The “V” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Value Others’ Space.
Architects’ value in shaping space shouldn’t end with the physical environment.
As designers our work is in creating meaningful relationships among things and people. An important tool for doing this is practicing with grace. That means shaping a different kind of space.
It’s all about relationships
As designers, we’re all familiar with ideas of composition and finding balance – creating relationships among lines, shapes, colors, surfaces and materials to achieve elegant results. First and foremost we are shapers of visual and physical space. But what lies beyond the mastery of form-making?
Our work is ultimately about people. Architecture finds its purpose and identity in what it means to people. In other words, beyond mere form-making, designing is fundamentally about structuring relationships with people and for people.
These relationships, personal relationships, are of two types. One is found in the process of creating: the relationships along project participants, from client to contractor and everyone in between. The other is the unique relationship (meaning or bond) a user finds in experiencing the completed work – how it connects with their own life. A design tool (not taught in design school), which addresses both, is learning how to practice with grace to achieve positive relationships.
What is grace? It is the form or elegance of how we practice our art, and shoulder difficulties.
What is graceful? A balanced resolution of forces, evidenced in elegant or beautiful forms or actions.
What does it mean to be gracious? Graciousness is about valuing others – not assuming that you know their situation, or that your own perceptions or preferences trump theirs.
It’s about giving space.
If I had to sum it all up, I’d say grace is: elegant balancing among others.
First rule of composition
If you go back to Composition 101, the first rule is that the spaces are as important as the figures. They help define one another. In achieving balance then, grace is found in space-making.
In terms of shaping personal relationships, this form of space-making, is largely about allowing time. Time-allowing enables participants in a creative process to:
— Assess and appreciate others’ viewpoints
— Gain fresh perspective and clarity
— Find common ground and create alternatives
Practicing with grace
Grace is a calmness granted — enabling individuals to see below a discordant surface, to a deeper reservoir of shared purpose.
In other words, practicing with grace allows participants to find their bearings, assess options and shape their relationship to an experience or environment. If I am graceful with myself, I am allowing myself to take the time to understand and reconcile what I am experiencing. In being graceful to others, I am granting them time to take stock and find their own balance in a situation.
Working with your team
Let’s talk about the role of grace among participants in the creative process. Rather than pushing your agenda on a given project, make space to listen and find perspective. Grant others the respect that their ideas are as valid as your own. There’s great value in taking the time to understand your client’s questions and educating them, to help them understand what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. In fact, learn to understand the goals of everyone on your team.
Practicing grace leads to a stronger team and results in work which is also stronger. Not only that, but the results are held more dearly – participants are far more invested in owning the results. Remember, true graciousness demands that you have time for others. You always have time. You grant it to others without obligation. That is the gift of being gracious.
Grace for users
How can we offer grace to others who experience our completed work? If I were to personify design work, I’d say, your work should allow the user to enter into conversation with it. Carrying that further, your work shouldn’t pretend to know everything and have the last word. As I previously articulated in “L is for Leave Leavening”, your work should be more of a lattice – accepting others elaborations – than a brick wall, affording no further passage.
In being gracious to users of our work, we grant them the means, the emotional and intellectual space to apprehend, appreciate and find themselves in the spaces and objects we have created.
An example from design practice
It is the fourth dimension that gets everyone into trouble most often. What am I talking about? Time. More than anything else, when I look back at a situation gone wrong, the source of the problem stemmed from time – more specifically, from time not taken.
One version of not taking time is: “I’ve got to get this (whatever) finished in time for a deadline.” This means getting to a result prematurely – a shortcutting of the necessary preparations. OK, you make your deadline, and the next one, and the next one and get to a completed building. Then the client or user walks into it and says: Huh? This isn’t what I: a) wanted, b)expected, and/or c)was told. Oops.
What happened? You didn’t provide space in the process. You didn’t allow for a graceful unfoldment of communication, deliberation and rooting of ideas. The consequence for those who don’t manage the relationships along the way with grace is that they find themselves picking up the pieces of the resulting wreckage afterword.
As we practice with grace, we grant for ourselves and others’ the space to reconcile their experiences and achieve elegance in what they do.
Remember, Value others’ space.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter V, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Viridian and Violet, and a photo of Very graceful ballerinas.