Archive for the ‘Being a Design Student’ Category

Working towards excellence

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

I like things to be done right. And who doesn’t. As consumers, we expect services to be completed correctly and products to function as they should – and we deserve as much. If I hire a painter to paint my living room red, I want it to be red, not purple, and I can’t imagine that many homeowners would feel otherwise.

So, if customers deserve to get what they contract for, then service providers have an obligation to serve their clients well. The perplexing thing is that often this doesn’t happen. Of course, miscommunication, changes, and cost increases can play havoc with a project, but I keep running into an impediment that is completely within the control of the project team – a lack of committment to excellence.

Let me give an example from my current grad school experience. This semester, I’m in a Project Management class in the business school. Our term project is to plan a hypothetical high-society wedding between a bride and groom of different non-western cultures and our wedding must respect both cultures. We are specifically prohibited from “Americanizing” the wedding. We are formed into teams of about 8 individuals, most if not all of whom are adults who have full-time jobs, many as project managers. Because our wedding involves non-western cultures, the activities don’t fall into typical western categories. So far, so good. The problem is that some of my teammates are approaching this project with quite a bit less than full effort and others are using canned western wedding templates for budgeting, sequencing, and decisionmaking. Granted, this is only a school project with no real client to disappoint, but in my mind it doesn’t take a great deal of extra effort to, say, create budget categories that track the activities involved in this project rather than simply download and fill in a western template that contains activities that don’t even apply in our chosen cultures.

My concern is not that we’ll get a bad grade (we won’t), but the lack of a true committment to excellence. Perhaps a student project is not a good example – after all, the student mentality of doing just enough to get the grade is fairly prevalent and my teammates all have full-time stressful jobs on top of their schoolwork. However, I think there’s an attitude evident in this class that pervades much of the work culture in the United States, and herein lies the real problem. A good-enough attitude at an employee level yields shoddy products and disappointing services. When it’s company-wide, a good-enough attitude adversely affects the company’s ability to compete. When a good-enough attitude pervades a nation, the nation’s trade balance suffers.

I suppose it’s not so simple. People have different ways of thinking and working and it’s a challenge to assemble a team with a shared vision. Moreover, in today’s market team members often can’t do their best work because they haven’t been allotted the time and resources they need to do so. Perhaps I’m a Pollyanna, but I’d like to think that, despite this, sometimes teams really do manage to achieve excellence. I truly hope that someday I’ll be part of such a team.


Saturday, October 21st, 2006

I finished the model that was assigned in my Building Technology class. It is a composite model of a commercial interior and contains several building systems including (1) structural systems (concrete masonry unit wall, nonbearing metal-frame wall, open-web steel trusses, concrete floors), (2) a suspended acoustical ceiling, (3) electrical systems, (4) sprinkler system, (5) HVAC system, and (6) various finishes. This was so much fun!

Here are some pictures.

Here is the Process Book I created for this project.

Fall semester 2006

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

My fall semester is underway and it’s going well. I’m taking two courses, Building Technology (in the Interior Design department) and Project Management (in the business school).

In Building Tech we’re learning the basics of building systems, writing a paper on some building technology, and either building a model or keeping a journal of visits to a construction site. I’m working on my model already – it’s a suspended acoustical ceiling hung from an open-web parallel-chord steel truss. To keep it all close to the belt, the paper will be on acoustical ceilings as well.

In Project Management, besides reading the text and taking exams, we’re working in teams planning a cross-cultural wedding. Our team’s two cultures are Nigeria and Sudan. Since I’m in the ID department, my part of the project will be to develop the interior spaces for the wedding festivities. I know these cultures have rich histories, gorgeous textiles, handcrafts, and design motifs, and beautiful wedding traditions, but I’ve been having some trouble finding information on the web.

Nothing very profound to be said about these two classes as yet – just reporting in.


Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Working in teams is pretty much a given in the architecture and design business. But good teams don’t just happen by themselves, as I’m discovering in my current Project Management class. We’ve learned that the structure of a project team and the role of the project manager may vary depending on the nature of the project and the company’s organizational structure and culture, but one thing is common to all projects: they need effective leadership. Good project leaders have a clear vision of the project as a whole and the ability to convey that vision to the team members. Without leadership, projects fail.

I’m finding this out first hand in my class experience. We were divided into teams of 8-9 people, given a short description of our term project, and set loose without much guidance on how to begin. All the other students in the class are in the MBA program, so I thought they might have had experience with this sort of thing, but none of them acted as if they knew any better than I what we were supposed to be doing. In the first two weeks of class we hadn’t accomplish much of anything, so I started producing drafts of the project deliverables and sending them to the others for comment, but not even that got much reaction. Finally, our professor stepped in and gave us a kick in the shins. I don’t know how the rest of the semester will go, but at least there is now some communication among us.

So what went wrong here or is this just the way teams work? I would hate to think that all team work is dysfunctional, so I am assuming the problem was, in part at least, a lack of leadership. Perhaps one of us should have assertively assumed the role of project manager, perhaps the team itself should have designated someone to lead the group, or perhaps this is simply a problem inherent in a project mangement class where every class member should have an opportunity to be a manager.

In the real world of commercial projects, however, teams that can’t function efficiently adversely impact the company’s bottom line. To compound the trouble, apparently good team leaders are few and far between and most companies don’t understand how to develop and nurture them. One article assigned for my class, entitled “Make Projects the School for Leaders” by H. Kent Bowen, Kim B. Clark, Charles A. Holloway, and Steven C. Wheelwright (Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994), states: “The challenge is to understand what leadership requires of people and to create a process and a system in which leaders develop naturally as part of the life of the business.” In companies with good leadership, the authors aver, senior management (1) expects leadership from its team leaders, (2) supports its leaders by making sure they have the resources to do their jobs, and (3) rewards leaders for success.

Turning to the architecture and design community – is the profession supporting and training people to become the leaders it needs for effective project management? We’re certainly not learning leadership in interior design school – but for the fact that I needed an elective and signed up for the Project Management class in the business school, I would never have been exposed to project management principles at all.

My guess is that the answer is no, and this may be a big mistake. The world is changing. To compete, architecture and design firms have to produce great projects. To produce great projects, firms need expert teams with effective leaders. To produce effective leaders within the profession, schools need to provide leadership training and A&D firms must value and develop leadership skills throughout their organizations.

Project management – take 1

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

This fall, as an elective for my Interior Design Master’s program, I’m enrolled in a Project Management course in the business school. I’ve purchased the text and have started in on it. Two things immediately strike me. First, project management probably should be part of the curriculum for the ID degree, or at least listed as an elective in the ID department information. Clearly architecture and design are all about projects and even with the smallest of projects, completing work on time, on budget, and within requirements requires a great deal of management. Second, the process appears at first glance to be quite a bit more complicated than I would have thought, though perhaps I already intuitively do the things the textbook discusses, but don’t quite recognize them in the PM lingo.

At any rate, I think this course will be right up my alley. My book, Project Management: The Managerial Process, by Clifford Gray and Erik Larson, defines a project as “a complex, nonroutine, one-time effort limited by time, budget, resources, and performance specifications designed to meet customer needs.” That’s the kind of work I like. Here’s to a new semester!

Lighting lessons + a primer

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

My current lighting class is almost over. Here’s some of what I learned.

First, the traditional lighting that most of us have in our homes – surface-mounted ceiling lights plus a virtual lighting store of table and floor lights – is terrible. The ceiling fixtures glare and create unflattering light on everyone and everything. The table lamps light the tables, but that’s about it.

Case in point: The lighting in my living room now consists of five table lamps (we just kept adding them because it was never light enough) and a ceiling fan with a light globe attached. We never turn on that ceiling globe because it is blinding, so we rely on the five table lamps to light the space. But it still feels dark, even when they are all turned on. When I measured the footcandle levels in in the room, I learned that it really was dark, majorly dark.

Second, although there are a lot of ways to successfully illuminate a house, wading through the enormous selection of luminaires available on the market is daunting. (See my post on indoor lighting for a sampling of firms that sell lamps or luminaires.) These products don’t come cheap either. To fix the lighting problems in my house I’d have to redo every room, tearing out walls, snaking wires, patching, and repainting. If I had time and money, I’d do it; I certainly can’t afford to hire someone else. I hate to think that good lighting may be one of the privileges of the rich.

Third, lighting involves a intense numbers game to distinguish among and choose from the various kinds of lamps on the market suitable for residential installation – from the ubiquitous incandescent A lamp, through halogen, compact fluorescent, and linear fluorescent, to the newer fiber optic and LED lights. Each one of these comes with its own beam spread, color temperature, color rendering index, base type, and photometric data. And then there are all the calculations – watts, volts, footcandles, footlamberts, etc – that one must do, or at least understand, to get the lighting just right. I’m good at numbers, but the sheer volume of all this information has me floored. The lighting professionals may have it all down (plus they have access to computer programs that do the calculating), but if I don’t have a handle on it after two lighting classes, then certainly the un-schooled homeowner hasn’t got a chance. (Commercial lighting is another beast altogether, with still more lamp choices. Because I chose a residential project for my current class project, I didn’t even touch on commercial this semester.)

So what can ordinary people do? Learn a bit about lighting design. Here’s a quick primer.

But first, some terminology. A “lamp” is the trade term for a light bulb. A “luminaire” is the term for a light fixture, often called a lamp in common parlance (e.g. table lamp, floor lamp). Luminaires are designed for specific lamp types, but each type may have a wide range of choices in wattage, beam spreads, color temperature, and ability to render color accurately. A “footcandle” is a measure of the amount of light that reaches a surface.

The main thing to remember is that good lighting consists of four different types or functions of lighting – ambient, accent, task, and “sparkle.” All of these need to be present in a given room or space to some degree, though sometimes one fixture can serve more than one function. The layers of different types of lighting create contrast, and that is what makes lighting exciting.

  • Ambient light is the background light that illuminates the whole room enough to eliminate dark corners and allow you to move through the space safely and perform general tasks. Whether this is low or bright depends on what kind of space it is – it might be lowish in a dining room, for example, but high in a wood shop. Good ambient lighting isn’t obvious. A bright ceiling downlight, for example, may light the room, but it glares in your eyes and creates unflattering shadows. A better choice for ambient lighting is to direct light up to the ceiling and let it reflect back into your room. You can do this with a built-in light cove near the top of your wall, with floor fixtures or wall sconces with opaque shades that shine only up, or even by placing small uplight fixtures on top your bookshelves.
  • Accent lighting is more concentrated lighting, usually directed at specific objects or room details, such as artwork, sculpture, a column, or a plant. Accent lights draw your eye toward the illuminated spot and create interest, but they don’t always provide good ambient light. Most track lighting and some recessed ceiling canisters make good accent lights, with the proper lamp. The beam spread of the lamp you put in your accent fixture will make a difference in the effect you get.
  • Task lighting provides light to successfully do specific or concentrated tasks, such as reading, working with tools, and cooking. Task lighting is brighter than ambient light and is directed where it’s needed, on the work surface. Here is where all those table lamps come into play. They are fine task lights, so long as they are placed so the light doesn’t shine in your eyes and the light is bright enough to see your work. An opaque or dark shade on your task lighting luminaire helps prevent glare and, so long as your ambient light is provided by other sources, won’t make your room too dark.
  • Sparkle is the lighting icing on the cake. For example, tiny white holiday lights and candles add sparkle to a space, as does light directed on a piece of crystal. Although sparkle is less important than the other three, it adds a feeling of liveliness and delight.

Even a couple of small changes in lighting can make a big difference in the feel of a room. Here’s what I’m going to try in my house until I have the time, energy, and money to chop up my ceilings and walls to run some new circuits.

  • Buy a bunch of small plug-in spotlights to place here and there. For instance, one on top the bookcase aimed toward the ceiling of my living room should provide some much-needed ambient light. One on the floor shining up behind a plant should do the same and yield some interesting shadow patterns.
  • Check my existing recessed ceiling fixtures to see if I’ve put the correct type of lamp in them so they’ll function as the accent lights they were meant to be.
  • Hang a big square of light-colored fabric below some of those glare bombs in my ceilings to try to diffuse them (far enough away so it doesn’t get hot).
  • Replace some of the ceiling downlights with tracks or fixtures that direct the light upward.

The most important thing I learned, however, is how crucial lighting is. An otherwise fabulous space will be boring in the wrong lighting and, conversely, a well-designed, layered lighting plan can perk up even the plainest space. Lighting breathes life into architecture.


Monday, May 22nd, 2006

My summer class is Advanced Lighting and Acoustics. It’s an elective sequel to our required Basic Lighting course, where we learned about light, lamps, and luminaires, but got little hands-on experience in lighting design. This 6-week summer course is supposed to take us deeper into lighting design and touch on acoustics. We’ll have some field trips, some lectures, and a project.

I feel as if lighting deserves a lot more attention than it gets in my program. After all, lighting is what makes a space sparkle. A brilliant design goes flat without effective lighting and lighting can perk up an uninspired space considerably. Reading textbooks and listening to lectures goes only so far, so I’m hoping this class will provide some opportunity to see good lighting at work. We also need, but don’t have, a lighting lab at our school that would allow us the time to fiddle with different lighting scenarios.

During the Basic Lighting class, which I took a couple of years ago, we did take an informative field trip to the Philips Lighting Application Center (LAC) in Somerset, New Jersey. The LAC has more than 20,000 square feet of education and demonstration space and sponsors a long list of 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-day lighting classes and workshops, touching on commercial and residential applications. Our school trip lasted only a few hours, but we were able to see the ways different types of lighting affect space in the LAC’s full-size room setups and see how different lamps affected color. It was a valuable day. (Philips’ website also contains a variety of downloadable lighting design and product brochures and a number of calculation tools.)

Despite all this, I still feel as if I don’t know nearly enough about lighting. It’s frustrating. I want to get my hands on materials and equipment and really experiment. A couple of the classes at the Philips LAC would be great, but that’s not in the cards for the moment. I’m hoping I’ll feel more knowledgable after this summer’s class.


Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Trying to find the perfect product for a project takes up an immense amount of time. I suppose eventually I’ll begin to know manufacturers and their wares, but as a student, I still know very little. So, when I’ve needed to specify, say, a sidechair for a school project, I end up flipping endlessly through design magazines and Googling for “designer sidechair” or something equally vague. The magazines will provide some ideas, but not always what I have in mind, and a general web search is almost always futile.

I’ve tried to develop efficient ways to organize the products and materials I have discovered, but so far haven’t hit upon a workable solution. My little collection of catalogues and materials doesn’t even scratch the surface, and since they’re not centrally indexed, it’s back to flipping. Keeping folders or notebooks with notes or cutouts never seems to get off the ground and I can’t find anything in these collections of notes anyway. I need a way to access just the information I need, when I need it.

I may have just found a tool that might be useful: Rollyo.

Rollyo is a website that allows you to create customizable search engines. You create or “roll” your own lists (“searchrolls”) of websites you know that pertain to whatever subjects you decide to organize. Then, if you are looking for something that falls within the scope of one of your searchrolls, you can search just within your designated sites, saving you the hassle of combing through the thousands of sites you’d get in a general web search for the same thing. You can view and search other people’s searchrolls too and add their searchrolls to your collection.

You can use Rollyo even if you don’t have your own searchrolls by entering a search term on the explore page. When I plugged in “design,” I got a long list of searchrolls, most of them pertaining to web design, but a few on architectural or interior design. A general exploration of others’ searchrolls is not likely to help me find a product, but it might lead to something interesting.

I’ve just started several searchrolls – lighting, architectural hardware, wallcoverings, windows, architectural tiles, and independent living – based on ads, articles, and websites I found in a recent magazine. I also found a searchroll that someone else had created that looked interesting enough to add. As I find companies or websites that have products or information that I’d like to remember, I’ll add them to my searchrolls. Once my lists are comprehensive enough, my hope is that I will be able to find things I am looking for much faster.

This is a great use of the internet – fast access to specialized information. Rollyo could be a terrific tool for organizing a personalized product “library.”

On history

Thursday, May 4th, 2006

I feel as if I should write about history. I’ve just finished my school year, which included three courses on the history of architecture and interior design, and clearly there should be plenty to say, but no one period, building, interior, or piece of furniture inspired me to click on “write post.” When I look back at the entire year, however, I realize that the three courses did give me something valuable – a stronger sense that the “modern” life of today is not the be-all end-all, but is just another instant in the continuously developing story of humankind. Clearly, this is not a novel idea, but what’s new for me is that history now seems quite real and exciting.

But back to history and how I came to appreciate it.

History is one of those subjects that is either completely engrossing or totally boring. When I was in high school, I hated it. I don’t even remember my teachers, which probably means they were not very skilled, but I do remember how deadly dull the textbooks and the curriculum were – strings of dates, military events, political leaders, all presented in stilted, repetitive language. It was not a story of how life was; it was a list of the political-military conquests of white men. Not that this can’t be interesting, but it’s certainly not the whole picture and I couldn’t identify.

College offered better exposure to history through sociology, anthropology, Shakespeare, and music and art history courses and, since then, I’ve periodically delved into various history topics. Still, I kept thinking I didn’t like history based on that old high school dread.

This school year I took History I, History II, and Modern Architecture, the first two of which were required. I expected to have to trudge through these courses, but I was surprised to find that I actually loved all of them. Each class seemed to supply a piece of a puzzle. What that puzzle was was initially unclear, but now I can see it – it’s the story of the continuum of human development and how we fit into it.

History I began with ancient Egypt, a culture whose art and architecture reflected complex notions of religion and social hierarchy. The class progressed through Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and into the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, focusing on what life was like in those times and how the architecture responded. The story of the development of human civilization is entangled in the structures and art of these cultures. I was struck by the exponentially increasing pace of advancement as I studied each culture. Ancient Egyptian culture lasted thousands of years – the Industrial Revolution has been going on a mere two hundred. It’s dizzying.

History II covered the 18th and 19th centuries and was more about furniture than architecture. I kind of hit the wall during this class as the chairs, commodes, and tables all began to look alike to me, but what they revealed about the progression of thought, economics, craftsmanship, urban development, technology, and social and artistic attitudes in the 18th and 19th centuries provided a great background to understanding contemporary times. These centuries were the precursors to the Modern Era in so many ways and having studied this progression, I now have a greater appreciation for that period of history and its impact on our lives today.

Modern Architecture covered architectural history from the mid-19th century to the present. The course helped me understand the who, what, when, where, and why of the forms and lines used in architecture today. Going back to the beginning of various modern styles and learning what was happening in the world at large and the social pressures to which the designers responded has made me see modern work in a new light. These modern buildings are not just structures; they embody the thoughts, emotions, and technology not only of their designers but also of the times during which they were built.

Ultimately, history is about understanding our place in time and why life is the way it is today. Today is merely a continuation of yesterday, and tomorrow will simply be the next step. In a sense, nothing is new – everything has a past, be it technological or inspiration of line or form. It’s understanding these links with past societies, thoughts, designs, and people that make history so important and give us a vision for the future.

Furniture design class finale

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

The last project for my furniture design class was to design another piece of furniture for the “line” we had begun with the chair and the display system. I designed a dining table. Here are the models – the dining table, the side table, and the original chair:

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The design process got easier the further I got into the semester. Once the initial concept was worked out – the most difficult part for me – and the lines and form of the first piece established, it was relatively easy to envision other pieces. I chose a dining table for my last piece because the chair seemed to want a table, the table was relatively simple to draw in 3D CAD and to build as a model (time was running out on this semester!), and the forms and lines of the first two projects lent themselves nicely to tables.

The final designs are fairly basic. Given more time, I would refine the details of all the pieces, making subtle changes in form and finish details, and then expand the line to include other tables, a credenza, a freestanding cabinet or chest of drawers, and perhaps even kitchen cabinets. I have a ton of ideas.

This class was a good one. I learned lots about the design process and had fun with the modeling. I managed to incorporate some extras – 3D AutoCAD, SketchUp, and model building – that I feel rounded out my knowledge nicely.

More about this class: