The “F” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Find the Figure.
When was the last time you were accused of not seeing the forest for the trees?
In our caffeinated, attention-deficit inducing Information Age, the deluge of imagery in our daily lives makes it far more likely that you’ll fail to notice, let alone get captivated by, individual trees. And yet, successful design requires that we recover the ability to do so.
As a designer you’re typically hired to solve a specific problem. It could be designing a website or a skyscraper. Sometimes your client comes to you without a clue about where to begin because the problem seems so complicated. Other times, what looks like a simple task at the outset quickly gets bogged down in conflicting details and secondary agendas. Either way, most design projects at some point run the risk of capsizing under too heavy a burden of options and information. How do you work through all the details to find a cohesive solution? Where do you begin?
Your primary skill as a designer isn’t your likeness to a computer, crunching huge multi-variable simultaneous equations. Your skill is in your subjectivity (and your persuasiveness, but we’ll get to that in a subsequent article). What’s the root word of subjectivity? Subject. A singularity. A point of reference selected by someone with a unique vision, just as an artist selects the central figure for a portrait or still life painting.
But let me be clear: while the “figure” I’m talking about can be a concrete object, like a table or a tree, it doesn’t need to be. It can be a color, shape, concept, or feeling. The essential idea is that whatever it is, it is a palpable entity. This thingness can be achieved in many different ways, but the result is in differentiating one tree as unique within the forest. It is the capturing of focus that enables meaning to be created and savored. As a designer, one of your most valuable skills lies in making this subjective choice of what that the focus or figure of a given project will be.
Putting a Stake in the Ground
Think of going on a camping trip. At some point you’ll need to find a spot to spend the night. More often than not, you select that spot by finding a figure that serves as a focal point. It might be a view to a distant mountain or the flatness of a large rock at your feet. Finding a figure gives you a starting point. Establishing that figure puts everything else in some kind of relationship to it. Rather than roaming aimlessly in an undifferentiated forest, your perceptions and actions become relational to the thing you’ve claimed.
Granted, having found the figure doesn’t mean your work is done. Think of it as Thomas Edison’s 1% inspiration in relation to the remaining 99% perspiration of work. You still have to shape the subsequent relationships with everything else to make them meaningful and positive. But once you’ve settled on the focal point or theme of your project, you’ve essentially built the foundation for everything that follows.
An Example from Design Practice
A project of mine currently nearing completion is a residential retreat with guesthouse in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine. The client acquired the site for its primal natural qualities – a lakefront property surrounded by a mature forest, mostly hemlock. As with any project it had its share of impediments. The 10-acre site had three major zones: a moderately sloped portion which had previously been logged a decade earlier, a steeply sloped portion with virgin forest, and a low, boggy wetlands area. The most readily accessible portions of the site had previously been left visibly scarred from the earlier logging activity. The areas of greatest beauty and best views were deep within the site, heavily forested and steeply sloped with rock ledges just below the surface. The wetlands areas, of course, were environmentally protected and needed to be kept intact.
From the outset of the project it was clear that how we dealt with the existing conditions of the site would be the key to success. We gathered as much information about the site as possible, including surveying the slopes, mapping the major trees, and assessing view sheds. So, you could say we began with a soft- focus impression of site, without knowing the key to knitting the assets and challenges of the site together into a seamless whole.
At some point during our surveying I saw one remarkable tree — a mature hemlock — whose deeply textured bark was being highlighted by the direct rays of a late afternoon sun. Suddenly I realized that the central motif of our project would be a tree – more specifically, seeing a tree through the forest. The story of trees became our narrative glue – starting with reclaiming much of the original logging road as our site access. The largest area of the logging slash became a meadow within which we sited the guesthouse. The site for the main house was nestled into the wooded hillside, enabling approaching visitors to view past the house, through the under-canopy silhouettes of tree trunks down to the shimmering blue surface of the lake below.
While much of our effort was spent in preserving trees and shaping views of them (and through them), some trees inevitably required removal. Rather than treating them as nuisance waste, we chose to transform them into a featured element of our project. With careful handling we stacked the felled trees under a temporary shelter and air-cured them into building-usable logs. The logs became the “signature” front features of both houses – serving as loggia columns on the guesthouse and primary exposed structural elements for the roof and porches of the main residence. A visit to the property now inspires admiration for the many faces of trees, in all their forms of beauty and strength.
Finding a specific idea or object to provide a palpable presence in a project enables you to build meaningful relationships with the greater whole.
Remember, Find the Figure.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter F, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Fuchsia and Flax, and a photo of a Forest