Monthly Archives: September 2010

Learning to design: Question everything

We assume way too much. We see our environment and how we interact with it, and we assume everything around us will always be exactly the way it is. We assume the things that influence our lives have always been and will always be the way they are, that is, until something better comes along. (That something better is the reason why we no longer live in log cabins with dirt floors, or ride horses across town, or walk around jamming out while listening to our Sony Walkman.)

Designer’s block is as bad as writer’s block. Sometimes it’s not that you can’t come up with any good ideas, but rather you can’t dismiss the bad ideas in order to discover the good ideas. The bad ideas are filled with the status quo, the mundane, the banal – the stuff we see every single day of our lives. When I experience designer’s block and I’m staring at a design of mine, I typically fight it by trying to design something that is the exact opposite of what I’m looking at. I honestly don’t know what the opposite of a house design is, but I do know that the opposite of crappy is great.

American currency is definitely one of these everyday objects that we assume must always look the way it does. Ever since you were born (especially if you’re younger than 120 years old) our money has looked pretty much the same. Sure a few years ago the Presidents’ heads became larger (which has been an ongoing occurrence since Nixon), but isn’t it really the same? Maybe a few more safety attributes to deter counterfeiting, but it’s really the same.

What if our money didn’t have to be solely colored green? What if it was made of plastic? What if we used images of American accomplishments on our money? What if our country was better represented with people other than Presidents? What if, like our coins, our paper money was different sizes? (This would make it impossible to counterfeit a hundred-dollar bill from a legitimate twenty-dollar bill.)

Check out the images of American currency designs. (And do so without getting hung up on political differences and prejudices, which seems to be the norm in our current society.)

We have at our power a device that can help you find your destination, find the price of a good or service, and (if you’re lucky) can help you get a date. That device is called the question mark.

Use it.


Man space (our need for a Fortress of Solitude)

I believe man’s need for a man space began thousands of years ago, somewhere in southern France when early man realized that his paintings needed protection from the elements. He painted images of the animals he killed (and knowing him I’m sure he elaborated the number a little), and the first time he visited his buddy’s cave and saw how well detailed his buddy’s animal paintings were he went back to his cave and elaborated some more.

Building a man cave has become the definition and measurement of manliness. Everyone (and not just men) need his or her Fortress of Solitude, an escape from the doldrums of reality. There are those people who define themselves by widely accepted societal perceptions, sort of like how a commercial for a pickup truck makes you believe that owning their truck is the only way to convey to the rest of society that you’re worthy of manhood. (Side note – does anyone else truly believe that Denis Leary, an incredibly talented comedian born of Irish immigrants living near Boston, and spokesperson for Ford, has never owned a truck?)

The examples in this talk by Sam Martin show originality in how men convey their passions, and thus define their manliness in their own words. Being a man means not being afraid to define your own self in your own terms, and to not be defined by popular caricatures that offer the perception of true manliness. (I’m staring right at you Home Improvement television show.)

I think everyone should, at a minimum, write down their requirements for their Fortress of Solitude (or Bat Cave for all of you that prefer the Dark Knight over The Man of Steel).

The problem of customization

The practice of architecture has a lot of problems, but the one problem that is sometimes an asset is the issue of customization. Look around at where you live, what you wear, what you drive, and everything else you consume and you’ll discover that hardly any of those things are truly customized for you.

You probably live in a developer built neighborhood, and before you purchased the home you got to tell the builder what kind of cabinets you wanted, if you wanted wood floors are carpet, or if the basement was to be finished or not. But the truth is the family that lives two doors down from you have the same house as yours (oh, but they went with the additional single-car garage with the optional man-cave work bench). Your car. your clothes, and even your food was selected from a predetermined “menu” that allowed minor level of customization (like picking the color of your car, the size of your shirt, or the amount of crushed pepper on your steak).

This idea came to me while reading an essay called “Innovate or Perish: New Technologies and Architecture’s Future (David Celento) in the book Fabricating Architecture. (Link to book) The problem with customization is that it’s time-consuming, typically more expensive (more time = more money), and generally hard to get right. It’s usually easy to make a decision when you only have a handful of choices, but when the number choices creeps towards infinity things get very complicated.

An interesting argument the author makes against the case of customization is the concept of branding. There are a multitude of reasons why we buy the things we do, and one of those reasons is the perception that the product conveys. If you’re familiar with Consumer Reports, you’ll know that Range Rovers are the biggest pieces of junk on the road. Look at the reliability chart and the road test scores for any Range Rover model, and they will typically rate well below any other manufacturer’s model. But people still buy them, because Range Rover exudes a sense of financial success.

(You can probably attribute Range Rover’s success to its marketing department, and the fact that they sell their vehicles at a premium price. If Range Rovers sold for twenty thousand dollars they would be considered crap, but since they sell for over forty thousand dollars they’re an exquisite status symbol that’s a piece of crap.)

The problem with having a truly customized item is that there’s nothing to compare it to in regards to status. Having a house customized for you does exude a status symbol worthy of the patrons at the local country club, but is it more than the person that bought a house in a newly built New Urbanism neighborhood that was furnished with Martha Stewart finishes?

Does this mean that the future of practicing architecture involve working at design firms associated with high-profile branding icons like Martha Stewart, Candice Olson, or one of those contestants from the myriad of reality design shows? Are we as a society perfectly content with three choices and are no longer interested in having anything customized?