Posts Tagged ‘figure ground

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.

09
Apr
13

Design Wisdom: Get Grounded

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

Get Grounded.

Riddle: What do electrical work and artistic painting have in common?

Answer: They both require being grounded. Granted, they have very different grounding techniques, but the point is: any work requires a prepared context, or ground, upon which to safely rest.

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Figure versus ground

Every designer is well acquainted with the formal distinction of figure versus ground. In my last article I talked about the need to establish a focal point or figurative aspect in any design project. In this context the importance of having a ground is in clearing away, making space for the figure to stand out and be appreciated.

If you want to make a statement, verbally or architecturally, you figuratively need to have the floor. If we were to take this to a deeper level, we might say you need to have the ground. One might be tempted, then, to think that it’s a bit like public speaking. A speaker’s first task is to gain the audience’s attention by becoming the focal point… in other words, by asserting control over the space and silencing any peripheral noise.

Are you making a speech?

Unfortunately, all too many designers end their conception of grounding with this clearing away or silencing. Yes, this approach can work for a small minority of projects (a public monument, for example) where you want the finished design to stand alone delivering a resonant soliloquy. But in most cases, architecture isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about giving a speech. You need to find a different type of grounding.

A better metaphor for most architecture design commissions might be constructing a conversation. In this approach, grounding is about understanding, acknowledging and reshaping your environment or context. Grounding becomes engagement with your neighbors. You can neither afford to ignore what people are saying nor simply repeat what they are saying and expect to remain welcome.

Using this analogy, it’s clear that the most valuable contribution of the designer is neither shouting down nor silencing the others in the room, but rather in shifting and elevating the ongoing discourse. The design process starts by finding common ground before you find the figure.

An example from design practice

At a corporate level, many business organizations seek to ground themselves by formulating mission statements, branding concepts and strategic plans. And yet, my experience tells me that such strategies rarely take on a tangible role in developing an architectural project.

Coming full circle back to electricians, a notable recent exception in my practice was in developing a new regional headquarters for NECA, the National Electrical Contractors Association. Working with these electrical contractors I was blessed with a client group who took their mission and constituents seriously and used them to effectively to ground their project.

Only rarely does a client’s full “wish list” find its way into a completed building. Even without “tangible” limitations – funding, for example, or the restrictions of the physical site — some degree of grounding  becomes essential if you want to shape a project into a more vital and distinctive whole.

My intake from the design meetings with the NECA Board was that they would repeatedly return to their core mission and strategic plan to balance the program and design decisions. Frequent questions included: Should a visitor’s first impression be about member services, trade mentorship or public outreach? Is a particular feature adding value for membership at the expense of the staff, or visa versa? Are we anticipating and encouraging growth or supporting a static vision?

This continual looking back to the core objectives of the organization proved to be really grounding for the project – both in the sense of stripping away the “noise” of unnecessary frills, and (to use another electrical term) ensuring connectivity between the organizational purpose and the resulting facilities.

Any successful design requires a prepared ground – the creation of which entails both clearing away and rooting to the established fabric of the surrounding environment.

Remember, Get Grounded 

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter G, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Grape and Green, and a photo of a Grounded plug.

26
Mar
13

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.

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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




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