll have plenty of time to do that later. After all, you’re not free to readily receive if you’re busy screening and filtering. Beginner’s mind is finding the “blank slate” or “empty vessel” again.

Active listening

Now that you’re in a position to truly hear, observe, taste, smell and feel — you’re the new sponge. Just sit back and simply try to fully absorb what’s being offered in your midst. It’s amazing what you hear when you’re actively just listening.

There are numerous rewards for arriving at the point of listening actively. The two I find most rewarding are: being surprised (pleasantly) and feeling wonder. It’s a true gift to tap into these feelings again.

Cultivating a “beginners mind” while taking a walk, or seeing an exhibition, or attending a conference has the effect of turning most everything into a “sleeper hit”. Doing so enables one to experience each speaker or event as being more informative, fresh and enjoyable – and yes, even the source of wonder.

An example from design practice

Earlier in this year I attended a regional TEDx conference. I didn’t go with any particular expectations. But I did arrive to the conference with intentions, or an intention. I did my best to arrive as an empty vessel.

While I felt most speakers to be inspiring, one was the true stand-out for me. Pam Dorr was billed as a social entrepreneur, introducing sustainable housing development and positive change for over 400 families a year in the severely impoverished county of Hale, Alabama. Barely into her talk, even before describing her work in the rural south, I became transfixed by the explanation of how she got there.

The journey she described, struck me as beginning with self-empowerment in her native community near San Francisco. The seed of her journey was in making a home for herself. I mean, literally.

She showed a “before” picture of a derelict interior space – a ruin, the prototypical definition of a “tear-down”. Next she showed the “after”. I felt like I was seeing the most beautiful space I’d ever seen. Why? It was authentic. She had made it herself, for herself – almost entirely from salvaged scraps. It wasn’t idealized or romanticized or made for how others might react. It was made for her, by her. In fact it was rather elemental — clean, filled with sun, free of clutter and intervening structure, with a sense of an overarching protective roof. It wasn’t about ideal proportions, fetishized details or expensive materials. It was space and light and protection. Above all, it was accomplishment – perhaps her first realization of owning “can do” for herself.

The rest of her talk was how she blossomed… taking what she learned to do for herself, and expanding upon it to help another individual and another… and now helping to lead an entire community towards nourishing and sustaining itself. Ironically, for those coming with expectations of what they were going to hear, that was the delivery. For those of us “unprepared”, Pam Dorr’s delivery was goosebumps — of authenticity, self-discovery and altruism.

Allow yourself permission to take a break from what you “should be doing” and take in a healthy dose of unfiltered raw data from your senses. It just might spark wonder.

Remember, Woo Wonder.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter W, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Wine and Wheat, and a photo of Pan Dorr doing Wonders at PieLab.

19
Nov
13

Design Wisdom: Value others’ space

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

Value others’ space.

Architects’ value in shaping space shouldn’t end with the physical environment.

As designers our work is in creating meaningful relationships among things and people. An important tool for doing this is practicing with grace. That means shaping a different kind of space.

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It’s all about relationships

As designers, we’re all familiar with ideas of composition and finding balance – creating relationships among lines, shapes, colors, surfaces and materials to achieve elegant results. First and foremost we are shapers of visual and physical space. But what lies beyond the mastery of form-making?

Our work is ultimately about people. Architecture finds its purpose and identity in what it means to people. In other words, beyond mere form-making, designing is fundamentally about structuring relationships with people and for people.

These relationships, personal relationships, are of two types. One is found in the process of creating: the relationships along project participants, from client to contractor and everyone in between. The other is the unique relationship (meaning or bond) a user finds in experiencing the completed work – how it connects with their own life. A design tool (not taught in design school), which addresses both, is learning how to practice with grace to achieve positive relationships.

Defining grace

What is grace? It is the form or elegance of how we practice our art, and shoulder difficulties.
What is graceful? A balanced resolution of forces, evidenced in elegant or beautiful forms or actions.
What does it mean to be gracious?
Graciousness is about valuing others – not assuming that you know their situation, or that your own perceptions or preferences trump theirs. It’s about giving space.

If I had to sum it all up, I’d say grace is: elegant balancing among others.

First rule of composition

If you go back to Composition 101, the first rule is that the spaces are as important as the figures. They help define one another. In achieving balance then, grace is found in space-making.

In terms of shaping personal relationships, this form of space-making, is largely about allowing time. Time-allowing enables participants in a creative process to:
— Assess and appreciate others’ viewpoints
— Gain fresh perspective and clarity
— Find common ground and create alternatives

Practicing with grace

Grace is a calmness granted — enabling individuals to see below a discordant surface, to a deeper reservoir of shared purpose.

In other words, practicing with grace allows participants to find their bearings, assess options and shape their relationship to an experience or environment. If I am graceful with myself, I am allowing myself to take the time to understand and reconcile what I am experiencing. In being graceful to others, I am granting them time to take stock and find their own balance in a situation.

Working with your team

Let’s talk about the role of grace among participants in the creative process. Rather than pushing your agenda on a given project, make space to listen and find perspective. Grant others the respect that their ideas are as valid as your own. There’s great value in taking the time to understand your client’s questions and educating them, to help them understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. In fact, learn to understand the goals of everyone on your team.

Practicing grace leads to a stronger team and results in work which is also stronger. Not only that, but the results are held more dearly – participants are far more invested in owning the results. Remember, true graciousness demands that you have time for others. You always have time. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious.

Grace for users

How can we offer grace to others who experience our completed work? If I were to personify design work, I’d say, your work should allow the user to enter into conversation with it. Carrying that further, your work shouldn’t pretend to know everything and have the last word. As I previously articulated in “L is for Leave Leavening”, your work should be more of a lattice – accepting others elaborations – than a brick wall, affording no further passage.

In being gracious to users of our work, we grant them the means, the emotional and intellectual space to apprehend, appreciate and find themselves in the spaces and objects we have created.

An example from design practice

It is the fourth dimension that gets everyone into trouble most often. What am I talking about? Time. More than anything else, when I look back at a situation gone wrong, the source of the problem stemmed from time – more specifically, from time not taken.

One version of not taking time is: “I’ve got to get this (whatever) finished in time for a deadline.” This means getting to a result prematurely – a shortcutting of the necessary preparations. OK, you make your deadline, and the next one, and the next one and get to a completed building. Then the client or user walks into it and says: Huh? This isn’t what I: a) wanted, b)expected, and/or c)was told. Oops.

What happened? You didn’t provide space in the process. You didn’t allow for a graceful unfoldment of communication, deliberation and rooting of ideas. The consequence for those who don’t manage the relationships along the way with grace is that they find themselves picking up the pieces of the resulting wreckage afterword.

As we practice with grace, we grant for ourselves and others’ the space to reconcile their experiences and achieve elegance in what they do.

Remember, Value others’ space.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter V, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Viridian and Violet, and a photo of Very graceful ballerinas.

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.

27
Aug
13

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.

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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.

Empowerment

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.

18
Jun
13

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.

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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.




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