My last post was, in it’s unique fashion, an attempt to make the value proposition for architectural design. Some folks got it and quiet a few most certainly did not so I’d like to devote a series of posts to this complex, subtle, and essential endeavor

I’ve been a designer, artist, and crafts-type-person since I was a little kid.

Sidebar. Have you ever noticed how kids always draw houses? I think it’s cool that it’s almost always a sloped roof house with smoke billowing out of a ‘chimbley” drawn at a right angle to the roof slope, gravity be damned.

All this time and dedication to design and I’ve never been asked or have asked for “design” to be defined. What is it?

If we’re going to make the value proposition for design we need to know what it is.

We’re operating under the assumption that there is a big heading called “Design” and somewhere underneath this big heading is another big category called “Architecture”, another called “Engineering”, others called “Craft” and “Technology”.

This may or may not square with the observation that Architecture is the mother of all arts but let’s let the assumption stand for the purposes of our discussion, shall we?

Webster’s defines design as both a verb and a noun. Based on it’s Latin roots meaning “to mark” it is an action verb first and a noun by usage. Compare this to a noun that get’s “verbized” such as “fish”, or “summer”, etc.

It seems appropriate then to focus on the meaning of design as a verb.

One of the other many definitions in Webster’s is “to mean”. I like this as it speaks to the beautiful and intertwined relationship with “intention” that does get a lot of head-space in design school. Design is, possibly, a manifestation of intention. It is how we get from where we are (outside, shivering) to where we hope to be (inside, playing checkers and, in our aspirational green building world, in balanced concert with the natural systems that make the intentional possible).

The Webster’s definitions also focus on the efforts and effects of humans as essential to the act of design. I’m not sure I’m totally in agreement with this as it precludes the irrefutable existence of design in the natural world. Obviously design can operate without the efforts of humans. In fact, humans have been poor students of clearly superior natural ecological design.

Second sidebar: The Biomimicry movement is trying hard to correct this deficiency.

My endorsement of design as a potentially human-less activity in no way should be read as an endorsement of so called Intelligent Design which is neither intelligent nor particularly pertinent to design as I or Webster or many others struggle to describe it.

It is worth noting that chimpanzees use leaves of grass to collect ants to eat. This seems like culinary engineering to me. Is this not proof of the existence of design without human participation?

So to design is to plan, to devise, and to create a relationship between beings or entities (be they humans or chimps or ants or pine trees or material or the weather) and their environments and between one another; technology and craft are clearly implied.

If this or these definitions of design hold then we have to allow that the most in-artful , ugly, and in-elegant cobbling and construction are, in fact, design.

And if this is true then we should probably acknowledge that design is a matter of degree, of scale, of personal taste, and of situational appropriateness.

Thankfully one size does not fit all, eye of the beholder and whatnot.

Placed in a green building context, design is operational from the lowliest hovel, to the grandest mansion,  and up to the most austere high modernist pile.

And if this is so then getting the design “right” is a matter of finding the sweet spot of first cost, operational cost, environmental cost, comfort, fashion (arghh!)/ cultural perception, the law, and, most importantly, the user/occupants needs and expectations.

Sounds simple enough.

If this value proposition is to be made with any validity then this definition becomes critical.

Anyone else care to build on this definition?

I’d love to hear it.

Steve Farrell