The “L” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Most times the best answers (and designs) are open-ended and invite further inquiry.
Ever been in a conversation with a “know-it-all”? First, it’s not really a conversation if someone feels they already have all the answers. Great design, however, is like good conversation: it invites participation.
Leavening is essentially a fermentation process used in baking to produce air bubbles that cause breads to rise. The metaphor here is about making space – literally and figuratively. Without leavening, breads can be dense and impenetrable. As a designer, you’re creating (in whatever medium) objects, performances, or buildings that you want others (your audience or user) to find engaging and accessible. For our purposes, then, leavening is about providing space for audience members to inhabit in some form – physically, emotionally and/or intellectually.
Leaving room for the imagination
Think of a world devoid of imagination. Everything would be reduced to nuts-and-bolts knowledge. Just the facts. There would be no room for “What if?” Without imagination, our world would be a pretty dull, predictable, mechanistic environment.
It might be tempting to say that imagination is in the eye of the beholder. After all, anyone who’s spent any time around young children has witnessed their endless capacity to imagine all sorts of amazing things in the most banal of environments – like the laundry basket transformed into an intergalactic space station. But simply to leave imagination to the beholder is a cop-out by you, the designer — and a serious lost opportunity for the audience.
An essential mission of a designer is to engage others – to provide room and encouragement to experiment, wonder and fill in the blanks. Leavening is what makes the design all the more engaging for the consumer.
Leaving room for serendipity
Besides creating space for the consumer’s imagination, you need to leave room for serendipity. By serendipity, I mean chance encounters or juxtapositions, or more fundamentally, room for discovery. In this sense, “leave leavening” means allowing some openness for spontaneous and even quirky personal responses, which in turn means surrendering some control over how other people will experience your design. Like a place without room for the imagination, a hermetically self-contained “know-it-all” design is also dead. Having chance encounters is an essential part of the human condition.
Making room for serendipity is easily illustrated in architectural practice. Dating back to at least when Louis I. Kahn was designing the Salk Institute laboratories, there was increasing awareness that scientific breakthroughs weren’t the sole provenance of the lone scientist toiling in his laboratory, but rather often occurred at the nexus of private reflection and collegial exchange. At least since that time, we’ve understood that providing space for random social interaction can be as essential as places for structured work in learning and research environments.
Think about it this way: If students were found to learn best from staring at an instructor or display surface, why would any classrooms have windows? The passing bird may offer more to the lesson than anyone might expect!
An example from design practice
As this “Design Wisdom” series has evolved, I’ve realized that I use the label “design practice” to mean any form of creative authorship for public consumption. In that sense, it applies to virtually all artistic fields — so it’s not unfitting that I turn to creative writing as the source of an example from design practice.
Back in college, I took a writing class as an elective. It was a crash course in looking structurally at stories – with the twin goals of increasing our appreciation of the craft of writing and helping us write better ourselves.
One of the exercises involved writing a careful description of a specific place from memory. It was important that it not be an invented place, but rather a real place from our personal experience… a place we knew intimately. We then exchanged papers with another student and silently read each other’s place descriptions. Finally, the entire class was given a list of specific questions such as: How big was the place? What was the predominant color? How would you describe the smell of the place? How did the place make you feel? What kind of light was there?
We had to answer the questions based on the other person’s description. The results amazed me. I had described my grandmother’s long wooden Greek Revival porch in Upstate New York, choked with concord grape vines in the summertime. My partner in the exercise intuited some answers right in line with my own memory – the size of the porch, for example. Other characteristics, like the quality of light and sense of feeling I had in the place, were rendered in a quite different (but very compelling) way by the other student – based on his own sensibilities.
The “take-away” for me was two-fold. First, as definitively as we might try to “nail down” every detail of our project, some features will inevitably remain (and should remain) ambiguous. Secondly, a reader (or viewer, or audience member) must be able to find room in your design to inhabit and make their own. In that long-ago classroom exercise, I realized that “my” place description became richer for having shared it with someone who could enhance it with his own perceptions.
If you’re designing to engage an audience, your work shouldn’t end the conversation. It must leave space for the imagination and serendipitous discoveries.
Remember, Leave Leavening.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter L, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Lapis Lazuli and Liver, and a photo of statues which Leave us wondering.