Design Blog- Guest Post by John Connell


The following is the first in what we hope will be a series of guest blog posts from members of the Yestermorrow community on topics related to design thinking.

Yestermorrow Design Blog

Trying to invigorate the design conversation at Yestermorrow, I’m constantly challenged by where to start. I’ve tried design competitions, syntax, favorite examples, and inspired readings – none really launched the mission. This is probably more about my lack of follow-through than anything else.
So now, let’s try blogging! Participation is self-directed, from a long focused post to a quick comment on someone else’s. Or for the extremely tight schedule, one can just lurk in the wings.

This blog welcomes all comers to explore design issues, projects, concepts – whatever comes to the surface.

Design – is what?

Part of the challenge in wrapping one’s head around “DESIGN” is the varied uses made of the word. Design means so many things in so many contexts that a newbie is easily confused. For instance, architects commonly use the word to describe the 3dimensional result of their 2dimensional imagery while engineers use the word to describe the elegance of a numerical solution. Interior Designers use the word for everything in their field – she’s a “designer”. Graphic designers, landscape architects, fashion designers, animators, set designers, industrial designers, environmentalists, writers, book designers, cooks, painters and sculptors all use the word “design” in special ways. And yet, incredibly, they all share a common thread in that design always means intention or vision.

Regardless of the context, design is always the intended response to a problem (the “design problem”). The quality of a design solution is measured by how well it realizes the intentions or vision being pursued. So regardless of one’s professional bias or training or materials or methods,

design = intention

Design is Who?

In bygone times, design of any flavor was usually the result of one person. The architect, artist, master builder or craftsperson was almost always singular and their vision was a very personal expression. The study of architecture is a study of individuals remembered and venerated in our text books. Many hands and many minds entrained in one pursuit of one vision or goal laid out by The (autocratic) Designer. There are exceptions, of course, but generally this is the assumption behind architecture with a capital “A”.

Today, however, that assumption is being challenged. In a limited resource world with vastly expanded technological options, design (or intention) is not so easily outlined by a single vision. As the world gets smaller and more interconnected, the consequences of design become more complicated. Sustainable design, carbon neutral design, and affordable design are just a few examples that move beyond the earlier approach.

Pursuit of these more complicated design intentions requires the collaboration of many minds at the outset of a project. Finance, codes, structure, energy use, daylight, materials, health, comfort, ergonomics, land use, storm water, wastewater – any one of these alone could shape a building. Together, if not coordinated, they will reduce the design process to an internecine competition. This is why larger building projects are increasingly embracing some sort of integrated design at the outset. All the critical experts convene at the outset to work out a collaborative design (vision) that balances all the various agenda. This is a far cry from the autocratic design myth found in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.

Design has become a team sport! In a resource limited world, this is the only responsible approach…unless perhaps, if the building itself is quite small.

The house, if kept small enough, can still be the expression of a single person’s design vision. All the considerations listed above must still be understood and incorporated into that vision but it’s possible – just barely – for a single designer to pull it off. This is the allure of residential architecture. Each house becomes a talisman for how we must live sustainably on this earth. And since every site is different, this design problem must be reinterpreted endlessly to accommodate the infinite combinations of human cultures and natural ecosystems.

Autocratic Design vs. Team Design…(?)

Design Looks like What?

At Yestermorrow, this is the big question carried about just under the surface. It’s a great question and I want to advance it to center stage. We need to talk about it, hear various opinions, and develop some vocabulary.

In this post I have suggested that larger buildings benefit from Team Design while smaller buildings can still be the sublime invention of a single Design/builder. So let’s get some feedback on that!

Meanwhile, here are a few good resources to prime the pump:

The Art of Critical Making (my favorite book for Yestermorrow)

Universal Principles of Design (a classic on design at all scales)

A Pattern Language (a classic on vernacular design)