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Succumbing to Convenience and Expediency May 29, 2009

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, integrative thinking, survival, the economy.
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I’m concerned about design and its place in the world today. The likelihood that it will still be around in the future when we come out of our present circumstances.

I’m concerned as we continue to adjust to belt-tightening, hovering ever so near or just above the bottom line, that we will lose appreciation for the admittedly more ephemeral, hard-to-describe and ever harder to justify, seemingly less necessary on an evolutionary scale, design.

It’s even hard just to say the word right now.

Design was a hard sell when things were going well. Cynically, and no more accurately, design was what you added to a product after R&D, engineering and marketing had their say. Design was what was said to blow off in a hurricane. “The buildings were untouched, but all the architecture came off.” One has to wonder how hard it will be to defend design moving forward.

It just may be that a more inclusive definition of design would hold up better to the gale forces of the current economy. Design after all isn’t the final coat but everything that goes into a making of a product, layout, building or place. Design that is built-in, integral can’t be blown away.

It used to be that if you wanted a lake in your master plan you presented two lakes. That way, through value-engineering or politicizing, one was removed and the lake you wanted in the first place remained intact, in place. Now, even that lake is not safe – in part because there are fewer master plans, in part because the necessity of lakes like everything else must be reconsidered from a practical standpoint. So making your lake – making your design – integrated, purposeful, rooted into other systems and flows, will help to assure its continuing existence. To the extent that we are able to embed it and in doing so give it a reason – ideally multiple reasons – for its existence, the lake will take root and be there on opening day. The justification is in the embedding.

That is the true meaning of justification – invoking, embedding, connecting with the outside  world in some meaningful way. Architects are exceptional rationalizers. We’re rationalizing when the seam becomes apparent, between our motives for designing something one way and the reasons we give for its existence. We’re taught to explain a design decision in terms of how it benefits others, whether the client/owner, user or neighbor. Sincerity aside, some are better at doing this than others. With the appearance of the seam comes the erosion of trust.

There is much we can be doing now to substantiate our decision making by making our recommended courses of action evidence-based and by providing metrics to back them up. Design must remain front and center and top of mind if it is to survive the current onslaught of practicality, lean thinking and exclusionary accounting.

On this point I have been reading about the Kindle, Amazon’s popular reading device. Several critics, spoiled by the got-to-haveness of the iPhone, have been disparaging about the design of the electronic tablet. No matter. I am more concerned here about what reading on a Kindle says about the future of design. Charles McGrath reporting in the NYTimes on his own experience of using the device might as well be talking about the future of design as it applies to graphics, products and architecture. And the future, as he describes it, is a bit scary:

“Most of us have become so used to reading on screen by now that we’ve probably become brainwashed a little. Compared with your computer screen the Kindle actually looks a little more like real ink on real paper. Essentially the device presents you with a tradeoff. You endure sensory deprivation — sacrificing the pleasure of spreading the newspaper out on the kitchen table, forgoing the feel, heft and texture of a book, or the crispness and shimmer of a well-designed magazine — for the sake of portability and convenience.”

Here, the twin monsters of convenience and expediency – not the triumph of technology – trumps design. He continues:

“And if you’re at all like me, it’s surprising how easily you succumb to convenience, and how little you miss, once they’re gone, all the niceties of typography and design that you used to value so much. Those things still matter, and I don’t think that books will ever disappear — newspapers and magazines are another matter — but it may be that in the future we will keep them around as fond relics, reminders of what reading used to be like.”

Books. Buildings. Those things still matter, right? Do you believe that architecture, like books, will disappear as owners, users and the public at large get used to the expedient and convenient? Could it be that in the future we will keep architecture around like fond relics, the way we now preserve collectors’ books and historic buildings, reminders of what the carefully, purposefully designed built environment used to be like? We have a great say, right now, in determining what will in fact prevail.

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