The “U” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Uncover What Is Unique.

Look beyond the common denominator to find and express qualities of uniqueness.

If our work as designers is to have continued vitality and relevance it is essential that we look with greater specificity into the nature of each project, rather than settle for ready-made solutions.


Digging deep

Let’s tackle the Uncover portion of the “U” wisdom first. Incumbent on any professional is the need for mastery of one’s craft. That necessitates a depth of interest and experience on the part of the practitioner. We are sought out by clients because we have far more than a superficial knowledge of our field. The best of clients and projects are those that demand our fullest of attentions, experience and passions. They require us not only to bring to bear much of what we have already learned, but also dig deeper – to analyze, research, and uncover things not previously known.

It is this digging process itself that is so critical to making one’s art form vital and alive. In a word: authentic. Authenticity can be defined as decisions which originate in response to a specific situation. In other words: situation-specific thinking and discovery – not the application of pre-conceived notions. Digging deep is a process of close observation and precise response.

At the very least this process assures results which are more than superficial, and at best, resonate profoundly.

Taking a risk?

At the core of an architect’s job is providing for human safety and comfort. Licensure includes the obligation that we put first and foremost the health, safety and welfare of the public. This doesn’t inspire risk-taking. Furthermore, the construction of buildings is time-consuming and expensive. As such, buildings aren’t (and shouldn’t be) readily disposable commodities. In light of these things, it’s not surprising that many clients (and many architects) are in fact risk-averse. I’m not talking here about fear of their roof leaking – I’m talking about fear of doing something other than “conventional practice”.

Unfortunately, all too often, as designers we are sought out precisely for what worked for our last client. Or, even worse, we are called upon to apply a defined style or solution-pattern to a project (i.e. Classical, Modern or “Green”) – to imply status, confer “membership”, or be “of the moment”. Our biggest challenge then as designers is to convince clients to pursue what will work best for them – not simply to try and copy the success of someone else.

Celebrating uniqueness

So, let’s move to the “uniqueness” portion of the “U” wisdom. Uniqueness is an uneasy topic. While on the one hand it often cause for celebration (exemplified by an object such as a rare gem, or a person who is extremely gifted in some way), on the other hand, it is often the source of discomfort and ridicule – a perceived threat to the status quo or what is “right” or “normal”.

Let’s think about people. Think about people you’d call unique – people that you know personally, not celebrity profiles. What makes them unique is the combination or juxtaposition of qualities they possess, or the degree to which they possess them. It’s not as though they are from another planet.

The lesson here is that uniqueness needn’t be extreme or freakish. As one matures, one sees uniqueness, not in manner of appearance, but in manner of being. Our uniqueness is made manifest in how we look into the nature of things and take specific actions, based on our skills and perceptions.

A specific time, place and culture

As of late I’ve returned to re-reading the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz. His core philosophy, which I first encountered in his book Genius Loci: Towards A Phenomenology of Architecture, was that the noblest achievement one could aspire to as an architect was to capture the time, place and culture present at the nexus of a particular project. The idea is that in paying the closest attention to the specifics of what is at hand, you will create works which resonate so strongly that they have the potential to become transcendent.

This resonance is about discovering and revealing the essence of something – finding something inherent as opposed to applying something extrinsic as a novelty. It seems so straight forward. Why is it so rarely observed?

An example from design practice

As should be evident by now, the uniqueness I’ve been referring to isn’t larger-than-life, outlined in bright, flashing LED lights. The uniqueness is about specificity of place and meaning, and can be embodied in small and subtle ways. Indeed, the power of uniqueness is often most profoundly felt when it arrives in a whisper rather than a shout.

A recent project of mine was a seaside vacation house. As with any project, the majority of design time spent had to do with gracefully achieving functional objectives. Throughout the course of the project though, there were always opportunities to express the meaning and nature of this particular project.

Here’s one small example. The living room had a set of shelves and cabinets along one side. The view from the living room overlooked what was perhaps the oldest resident of the property, a small gnarled cedar tree. While few might make the connection between what is growing outside the window to the cabinetry installed within, I chose cedar as a subtle link. It was the particulars of the wood graining of the cabinetry however that conveyed a more visceral connection to the place.

Although the cedar boards were simply plain-sawn boards, they had been cut slightly off-axis, creating highly figural “ripples” of alternating heart and sapwood oval rings – evoking the ripples of nearby bodies of water. The cabinets then, through the specific choices of wood and unique grain, give extra resonance and meaning to being at this particular place in the world – of sea and cedars.

By understanding and expressing in your projects, the unique specifics of place, time and cultural context, your work will resonate as an authentic experience.

Remember, Uncover what is unique.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic features the letter U, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Ube and Umber, and a photo of Unique “ripples” of wood grain on cabinets.