Archive for January, 2006

3D sketching

Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Our first design assignment in Furniture Design class is taken from Elements of Design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the Structure of Visual Relationships, by Gail Greet Hannah. The book discusses the life of Rowena Reed Kostellow, who taught industrial design at Pratt Institute for more than 30 years and developed a course of study which she called “foundation.” Apparently, similar courses are now used in design classes around the world.

Rowena Reed Kostellow’s belief was that three-dimensional designs should be sketched three-dimensionally, not two-dimensionally. The tools of her studios were clay, cardboard, wire, glue, and so forth, not paper, pencils, and markers. She felt that 3D sketching reflects “the direct visual experience of the thing, how forms and spaces and movements ‘speak’ to one another” (page 46).

Our first exercise, adapted from this book, was to create 25 small sculptural compositions of three volumes each, using Sculpey or another modeling material. The parameters of the assignment were:

  • Each volume must be linear, not curvilinear.
  • Each volume must be different from all the others used in the exercise.
  • One of the volumes in each composition must be “dominant,” one “subdominant,” and one “subordinate.” The dominant volume must be the most prominent and have axial movement. The subdominant volume must respond to the dominant volume and complement it. The subordinate volume must complete the idea.
  • Each composition must incorporate one of three joints: “cradling” (a rabbet joint), “wedging” (one piece fits into another in a non-joint way), or “piercing” (one volume pierces another).
  • Each composition must convey one of a given list of 25 emotions, for example anxiety, playful, strong, trusting, confused, victorious, and so forth.

This exercise was annoying at first because I couldn’t easily connect the little Sculpey shapes with the emotions we had to depict. How can one convey “patience” with three little shapes of clay? So I simply sat down to work and let the compositions happen and, interestingly, they began to acquire emotional qualities. I had trouble making my volumes completely linear – the soft Sculpey tended to move and bend as I tried to form it, taking on curvilinearity. Some of my earlier attempts had to be re-done and some of the compositions don’t adequately describe the emotion I assigned to them.

Click here to see my little compositions, plus a few from a similar exercise.

Overall, however, I think this was an excellent exercise. In the first two and a half years of my interior design program, we’ve only been taught two dimensionally. While drafting and rendering are important skills, interior designers, like architects, are responsible for three dimensional spaces. Although I haven’t done a survey of architecture programs, my sense is that architecture students have a great deal of exposure to 3D sketching, table-top modeling, and even full-size building projects. If interior designers are to be taken seriously in the architecture and design community, interior design programs need to have the same emphasis. We need to learn how to sketch, model, and build in 3D in addition to the 2D training we receive.

It looks like Furniture Design is going to be more than furniture – it’s going to give me some much-needed basics in 3D design.

Left brain, right brain

Wednesday, January 25th, 2006

Is design the hot career for the future?

I read an article by Daniel H. Pink in Wired magazine entitled Revenge of the Right Brain. Pink argues that the traditional left-brain thinking of the business world and its offspring, the Information Age (characterized by emphasis on “sequence, literalness, and analysis”), is being supplanted by a new way of conceptual right-brain thinking (characterized by use of “context, emotional expression, and synthesis”). He avers that the current business world requires more than the linear thinking of the past, rather “artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.” He says:

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.

To flourish in this age, we’ll need to supplement our well-developed high tech abilitites with aptitudes that are ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch.’ High concept involves the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to come up with inventions the world didn’t know it was missing. High touch involves the capacity to empathize, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.

This sounds a lot like a job description for a designer. We are trained in just the sort of right-brain thinking Pink is writing about – creating artistic beauty, finding patterns, crafting visual narratives.

Certainly architects and interior designers are thinking about new ways to provide efficient yet human workplaces and hospitals, retail spaces that succeed because they are welcoming and exciting, and educational facilities that make it easier for students to learn and teachers to teach. Some corporations are beginning to understand that providing a human touch helps them attract and maintain employees and clients, leading to greater productivity and more profit.

But is Pink’s vision overly optimistic? The reality is that short-term economics drive the majority of business decisions. Designers, the very people who are best equipped to provide the “high concept ” and “high touch” approach Pink espouses, are paid by corporations – either directly or indirectly – and most corporations are more interested in profit than in “pursuing the transcendent.” Many companies don’t have the budget or the interest to hire designers at all. I’d like to think that times will change sufficiently so that all layers of the business world will employ Pink’s ideas, but I am not holding my breath.

Nevertheless, public awareness of the need for right-brain thinking in business is good news for designers. If Pink is right, designers may be well-positioned to have a broad influence in the future.

Furniture and preconceived notions

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

I have to admit, I am not really interested in furniture. Antiques may be beautiful, but they seem rather impractical and overpriced. Contemporary furniture is often junky and if it isn’t, it’s way over my budget.

So, what am I taking in grad school this semester? History II and Furniture Design. History II is required and, judging by the textbook assigned for the class, Louise Ade Boger’s The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles, it’s going to be a class about furniture. The textbook, with its miniscule type and no pictures except at the end ( black and white and grainy), looks exceedingly dry. Furniture Design is an elective that I signed up for it because it was the only elective offered at night for Spring semester, and I needed electives. I’d heard this class was good, but I wasn’t keen on taking it because (yes, you guessed it) I’m not that interested in furniture.

These are “famous last words” as my mother used to say. I think I may change my ideas about furniture. Here’s why.

First, in our Furniture Design class, we are going to start with basic design and play with a lot of materials. It sounds as if the professor is not simply going to throw us to the wind for our projects, but actually help us understand what we are doing and teach us something. This will be terrific. The course sounds fun.

Second, I used the historical furniture textbook to research my first Furniture Design project (which is to do a brief timeline and comparison of historic and contemporary furniture – click here to see my project) and I was surprised to find myself actually interested in what I was reading about historic furniture. Perhaps there is something about reading a dense book for a specific purpose that makes it easier than simply reading it straight through, or – just maybe – the subject isn’t so dry after all.

At any rate, doing my first project for the Furniture Design studio made me think that I might actually like the History class after all. That certainly happened last semester when I took History I. I assumed before the class started that I wouldn’t like it since history was never my forte in school, but I actually found it to be quite interesting.

The point of all this is that (1) it doesn’t pay to make up one’s mind about something before one has tried it and (2) most things are basically pretty interesting if you give them a shot. My closely held notions about how boring history is have flown out the window. I’m hoping my notions about furniture will do the same.

Building a resource library – tips for students

Sunday, January 22nd, 2006

Contract magazine’s website has a useful article entitled How to Build and Maintain a Design Library, by Katherine Sutton (December 16, 2005), full of how-to tips for creating a design library to house materials. As she points out, the problem is to balance the need for hands-on experience with diverse materials with the high cost of the real estate required to store them all. The article is a must-read for designers starting their own businesses or students contemplating doing so.

Even students who don’t plan on starting their own businesses will find Sutton’s article useful. Although my school has a resource library, it’s usually in disarray, has a limited choice of materials, and isn’t open all the time. Most of what is there is outdated and has been thoroughly pillaged by students assembling their sample notebooks for Textiles class. Besides, if you are like me, you need your materials when you are working on your project – usually in the middle of the night – and don’t have time to drive back to school, compete for a parking place, and discover that the school resource library is closed or hasn’t a single sample of what you are looking for. As a result, I’ve started my own student-sized resource collection in the corner of my living room.

Here’s what I’ve done (and some tips) without spending much money (people who want their houses to be designer-perfect, stop reading now – you’ll be appalled):

  • I cleared out and repurposed a couple of bookshelves (and made a nice book donation to my local library). These particular shelves were originally salvaged from an office move (or maybe found on the street on garbage pickup day – an excellent way to get free stuff, by the way, if you’re not too picky). If you don’t have any spare bookcases, fairly inexpensive shelves are readily available, as are stackable crates and boards on cement blocks – use whatever is cheap and available.
  • I positioned these shelves to create a nook, which became my “studio,” and hung some fabric on the back of the shelves to make them look a little less junky from the rest of the living room.
  • I outfitted my shelves with folding cardboard magazine files to hold the product literature and magazines I’ve collected, vaguely grouped by categories. If you have deeper pockets, you can get some better looking and more durable plastic or metal magazine files at places like Staples or The Container Store.
  • My samples are sorted into cardboard boxes, again by category – textiles, sustainable textiles, glass, flooring, wood, metals, etc. The cardboard boxes are an inelegant but free solution. Having run out of shelf space, I tucked these boxes under my drafting table (found for $10 at a yard sale). Again, if you can afford it, you could find something more attractive than cardboard boxes.
  • My T-squares, long straightedges, and rolls of bumwad are stored upright in a cardboard wine box with the dividers intact. Again, not elegant, but servicable.
  • Realizing that a set of flat map drawers was way over my head, I purchased two cardboard flat storage boxes from The Container Store. At 3″ deep, they slide under my sofa and hold my drawings.
  • Storing the presentation boards is a problem. For a while I could slip them behind my stereo speakers, but now there are too many of them, so they are in the way. I’d put them under my bed, except that’s already full.
  • I have a large toy closet that I may convert to a materials library, if I can find the time to clean it out and some other place to store the toys. You may have a closet or even an armoire that would make a better library than your living room.

When I’m ready to select materials for a project, I can quickly pull out all this stuff, find what I need, and start to play. I can usually find something either just right or close enough to suffice until I can head to the computer and locate new materials. For new things, I order samples directly from the manufacturers or through Tectonic Studio. Sometimes I admit I’m a student when I place orders and other times I say I’m with BellDesign, depending on my gut feeling about which is likely to be more successful.

Periodically, I go through this collection and haul what I no longer like or want off to the resource library at my school. My little library may be less elaborate than what I’ll enjoy after I graduate, but its usefulness definitely outweighs the junk factor.

Hands-on learning

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

Last night was the first class of my new semester. The class is Furniture Design and we are going to learn about the process of designing furniture and furniture manufacturing through a series of studio projects and field trips. Our first project is a historical overview. Our other projects will be to design seating, case goods, and a line of furniture.

I’m excited about this class because the professor is beginning with the very basics of shape and form, having us work with clay and build models. In some of my other studios, we were presented with a design problem and programming information and simply told to begin – without much, if any, exposure to the basic concepts of good design. Somehow the other teachers seemed to assume we already knew all there was to know about form, line, shape, and so forth. But I didn’t, and simply reading about it hasn’t been enough.

Hands-on. This is how I learn best and my guess is that most designers have similar learning styles. I need to wrap my hands around things, feel them, manipulate them, smell them, see how they work. I loved my Textiles class because we experienced the materials up close – we held them in our hands, we felt their thickness, texture, and resiliance, we examined the weaves, we sorted them by their qualities, we even watched our teacher set them on fire – and we got to know them. Manipulating paper, pencils, pens, and markers to produce a set of drawings or presentation boards for a project is a hands-on experience, but we are not trying to design paper, pencils, pens, and markers. We are designing spaces, and the textiles, wood, concrete, gyp board, and metal we use in our designs are what we need to understand.

So, what to do? Obviously, I would encourage professors of interior design to bring even more materials to class and design schools to ensure that their resource libraries are rich in a variety of materials. But we students have to take initiative to gather materials on our own, to explore what’s available on the market, and to take our projects a step or two beyond what is required. We have to create our own hands-on opportunities. This is how we will learn.


Tuesday, January 17th, 2006

I’m a tool junky. I have tools everywhere, tools for everything, even tools for the tools. My kitchen tools have boiled over and oozed down the stairs to the basement where they occupy three additional floor-to-ceiling shelves. My sewing and craft tools have staged a coup d’etat in the family room and my drafting tools are in adverse possession of the living room. My building tools fill a room 16′ by 6′ and then some. My garden shed houses yard tools and my study is full of office gadgets. I’ve got power tools and hand tools, large tools and small tools, everyday tools and rarely-used tools.

I’m in a constant state of readiness with all these tools. Say I’m building some shelves and need a plumb bob – no problem. My hand saw is dull – I’ve got files and a saw set. I want to make a wedding cake – I’ve got 50 cake decorating tips, plastic columns, and a set of graduated cake pans ranging from 4″ to 18″.

This seems a bit excessive at times, but without the right tools, I can’t get the job done.

I amass tools for my hands, but other kinds of tools are equally important – books, education, and work experience. I like to think that what we design students are doing in our classrooms is gathering non-tangible tools for being designers. We’re learning the vocabulary and the processes of design, we’re learning how to formulate ideas and present them, and we’re learning how to be curious and to want to learn more. These tools are as valuable as our T-squares and Sign pens.

What will happen when we graduate and go out into the design profession? I’ve certainly been in a lot of jobs where the proper tools weren’t provided – bad chairs, inefficient systems, poor lighting, lack of training, discouragement of learning. Is the design profession the same? I’d like to think designers have greater access to proper tools than most. After all, designers are charged with finding solutions, not just maintaining some sort of corporate status-quo, and it’s nearly impossible to build something without the right tools.

Designers not only need tools but we also provide tools for our clients. Lighting, circulation, storage, branding, HVAC, furniture, safety. These are all tools that make for good design. They make life easier for clients.

Making life easier – this is what tools are all about. For me, it’s also about understanding how things work, feeling satisfaction in being able to do something myself, and of course getting a job done.

It’s nice to think that when I graduate from grad school and finally enter the design field, I may be able to translate my love of tools into a real profession.

The dilemma between art and humanitarianism

Saturday, January 14th, 2006

How do designers incorporate social and humanitarian concerns into their work? How does anyone do it?

FrankLloydMike, a student blogger from Wentworth Institute of Technology participating in the Archinect School Blog Project, submitted a post entitled A Silent Sigh that I think eloquently conveys the confusion that students feel about how they can do right in the design profession. He contrasts architecture that focuses on artistic expression and its power to transform people (exciting, but generally available only to the rich) with architecture that seeks to provide relief to social problems (he cites, for example, Architecture for Humanity). He states:

I feel torn between these two different aspects of architectural practice and how I’d like to use my design ability in the future, and I’m not sure how to reconcile these very dissimilar interests.

When I was a 20-something, I was very fired up about social issues and the importance of doing something to help. But it never happened. I went to law school hoping to advance environmentalism or women’s rights, landed a job through the Honors Program at the US Department of Justice during the Carter administration, and ended up defending the federal government against environmental challenges. (However, in most of my cases the government wasn’t really a bad guy. Also, Jimmy Carter puts his money where his mouth is and really does humanitarian work.) I made some efforts to hop over to the non-profit side, but those jobs were difficult to get.

Years went by, with greater personal and financial responsibilities, and here I am middle-aged and I’ve never done much besides sound off about the issues that continue to matter to me. I’m hoping I’ll do better as a designer, but that remains to be seen. I’m having the same dilemma as FrankLloydMike.

Feeling torn between a traditional career route and a humanitarian-focused path must be fairly common among young students. I’d like to think that some of these students will follow their hearts and work for social good. The world needs it more than ever. But the reality is that most probably won’t. It’s hard enough to earn a living as a designer for rich corporations; probably close to impossible as a designer for the poor. But, FrankLloydMike, I fervently hope you’ll hold on to your ideals and do better than I did.

Design software – an informal poll

Friday, January 13th, 2006

At my school, we have a single course in AutoCAD, and, when I took it, we never made it to 3D. I don’t think this is one course provides us with enough training in computer graphics. To find out what other schools might be doing, I posted a survey on my Archinect blog asking students what design software they learn and use in their schools. I’ve gotten a couple of responses so far, but not enough to draw any conclusions.

Here are similar questions for the broader design community. Please offer comments. I’ll post the results, which will be useful to students and design schools.

1. What design software do you use?

2. What software do you think is the most useful in your work?

3. What software do you think design students should master to be competitive in the design business?

4. How did you learn to use the software? (e.g. class at school, at-work training, your own efforts?)

5. Other comments?

Does anyone know of any existing studies on this?

Designing with waste

Thursday, January 12th, 2006

In his convincing book, Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough argues that we need to eliminate the concept of waste. In a nutshell, he states that everything we manufacture should be able to be returned either directly to the earth with no toxic byproduct or back into the manufacturing cycle with no loss in quality of materials. With such a system, nothing is wasted.

I was reminded of McDonough when I read an article in the New York Times by Jim Robbins, entitled New Uses for Glut of Small Logs From Thinning of Forests (January 10, 2006, page D4), which reports on the growing interest in using logs that previously were considered waste because they were too thin to be marketable. Generally such logs are simply burned. Recently, however, some small outfits have created a market for this “waste.” One company featured in the article, North Slope Sustainable Wood, markets small diameter larch for flooring and other building components.

Reusing waste is still a pretty radical idea despite years of environmental activism and growing environmental problems. Yes, we do have fairly wide-spread recycling, and companies are beginning to adjust their manufacturing processes to reuse or recycle their waste products, but by and large, our society is still a throw-away culture. It’s easier and cheaper to junk something than to get it repaired, assuming you can even find someone to repair it in the first place.

Consider the issue on a personal level. I have a big supply of old hinges and knobs, electrical wire, wirenuts, switches and receptacles, nails and screws, tools, scraps of wood, rolls of screening, tarpaper, insulation and plastic, and paint stored in my basement that I comb through when I need to build or repair something. I like tinkering with things and coming up with patches for the small problems that pop up at home. Fifty years ago, making do with what was available was common, but I don’t know many people who do this anymore, at least not in the metropolitan area where I live. What has become of the “handyman”? (Let’s call it the handyperson, even though the term seems a bit awkward.)

Perhaps we need to create more of a handyperson approach at a larger level, within the entire design/build community for example. Hopefully, more companies like North Slope will pop up, marketing useful products that were previously considered to be waste. Because designers are the source of product information for their clients, I believe we have an ethical obligation to spend time educating ourselves as to what’s available and consider recommending these products in our projects. Reusing a resource that would otherwise be tossed is just one aspect of sustainable design and one step toward eliminating the concept of waste altogether, but its an important one.

This is, in effect, designing with waste. It makes sense.

The blog experiment I

Wednesday, January 11th, 2006

One of the purposes in writing this blog is to try to create a network of contacts in the design business. If this experiment is successful, then it would suggest that the medium of blogging is useful for designers.

To create contacts, people have to read my blog, and for that to happen, I need to get my blog out there where people might find it. Here’s what I’ve done so far besides writing my own posts:

  • Added my link to a few blog directories – Technorati, Blogwise, Blogflux, and Globe of Blogs. I checked out quite a few others, but these seemed to be the most usable. Although my site won’t appear on the blog directories right away (they have to review and approve it first), I think inclusion on the sites will increase my readership. By surfing through the design-related sites in these directories, I identified a couple of blogs that were interesting. (See my Blogroll on the right).
  • Signed up to be a student blogger with the School Blog Project at Archinect. So far I’ve submitted one post and gotten some comments. I plan to chronicle my school experiences both here and at Archinect, using more of a diary approach with the Archinect posts. Check out my Archinect page here.
  • Participated in a web carnival – the Carnival of the Architects and Urbanists – by posting a comment. Web carnivals are an interesting process. More on that in a later post.
  • Posted some comments on others’ blogs. One blogger, whose site is Inhabit, sent me a very thoughtful message in return, commenting on one of my posts. So, one evening of work and I’m on at least one person’s radar screen.

Still to do – figure out how to track the number of hits on my site and get my site listed as an interesting link on other bloggers’ sites. More on this experiment in coming posts. Readers: any suggestions?