The “Y” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Yearning Isn’t Enough.
Yearning for the perfect design opportunity is like waiting for the perfect lover.
A college education opens worlds of possibilities and inspires a yearning for realizing the potential of one’s chosen medium. But yearning isn’t enough. You need to find ways to make it happen.
How does opportunity happen?
Think of some of the seminal buildings of 20th Century architecture:
— Saynatsalo Town Hall by Alvar Alto
— Church on the Water by Tadao Ando
— Chapel and Convent of the Capuchinas by Luis Barragan
— Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry
— Chapel of Saint Ignatius by Steven Holl
— Kimbell Art Museum by Louis I. Kahn
— Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut by Le Corbusier
— Douglas House by Richard Meier
— Sidney Opera House by Jorn Utzon
— American Folk Art Museum by Tod Williams and Billie Tsein
— Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright
— Val Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor
Do you think the respective clients of the projects above were just sitting there awaiting those particular buildings to arrive? Absolutely not! Take Disney Hall for example. Several years ago I took the architectural audio tour of the building. The recording included architect Frank Gehry relating conversations he’d had with the patron Lillian Disney. At the outset of the project she described how she and Walt were enchanted by masonry castles of Europe, encumbered with climbing vines. She asked Frank Gehry to capture that spirit. There was assuredly no mention of curving stainless steel panels! And yet, she was presumably enchanted by the final built concert hall – with nary a vine or castle-like feature.
The point is, with rare exception does one encounter a patron who shares your yearnings / aspirations. Your job therefore doesn’t end with your being able to imagine a fabulous new world. You need to educate and excite others to join the expedition. And ideally, they are enlisting you to join on their own expedition simultaneously in the project. The best projects are those where client and architects are both realizing their own goals alongside others and finding themselves in a landscape of realization beyond their own ideas.
Realizing good design
To me, the phrase “realizing good design” is rather a double entendre. The first meaning is “becoming aware”, learning to understand and appreciate what good design is – like becoming a detective or connoisseur. The second meaning is “making it happen”. Our education and apprenticeship aim primarily at instilling mastery in the first arena. But it is unquestionably a mastery of the second arena which enables our success in practice.
How to make it happen
How do we as designers “make it happen”? Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer. It really comes down to learning what your own strengths are and how to use them effectively with others. And yet there are some general truisms, some of which have been touched upon earlier in the “Wisdom” series. For instance, having and displaying passion goes a long way. Passion tends to be contagious. Also, taking risks, or “having skin in the game” facilitates people believing in you and taking a risk with you – not having them feel like you’re asking them to assume all of the risks alone.
Most often though, making it happen involves your going the extra mile. This is where yearning is needed as a start. Yearning is what gets you to aspire to more than the client envisions or is asking for. The yearning is what drives you to come up with that idea that no one else has seen or even looked for. Harness that yearning to get yourself to find ways to make things happen – rather than waiting for people to realize the possibilities which you have to offer.
An example from design practice
Early in my career as an architect, my boss “handed off” an interior design project to me for a small town drugstore. Everyone, the client and my boss alike, looked at the project as “routine” without much room for creative input. The functional layout, largely predetermined by operational considerations for staffing efficiencies, resulted in the customer service pharmacy counter being positioned in the rear, as is often the case. The shelving and displays between the entrance and the counter, while critical for merchandizing, felt to be at odds with customer service in the rear.
Analyzing the problem I yearned for there to be some synergy, rather than conflict, between the merchandizing and customer service needs. I recalled the radial geometries of the stacks employed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in several of his libraries. Ultimately I was able to produce a design using radial display shelving (and accompanying radial overhead lighting) which resulted in a more inviting merchandizing environment and an emphasizing of the pharmacy counter. The “surprises” created between the interactions of the rectangular building shell and the radial interior fit-out enabled a richness of spaces for display, customer services and seating. The results exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Use a yearning for better design to serve as your springboard to exceed what’s expected.
Remember, Yearning isn’t enough.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter Y, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Yellow and Yellow-green, and a photo of a Yearning adventurer jumping to action.