Archive for July, 2007

Death of the Generalist

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

The Generalist is dead. It pains me to say it, because I am one. I want to know about everything; I want to be good at everything. But there isn’t enough time and there is too much, way too much, information. This has really hit home since I’ve started my new design career. Taking a building or an interior relocation from start to finish is extraordinarily complex and the sheer volume of expertise and information required is astonishing. As much as I want to learn it all, I’m beginning to realize it may not be possible.

Take Thursday, for example. In the morning I did some occupancy calculations for a client who needs to obtain permission from the city for an unusual buildout. This required me to understand several sections of the International Building Code, a document not known for its clarity, to say the least. It took me hours to parse the code language until I was satisfied I’d done the calculations correctly. People build careers doing nothing but interpreting the IBC. Later, I walked through a construction site where I was involved in discussions about fire alarm wiring, carpet laying, the proper use of plastic laminate, and the lighting levels in a corridor. Each of these involved a different trade, represented on the job site by a team working only in its single trade. In the afternoon I reviewed some specifications for office cubicles. There are those whose entire job is to understand the intricacies of systems furniture. In the evening, I went to a reception at a high-end furniture showroom that employs a pack of salespeople who do nothing but deal in this furniture.

All these specialists. It makes me, the generalist, want to cry. Not because I don’t appreciate the depth of knowledge that these specialists command, but because I know I can never learn everything that all of them know.

We need all these guys. No one of us can ever learn everything all the specialists involved in a design project know and we could never build a building or refurbish an office floor without all that knowledge. Architecture and design is a business of specialists and I’d better get used to it.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to cave in and become one of them. The design business also needs people who know enough about all these different specialties to see the big picture – people who may not have the depth of knowledge that the specialists do, but who understand the various processes well enough to ensure that the results really do resolve the client’s problem or need.

The difficulty, of course, is managing the overload of information that’s available. New designers have to learn a lifetime of information in a really short time to be even passably competent, even at one specialty. Becoming a semi-expert at all the aspects of a design project is one big challenge. Bring it on! Maybe the Generalist isn’t dead after all.

Return on Design

Friday, July 27th, 2007

We designers believe that good design is a good return on investment, not only in product design and branding, but in facilities design as well. But quantifying this in hard numbers has, so far as I know, pretty much eluded us. In part this is because the power of design is complex and subjective, making it difficult to quantify. In part it’s because we are designers, not accountants. In part it’s because the idea that design matters from a business perspective appears to be a relatively new thought, at least in a world driven primarily by balance sheets.

Bill Breen posted an interesting discussion on this topic on Fast Company’s website on July 26th. He reports on a conversation he had with Rob Wallace of Wallace Church Inc., a package-design company that works with large companies. Arguing that good design represents a good return on investment, Wallace says:

I’m confident that if the ROI on design was truly measured, design would come out quite well, and it would be treated by the finance side as the adult it now wants to be. The ROI on design is not only a tool for showing design’s true value, it can also show how and when design can be most critically used as a tool to continually generate the highest profits.

I’m confident of this as well, instinctively. I can’t boast the 15 or so years of experience trying to quantify the effects of design that Wallace and others can, but I somehow know it to be so. Think about being in a place where you wish you could work. Is it a uniformly-lighted beige box put up at the lowest cost or does it have interesting lighting, shapes, and color? Why is the Apple iPod the market leader when competing devices deliver similar functionality? Good design speaks quality and dependability and this image is bound to positively impact a company’s bottom line.

Wallace goes on to note that designers aren’t stepping up to play the corporate numbers game and, as a result, are missing an opportunity to convince corporations of the value of design. It’s true that when designers do step up, they can accomplish a lot. Look at what visionaries Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart were able to accomplish by convincing corporate giants of the value of sustainablility. Yes, we designers are overworked and hardly earn a living wage, but we can do a better job of helping our clients understand how our designs improve their bottom line. Designers – make convincing clients of the value of design part of what you do.

But, it’s a two-way street, so I also challenge corporate leaders to explore the power of design and to use their resources to develop the hard numbers to back it up. Design can make a difference – to your employees, to your clients, and to your bank accounts.

Pod vs. Bullpen – my turn

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Today was the first day I sat in the bullpen, our studio having at last moved from the pods. (See previous posts: Cubicles and Bullpen vs. Pod) Once I got my workstation all arranged, I rather liked it. It’s light and airy and I enjoy being able to look out over the room and see who is there. I did, however, drag an extra table into my space giving me a right-angled worksurface to use, and I think that makes the otherwise straight workbench actually usable for me with my middle-aged eyesight.

I’m right in the big middle of the space, so there is a lot of activity all around me – people constantly walking past, a floor printer right behind me, an adjacent table that today attracted first a meeting then a plate of brownies (THIS is dangerous) – but today I wasn’t distracted. So far, it appears that people, on my floor at least, aren’t having any more trouble collaborating than they did in the pods.

This is only the first day, but it’s interesting that my initial reaction to the bullpen is different from what I would have expected given the results of my class study (see Bullpen vs Pod). Without further research, I can’t say why, but perhaps as I continue to work in the bullpen, I’ll have some better insight.


Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

Cleaning my study, I found a folder I’d forgotten about. It contained some writing I did about five years ago as part of a writing course I took at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. My first daughter had just gone to college and my youngest was starting 6th grade. The writing course marked the beginning of a quest for something new to do with my life, post-children.

One of our assignments was to develop 100 word vignettes along the lines of the Life is Short: Autobiography as Haiku feature in the Washington Post. This was a fun assignment – to convey a little shred of life in a few well-chosen words. Here are six of the haikus I wrote for the class, all of which, interestingly enough, seem to be about being middle-aged. I guess they reflected my reality at that time pretty well.


I drove my first daughter to college last week. Some of my friends hold their lips tight to hide their tears. They miss their daughters too much. But I do not. I wanted her to go – it’s her turn to know that everything is possible, to meet friends who will always be there for her, to make choices that only she owns, and to learn from her mistakes. Well, she is excited by her classes. She is making friends. She has met a boy. In her last e-mail she said, “I am happy.” I am happy too.


What is wrong with these pants, I grumble to myself. I tug at the waistband strangling me. These used to fit fine. It must be cheap fabric; it keeps shrinking. You’d think things would hold up a little longer. I pick out a larger pair to wear, burying all the shrunken ones in the dark of the closet with vague hopes for their future resurrection. I know, of course, that the waistbands are not shrinking. I am getting thicker, loosening and settling into middle age. How did this happen? I was going to be young forever.


In class, a woman boasts that her husband does all the cooking. The other women exclaim, “I can’t imagine having a husband who cooks!” I, a single mom, silently mope: I can’t imagine even having a husband! Later, as I cautiously gather the mail, newly fearful of anthrax spores and terrorist attacks intruding on my safe suburban life, my morning self-pity is startlingly trivial: I can’t imagine living where real terror is a daily companion and people struggle just to survive. We may live in one world and share one humanity, but we have six billion separate realities.


What do you do when you’re a single mom and have no one to bounce ideas off? How do you know you’ve made the right choice, from the trivial—“Should I get my hair cut”—to the consequential—“Should I leave my secure job to try something that might suit me better?” You can read, observe other people, talk to someone who really doesn’t know you, or listen to your fears, trying to put them in perspective. But ultimately, you just make a choice and live with it. Unfortunately, so do your children, so you’re back where you started. Unsure.


Whop. “Okay. Turn sideways. Watch the ball.” Whop. My daughter is learning tennis. I circle the fields, waiting. The whops recede as I dodge football and cross-country. Soon I’m beyond, protected by distance and the softly shaking trees sheltering this haven from the rest of the world. Flocking birds wheel over the empty pitcher’s mound as I lean on the fence and feel the dusty October sunlight warm on my face. The muffled sounds of whistles and thudding shoulder pads ride the breeze across the fields. I breathe in the unexpected moment of peace.


“How many moms sit like this?” I ask my 13-year old, as I lay sprawled, legs up the wall, head hanging off the edge of the sofa. Actually, this position feels pretty good, stretching my stress-stiffened 54-year-old neck muscles, but what I really want is confirmation that I am not the boring grown up that my mother was. “Nobody.” she says, with affection in her voice, “You’re a weirdo.” That’s exactly what I want to hear.