Archive for January, 2007

Frogging

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

According to an article by Greg Miller in the weekly journal Science, entitled Peering inside the Wandering Mind, daydreaming is the default setting of the human brain. Apparently certain sections of the brain are active when we are working on specific tasks and other areas are active when we are not. At those times when we are not task-oriented, our brains wander in and out of thoughts: we daydream. The studies reported in Miller’s article suggested that this mind-state – the default daydreaming state – is where creative ideas generate. He reports that “activity in the default network is necessary to generate spontaneous thoughts” and “creative insights often happen during these episodes.”

What if we apply these findings to design? Several thoughts occur to me. First, to create, individuals apparently need a fair amount of unstructured time during which they are not trying to accomplish a particular task, including, I suppose, the task of coming up with creative ideas. Perhaps this is the problem with “writer’s block” – concentrating on the task of writing may block the free flow of ideas that occurs in the daydreaming state. Second, perhaps businesses that engage in creative endeavors should give their employees less work to do. A task-free workplace? Quite an oxymoron, but there may be something in it. Finally, workplaces of all kinds should be physically designed to afford some degree of non-task activity to encourage innovation. In today’s global market, even the most traditional firms need to be innovative to stay competitive.

Although I often find myself woolgathering at my desk, it’s usually when I’m bored with my task. Then the task quickly snaps me back and I feel guilty about “wasting” time daydreaming. This “distraction” daydreaming comes in short bursts and doesn’t lead to much insight. On the other hand, my mind free-flows like crazy in my long morning showers where I have no tasks other than to get myself clean and warm, and quite often, by the time I’m toweling off, I have formed two or three solutions to some problem or another. In the shower, I’m in the state of mind my father called “frogging” – sitting like a frog on a log with nothing else to do. The other time I do my best daydreaming is walking about my garden just looking at the plants.

Two situations seem to trigger the daydreaming mind-state. The first is when we are engaged in something repetitive that we don’t have to think about to do – the shower for instance. The second is when we are simply looking at things. When I visited the MOMA in New York last year I spent some 30 minutes sitting in the courtyard looking at the people and the art. The place was crowded – every one of the numerous benches was taken – but the experience was nonetheless quite meditative.

So what would a workplace that encourages “frogging” look like? The answer, it would seem, would be to provide places to engage in mindless tasks and/or places to simply look at things. How about some comfy chairs near a piece of art, a garden with meandering paths, or a coffee bar overlooking a window with a view? How about a nicely furnished gym outfitted with plenty of those daydream-inducing aerobic machines? If employers provided places like these and created a culture where employees were encouraged to use them, my guess is they’d see an increase in creative ideas.

Our brains are marvelous organs. We can concentrate on getting a task done and we can juggle multiple tasks at once. But, as Miller’s article suggests, the daydreaming mind can come up with some of the best ideas. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to relax a little.

Studio 508 – week 1

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

I just started my new semester and am taking an advanced design studio. The professor is new. She was apparently hired the afternoon our class was to begin, so class didn’t get underway until nearly 45 minutes after it was scheduled and the new professor hadn’t had much opportunity to prepare. So she laid out a few thoughts she’d had on what the studio might address for the semester.

The professor related that she’d read a quote from a study done by the US Department of Justice that stated: “If recent incarceration rates remain unchanged, an estimated 1 out of every 20 persons (5.1%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime.” She said it struck her as an interesting basis for our term project. The silence was pretty dense as we all thought – We’re going to design a jail? – – OMG. Visions of concrete and steel cellblocks and Andy Griffin. Class ended. I went home.

Two days later, I came back. The professor had pinned up 15 etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian printmaker and architect who lived during the 18th century. These prints, his Imaginary Prison series done in 1745 and 1761, were amazing. Each print depicted monumental architecture with stark contrasts of light and darkness, figures lost in the vastness and complexity of the spaces, and strong portrayals of emotion. We talked about the prints for a while, then each picked one to study.

Before we set in, we read an article from the Harvard Design Magazine by Marshal Berman entitled “Notes From Underground – Plato’s Cave, Piranesi’s Prison, and the Subway.” The author compares the experience of a city subway system to the philosophical lessons of Plato’s cave allegory and Piranesi’s drawings. In Plato’s allegory, prisoners chained in a black cave suffer because their restricted sensory experience blinds them to the clarity and beauty of the world outside. To Plato, human potential is in striving toward the light. Piranesi’s prints depict prison-like stone structures with no apparent way in or out, where shrouded figures trudge in darkness seemingly helpless to reach the light that floods in through ambiguously open windows at great heights. But some figures do seem to have managed to climb up toward the light, suggesting that perhaps Piranesi shared to some extent Plato’s belief that human endeavor can overcome seemingly impenetrable barriers.

The print I chose is called “The Smoking Fire.” It shows massive stone columns, bridges, and arches with light streaming through what appear to be openings to the outside, but which on closer look, lead to more architecture and endlessly climbing staircases. In the center of this landscape is a massive bridge, swarming with dark and indistinct figures, on which burns a billowing white smoky fire. Now, Berman writes of the terror and dread conveyed by these prints, but the more I looked at my print the less I saw it as a depiction of physical and moral hopelessness and the more I saw it as a representation of exploration and discovery, hope, and even as a yearning for knowledge.

I thought about this more after class and decided that this exercise probably spoke less about what Piranesi meant to depict and more about what my attitude about life might be. Perhaps this is what’s so fabulous about art – that it can help us to see ourselves. Perhaps this is what may be fabulous about this class – that it may help me to better explore the designer within me.

But what an unexpected leap, from a flat initial impression to a much more complex experience. Whether we design a jail, or whether the Justice Department quote turns out to be simply an inspiration, this class promises to be terrific.

Resources: Office furnishings

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

Manufacturers of casegoods, computer furniture, conference tables, desks, credenzas, ergonomic seating, furniture systems, guest seating, files & storage, lounge seating, tables, stacking chairs, and training tables:

Leaving

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

I have a new job. It starts at the end of this month. Though I told my current employer that I was leaving nearly 6 weeks ago, it’s not an easy time for them. I’ve been in the job for over 12 years and they depend on me. When I took the new job, it seemed as if 8 weeks would be plenty of time for them to find and for me to train a replacement, but none of the people they’ve interviewed satisfy them. Now it’s almost time for me to leave and it’s obvious that the new person won’t be on board before I go.

The change has brought up a number of emotions – some expected and some quite unexpected. I expected to feel sad to say goodbye to employers who have been good friends to me during a period of my life when I needed the kind of job they offered and who’ve been patient and understanding. I expected to feel excited at my new prospects. I expected to feel a bit of frenzy in getting tasks finished up. And I’m feeling all of these emotions.

What I didn’t expect is to feel oddly irritable. Some of this is because I’d have handled the new hire process more efficiently; some because I feel really sympathetic toward my employers for the difficult transition; some because the hiring process has consumed more hours than I expected and I’ll have to put in some overtime to get things in proper order for leaving. But this evening as I was driving home, I realized that much of this irritation is due to some deeper job frustrations that I’ve been suppressing for quite a few years. Odd how long you can put up with jobs that really don’t fit; strange how this gets so much harder when you no longer need to.

A few weeks from now the transition will be done. I’ll be in an exciting new job and hopefully my current bosses will have found someone they like who’ll bring new energy to their office. Leaving can be hard, but change is an terrific opportunity.

Innovation

Friday, January 5th, 2007

I just read Tom Kelley‘s The Art of Innovation. Kelley is the general manager of IDEO, one of the world’s most innovative design firms, and his book talks about how IDEO goes about creating the products for which it is famous. Here is IDEO’s methodology:

1. Understand the market, the client, the technology, and the perceived constraints on the problem.
2. Observe real people in real-life situations to find out what makes them tick: what confuses them, what they like, what they hate, where they have latent needs not adressed by current products and services.
3. Visualize new-to-the-world concepts and the customers who will use them.
4. Evaluate and refine the prototypes in a series of quick iterations.
5. Implement the new concept for commercialization. (pp. 5-6)

Although most of what IDEO does is product design, the methodology is applicable to architecture and interior design as well. In fact, the book has a chapter that offers guidance on designing workplaces that foster innovation. IDEO’s key points in this chapter are to create flexible and movable neighborhoods that encourage interaction among employees, give people control over their spaces, ensure that the space tells the company’s story, and keep it simple.

As an example of the kind of flexibility and simplicity that makes for an innovative workplace, Kelley relates a time when an employee brought a number of 15″ foam cubes into the office. Everyone liked the cubes so much that the company ordered hundreds more. The lightweight cubes are now used as stools, stacked to create stadium seating, topped with boards to create tables, stacked into partitions and walls to form impromptu meeting areas, and incorporated into large models to help the teams work through design problems. The extreme fluidity of the IDEO office promotes interaction, brainstorming, and the free flow of ideas.

IDEO is an unusually creative firm and not all businesses require that level of creativity. But to compete in today’s market, all firms have to know their markets, be able to visualize beyond what they currently do, and create new products and services quickly. Innovation is the key and is no longer limited to traditionally creative industries – even firms that have not thought of themselves as creative or collaborative could benefit from Kelley’s approach. Architects and designers can help them bring this about through workplace design.

December ‘06 index

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Resource index

Monday, January 1st, 2007

Index to posts containing resource links:

Ceilings

Directories

Glass

Hardware

Kitchen & Bath

Lighting

Office

Software

Sustainable design

Wood