Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Design chaos

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

I have a bathroom that was built in the 40s. It has tiny black and white ceramic tiles on the floor, shiny white tiles with black edge trim that kind of zig and zag here and there on the walls, and ordinary old fixtures, all of which are stained or mildly disfunctional in some way. The floorprint is teensy, about 5′ x 7′. When I added an addition to my house, I sawed out the ceiling and shoved it some 14′ up into the attic space so I could install a window way up there to bring in a bit of natural light. Then, one day, I pruned a tree and carried one of the limbs up into the bathroom and wedged it into that very high ceiling space, then strung the limb and the splotchy pipes under the wall-mounted sink with fake plants. Later, to make matters even more interesting, I took a course in faux finishes and painted the bathroom door and the space where the old window was in a very imaginary fake marble. All of this happened more than 20 years ago.

If this bathroom isn’t a designer’s nightmare, I don’t know what is.

Nightmare or not, this bathroom makes me think, once again, about what is “good” design. Clearly this mess of a bathroom is not what any learned designer would call good design – I know I would never specify dead tree limbs and plastic plants if I were designing a bathroom for a client. Yet, like the rest of my house, this crazy bathroom feels friendly and cozy and I actually like it a lot. It’s a curiously successful space. So, is good interior design only what you might find in a design magazine or can it also be defined as a space that makes people happy? Does good design have to present a unified concept or can it sometimes rise out of a random conglomeration of stuff? I believe good design has room for both ends of these spectra, with a lot of complexity in between.

Indisputably, an interior conceived with careful consideration of the elements and principles of design – space, line, texture, balance, rhythm, and so forth – is infinitely more likely to be good design than an interior that is simply thrown together. A space so conceived just feels right. But this isn’t the whole story. Most interiors are used by people and the functional and emotional needs of those people have to be met before a design can be deemed to be truly good. An acclaimed design that disregards the needs of the people who experience it is, in my mind, needlessly pretentious.

But can an interior design that generally disregards the elements and principles of design but fully satisfies the emotional needs of the people who use the space also be “good” design? Interiors are, after all, for using and experiencing. If an interior creates a positive emotional connection with its users and people want to be in the space, it’s a good thing.

I suppose it can be argued that such a space might be good, but it’s not “design.” Logically, a “designed” space should at least consider the elements and principles of design. Actually I strongly agree with this. Striking an emotional chord, however, may require stepping outside these boundaries to some extent. Emotions are by nature chaotic and perhaps a design that successfully touches emotion has to embrace a certain amount of chaos. Design chaos may be the antithesis of the elements and principles – or it may be one of the most important elements of all.

My bathroom, and indeed all of my house, is a hodge-podge of intense color, textures, art, and random furniture with no particular style or design direction, but everyone who comes in says they absolutely love it. There’s got to be something to be said for that. Clearly this bathroom is not even close to being “good design,” but its strong emotional appeal gives it definite design value. Good design is complex.

[Note to self: I started this post because I saw a sink in a magazine and wanted to record the name of the manufacturer so I could find it if I ever decide to remodel this bathroom. The post turned into something else, but the company with the sinks is AFNY Architectural Fixtures.]

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.

Bullpen vs pod

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

I did a quick study for a class I’m taking this summer comparing the ease of collaboration in a bullpen work environment to a pod work environment and had some interesting and unexpected results.

A bullpen is an open area with a group of workstations that are not visually separated. A pod is a small group of workstations that are enclosed within walls that are high enough that occupants cannot see into the next pod.

The study asked pod and bullpen occupants how easy it was to collaborate in their current environments and asked bullpen occupants whether it was easier or harder to collaborate in the workstations than in the pods. Just over half of the people asked to complete the survey were housed in pods; the rest had moved within the last few months from pods to the bullpen.

I expected that it would be easier to collaborate in the open bullpen environment since other research has shown that open workplaces encourage collaboration, particularly if workers have visual and aural connection. The bullpen seemed to fit this description exactly – it was open, workers could see and hear each other readily over the low (12″) partitions that divided them from others, and were in closer proximity than in the pods.

However, my survey revealed that pod dwellers are much more likely to collaborate than people in bullpen environments. Here are some of the results. 76% of pod occupants on one floor of the study office and 86% of pod occupants on the other floor said they found it “very easy” to collaborate with people in their pods. On the bullpen floor, only 11% said collaboration with those in their immediate vicinity was “very easy”. None of the pod occupants said that collaboration was “very hard”, whereas 20% of the bullpen occupants did select “very hard”. When asked how easy or hard it was to collaborate with team members not in the pod or immediate vicinity, 19% of pod dwellers found it “very easy”, but none said it was “very hard.” Only 6% of bullpen dwellers, however, said that such collaboration was “very easy” and 14% said it was “very hard”. Everyone else rated their collaboration experience as “somewhat easy” or “somewhat hard”.

Finally, bullpen dwellers were asked to compare the ease of collaboration in the bullpen environment to the ease of collaboration in their previous pod environments. 11% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with proximate workers in the bullpens, but 43% said it was “much harder”. 9% said it was “much easier” to collaborate with non-proximate team members, but 40% reported this as “much harder”!

Other things besides the furniture configuration were undoubtedly in play and not reflected in the study. Privacy, resistance to change, noise, circulation patterns, etc. can play a big role in the ability to collaborate and may have been factors in the study results (I did not test for these).

My opinion, not based on the study results, is that the open bullpen has several faults. First, workers have no privacy. The space is too open and people get distracted by all that activity, suffering from sensory overload. Even the most collaborative of workers needs some quiet time and some privacy. Pulling back and lessening efforts to collaborate just might be a defensive reaction to lack of privacy and personal space.

Second, the bullpen’s circulation paths are indirect and somewhat invasive. To talk to people who are not in the immediate vicinity, bullpen workers have to travel behind everyone else in their row to the main path at the end, cross to the row of the person they’re trying to see, then move back up another narrow path behind the backs of the workers in that row. I’m sure this somewhat convoluted path seems longer than it really is and feels like an invasion of the other workers’ private space. In the pods, in contrast, the circulation path is direct and public – one takes 3 or 4 steps to exit the pod onto the public path and never has to walk directly behind someone’s back.

Third, the bullpen space isn’t set up for the kind of impromptu interaction opportunities that characterize collaboration. The pods are interspersed with tall “flat files” spaced along the common circulation path. People meet as they pass and can spontaneously congregate for a chat or to collaborate on a project. The bullpen appears to have no such nodes where a crowd of four or five can meet spontaneously. Although rows of workbenches are separated by low files, those files are too low to lean on and study documents. Meeting appears to be more deliberate and less spontaneous.

My conclusion is that bullpens don’t appear to be a great choice for businesses that want employees to collaborate, at least not without some careful additional thought into circulation and privacy. I’d love to do some more in-depth research with these participants to find out why they responded in the way they did.

Why BIM?

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Computer-aided design (CAD) programs are widely used in the architecture/design industry to create drawings and details. But, like the hand drawings that preceded them, CAD drawings are discrete entities. With CAD, a designer creates a series of separate drawings to depict different views of a particular project – plans to show how the project appears from a horizontal viewpoint, elevations to show how it looks vertically, and perspectives to show the project from a particular angle in space. If some aspect of the design changes, the designer has to make that change in every drawing. For example, say you’re designing an addition to a house and the owner initially asked for a 24′ x 24′ addition. You draw a set of plans and elevations for your design, but the owner calls and says she can only afford an 18′ x 24′ addition. You have to re-draw the changed walls on each of your drawings. If the owner then decides she wants a larger window overlooking the back yard, you have to create yet another set of drawings to show the change. With each view contained in a separate drawing or file, every element has to be drawn many times even though it appears in the final building only once. Whether drawings are hand-rendered or created by a CAD program, this process is extremely time consuming and highly likely to result in errors or omissions.

Bulding Information Modeling (BIM) offers a radically new approach. BIM programs (Revit is one) are not drawing programs, but modeling and information programs. Projects are built from intelligent components that are located in a 3-D model and all information about that model resides in a single file. The model can be viewed from any angle, be it plan, elevation, or perspective. A component – a window for example – is placed into the model/file only once. If you put a window into the wall of a real house, it is there and you can see it no matter where you stand in the yard so long as it is within your line of sight. In BIM, once you place the window into the model, it is as if it were installed in the house and it appears in all views. Because components are “intelligent,” they adjust to changes automatically. For example, a stairway is not a series of risers and treads but is encoded as a staircase. If the floor levels to which it connects change, the staircase adjusts to fit. There is no need to update separate drawings. BIM also collects information about your model components and makes that information available in automatically-generated schedules. For example, it keeps track of the number of windows of each type that you add and includes them in the window schedule.

The differences between CAD and BIM are more complex than this. Paul F. Aubin, in his book Mastering Autodesk Revit Building (Thompson Delmar Learning, Clifton Woods, NY 2006) states that the BIM is not simply a 3D model of a building, but a “full description of a building” (41) – a data model rather than a geometric model. All elements within the model relate to each other and retain these relationships. He describes this in an example of a change made in a schedule:

If you go into a schedule view where [a] door is listed and change it from wood door to a glass door, not only will the calculations like quantities or costs for that door change in the schedule, but also the change will be reflected in all graphical views – for example, in shaded Views, the Door will now appear transparent. Likewise, if this data is linked to cost estimation or green building calculations, the change to a glass door Type will have other important impacts as well (43).

The BIM is not perfect. The first chapter of Aubin’s book summarizes some of the trade-offs between the two systems, but I need to explore Revit further to appreciate these fully. Regardless of how BIM programs shake out in the long run, it’s clear that the industry will be moving away from CAD toward a more sophisticated and efficient approach.

Bad offices

Friday, May 11th, 2007

One of my pet peeves is badly designed, uncomfortable office environments. Creating an office environment that’s built for its users – pleasant to be in, comfortable, efficient, attractive – seems like such a no-brainer. I just don’t get why every office has to be white or beige, why office chairs and computer set-ups are so darned uncomfortable, and why only some people get to have windows and views and others are crammed into artificially lit interior spaces. Here are basic needs: some degree of privacy, opportunities for both quiet and collaborative work, enough space to efficiently do the job, good lighting and temperature, furniture that doesn’t send you to the chiropractor, a glimpse now and then to the outside, and some modicum of individual control over the environment.

So why is this so difficult? Paint, carpet, and upholstery with a little color have got to be the same or nearly the same price as beige paint, carpet, and upholstery. Workers freed from furniture-induced neck cramps and given a view of nature, will, without question, be more productive. What I am itching to have is the freedom to design decent office environments and really workable workstations instead of punching out cookie cutter traditional spaces.

This outburst is triggered in part by the fact that my office is moving us from cubicle pods of four or five people (which are actually pretty nice, dispite Dilbert) to rows of workbenches all lined up in one big white room. About a third of the people have moved into the new space and the rest of us will move as soon as the retrofit is accomplished. I’ve been watching and listening and, so far, I haven’t heard anyone say they like the new arrangement. Some are diplomatic, saying “we’ll get used to it” or “that’s just the way it’s going to be”, but others are more frank, noting that the space is too bright, too noisy, and too public. I’ve heard complaints about lack of storage space, wobbly worktops, too-high desktops, distractions, and layout inefficiencies.

Although this space was designed before I started working at the firm, my impression is that the new arrangements were instituted mostly to fit more people into the real estate. Perhaps real estate is so expensive in DC that crowding is an economic necessity, but I really think there might have been some other way to achieve the same end. It’s possible that the new space is also meant to foster collaboration and innovation, but I haven’t heard anyone even mention these words.

I’m trying to reserve judgment until I have a chance to try the space out myself, but frankly I’m a little shocked. I know change isn’t easy and it’s possible that people are reacting more to the change than to the actualities of the new space, but from the sound of it (and the look of it), this new arrangement is not working.

I hate to admit it of my new profession, but sometimes practicality seems to take last place in the race to design something trendy. In this case it appears that the committee that designed this new workspace forgot to consider how architects and designers actually work and forgot everything they knew about privacy, distraction, and lighting. Chalk it up to a learning experience.

Water hyacinth

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Water hyacinth I started a new job three weeks ago and that, along with six credits of grad school, leaves me with little time to blog. Yesterday, however, I received the March 2007 issue of Fast Company, a magazine that rarely fails to inspire. I opened to page 28 and read a short piece about CA Boom, a design trade show in Santa Monica, California that runs from March 30 to April 1. Along with the usual cast of design-show characters, CA Boom makes a special effort to introduce “envelope-pushing independent designers”.

Pictured in the article was the Sushi Daybed, designed by Project Import Export‘s (PIE) Bannavis Andrew Sribyatta using the water hyacinth plant. The daybed is available directly from PIE or from Vivavi, InMod, and other vendors and was named one of Architectural Record‘s Product Reports 2006 winners. The daybed is gorgeous – sensuous, tactile, and soothing. That it is made from water hyacinth makes it especially intriguing.
Sushi daybed

Though it’s a pretty little plant, water hyacinth is billed as “one of the worst weeds in the world.” (See the US Department of Agriculture’s site for additional information and numerous links.) Here’s what the Western Aquatic Plant Management Society has to say about it:

Water hyacinth is listed as one of the most productive plants on earth and is considered one of the world’s worst aquatic plants. It forms dense mats that interfere with navigation, recreation, irrigation, and power generation. These mats competitively exclude native submersed and floating-leaved plants. Low oxygen conditions develop beneath water hyacinth mats and the dense floating mats impede water flow and create good breeding conditions for mosquitoes.

This weed has a dreadful reputation, so clearly any commercial use of the plant is an environmental plus. A quick Google search revealed several other manufacturers of water hyacinth furniture – some quite nice and others run-of-the-mill. What distinguishes PIE’s product, however, is its unabashed modernity. Besides furniture, the plant can be converted into the enzyme cellulase and is used in coffee processing, textile manufacturing, laundry detergents, the paper industry, for pharmaceutical and medical applications, and biofuels.

Kudos to PIE for making something beautiful from this noxious plant. As designers, we need to make a special effort to support sustainable efforts like these.


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.


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.

Revit, first take

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

I have just downloaded a 30-day trial of Revit Building 9, the building information modeling software from Autodesk, and have set about learning it. So far, the tutorials are going well – it seems to be easier to use than AutoCAD. Like all tutorials, however, the instructions lead you thorough a series of steps that accomplish some task, but don’t bother to explain why you use a particular command or what that command is actually doing. I can follow the steps and create the great-looking house or office that the tutorial builds, but at the end I have only a cursory understanding of what I did. This method of teaching software doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – without knowing what each command is actually doing and why it is doing what it is doing, how can I learn what to do in other situations? I do better if I can access a manual that explains each command in depth.

Nevertheless, building information modeling seems to be the latest and greatest thing in the AEC industry. In a nutshell, this software keeps all building information in a single file – from structure to finishes to furnishings. Changes in any place in the file are instantly updated in all other places. For example, changing the placement and type of a window in an elevation causes the change to show up on the corresponding floor plan and in the window schedule. This helps prevent mistakes and speeds up the design process. The software contains pre-defined building elements and components too. For example, a door type can be selected from a list and simply clicked into the model. I’m looking forward to becoming expert at this program.

Students can get Revit at reasonable prices from educational software vendors such as Academic Superstore, Campus Tech, Journey Ed, Software Express, Studica, and others. Check all the sites because the prices vary.

Dimming ballasts

Monday, December 11th, 2006

In both my lighting classes in my interior design program, I learned that dimming lights saves energy. For fluorescents, dimmable ballasts were billed as the next great thing for realizing energy savings in large commercial projects because they offered an opportunity to reduce wattage use in response to daylight. More available daylight meant lamps could be dimmed and energy would be saved. Apparently LEED credits are available for installation of programmable DALI systems that incorporate dimming ballasts (Indoor Environmental Quality Credit #6.1 and 6.2, “Controllability of Systems — Lighting”), presenting an additional incentive.

However, Stan Walerczyk, writing in the December 2006 issue of LD+A: Lighting Design + Application, the IESNA‘s magazine, says fluorescent dimming ballasts and their associated control systems are not always the solution. In Dimming Ballasts: Let the Buyer Beware, Walerczyk runs some scenarios comparing high performance dimming ballasts to high performance non-dimming options and concludes that the dimming systems do not always result in the highest cost savings. The amount saved depends on many factors, including natural daylight conditions, siting, light needs, cost of equipment and energy, and types of lamps and luminaires used. He contends that many of the same savings can be realized with simple and less expensive switching controls.

The wild card, however, is how people actually use the systems. Walerczyk’s informal poll of facility managers revealed that they don’t like the hassle of maintaining dimming systems and sometimes end up bypassing the systems altogether. In addition, dimming systems that work beautifully when first commissioned may not yield the same savings after a few years if instructions on how to use the system aren’t passed from one manager or owner to the next or if physical changes are made to the structure or the interior layout that alter how effectively daylight penetrates into the space.

Walerczyk suggests doing some homework before deciding whether to use a dimmable fluorescent system – running some realistic cost comparisons, comparing alternatives, and researching current literature. He has a good point. While it is important to incorporate as many energy-saving technologies into a building, it’s often too easy to go with the latest technology without taking the time to really assess if, over the long run, the technology delivers on its promise.