Friday, July 25, 2014

Design related quotes from "The Social Animal"

"A wide body of research has found that there are certain tastes that most people share. As Denis Dutton argues in The Art Instinct, people everywhere gravitate to a similar sort of painting - landscapes with open space, water, roads, animals, and a few people. A cottage industry has grown up to investigate this preference. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people everywhere prefer paintings of landscapes that correspond to African savanna, where humanity emerged. People generally don't like looking at dense vegetation, which is forbidding, or spare desert, which has no food. They like lush open grasses, with thickets of trees and bushes, a water source, diversity of vegetation including flowering and fruiting plants and an unimpeded view of the horizon in at least one direction. Some critics have noted that Kenyan's prefer pictures of the Hudson River School to pictures of their own native landscape. That's because, critics argue, the landscape near the Hudson River in New York state more closely resembles the African Savanna back in the Pleistocene era than does the present, and much drier, Kenya."


"More broadly, people like fractals, patterns that recur at greater levels of magnification. Nature is full of fractals: mountain ranges with peaks that greatly echo one another, the leaves and branches on trees, a copse of aspens, rivers with tributaries. People like the fractals that are gently flowing but not too complicated. Scientists even have a way to measure fractal density. Michael Gazzaniga illustrates the process in this example: Imagine that you were asked to draw a tree on a piece of paper. If you left the paper blank, that would have a D (fractal density) of 1. If you drew a tree with so many branches the paper was entirely black, that would have a D of 3. Humans generally prefer patterns with a fractal density of 1.3 - some complexity, but not too much."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

the attention span for beauty

I'm not sure how I feel about what I'm writing, because it makes me really feel like part of the machine, but here it goes. (Also, it will upset some artists out there - good, we need to have a dialogue). I would imagine I spend about 80 percent of my time outside during the work week with my eyes either glued on a screen or looking down at cracks in, or ice on, the sidewalk. It leaves me little time to observe or absorb much beauty in the built environment. Sure I perceive things and quickly put them in the "go, no-go" directory of my visual opinion, but that's about all I do.

Now a lot of this is due in large part to the 9-5 commute rush and hurried lunch breaks since we live in America and not the 'laze as you please European Union.' With that said, it's a sad excuse for not paying more attention to the beauty of details or wide sweeping forms around me. I'm saying this from the perspective of a designer, even more sad. It's easy to say change and spend more time appreciating, but it's not an easy balance. Perhaps this a bigger conversation outside of design and more on the culture of work in the American context. ANYWAY.

While I'm sitting on the subway or the bus, or power walking my self through the city streets, I always get to thinking about the role of beauty in the built environment. What does it mean for the year 2013, the younger generations and the future? In a time where most people part of a younger generation can find things of more intrigue on the Internet than the composition of space and textural patterning of planting - as an example - it makes me wonder if design moving toward performance based measurement is just evolution, after all.  

The focus on measuring success in the landscape seems to be more intriguing to many people than beauty. There's certainly already reasons for this other than the pace of life in the contemporary world: economic bottom line, environmental consciousness, community development - to name a few. If we were to go to a town or city today and say, we want to do this because it will be beautiful, the likelihood of something actually being built isn't very likely. But, if we say we can provide a design that will have measurable success for items ranging from environment to community, then the likelihood of getting it built goes up. 

Measurement trumps beauty? Perhaps.

So, what's the point? As designers we should be considering the role of art in design now more than ever. Particularly in the public sector where decision making based on proof and evidence is beginning to be weighted much higher than artistic value, how do we respond as design firms? Will sticking to a mantra of artist as designer work or do we need to move toward designer as artist, ecologist, engineer, scientist, policy maker, planner, public health expert?

My belief is that we need to become a profession of collaborators. Art for the sake of art isn't enough to design spaces that will last, nor be appreciated for the long term. Especially when the attention span for beauty is less and less, we need to create spaces of depth - not just a single dimension of being beautiful or not beautiful. There needs to be more to design than layout and composition - it needs to do something, perform in a way that makes a positive impact. 

Sure, even if only a few people appreciate the beauty, it needs to be beautiful as well. But, if we leave it at that, we're missing the point.

Friday, February 8, 2013

don't settle for best. work harder.

I read an article recently about quitting your job. It was interesting, yes, and provocative, too. If you're bored with life, your job and witnessing your goals, hopes, dreams, aspirations, world changing surges starting to fade or already faded, read these 10 reasons right now.

After you finish reading it once or twice, there's one thing that may have popped out. If not, let me give you my observation in a quick paragraph.

The notion of dreaming and doing big things is intellectually beautiful. But realities are not cheap. They take work, a lot of fucking hard, grueling and, most times, seemingly unrewarding work for long stretches at a time. 

So, I think point 11 on the 10 point list should be: WORK. WORK HARDER. DON'T SETTLE FOR YOUR BEST, EVER. 

Best is nice, but best means that you're not going to be better. That's pretty weak. Especially when we're talking about doing something that really is about following dreams and making them into realities. 

So, if we're looking to do something that matters, that gives us purpose, we can't be afraid to work hard. Further, we can't be afraid to fail. Because we will fail, a lot. But, if it's your dream it's up to you to follow it until it becomes a reality. And when it does, know that it's going to take more hard work to sustain it. 

Now let's all go do something big, pursue whatever it is that we believe in and not sit back waiting for something to be handed to us.   

Thursday, December 13, 2012

collaboration in competition

I entered the Detroit by Design Riverfront Competition with an architect, urban designer and graphic designer as an experiment in collaboration. While we didn't win, it was a unique experience to learn how other design disciplines think - both about space and concept. You can take a look at our submission, and all the others, at the competition home page.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

agriculture and education

I recently developed and spoke on a panel at the ASLA 2012 conference in Phoenix titled, "Beyond Food Production: Agriculture and Landscape Architecture in the 21st century." Grow City published a post reflecting on this session as well as another session pertaining to local food and the educational value of agriculture in design. 

I am happy that there is a continued interest in the topic of local food, and in particular, that the notion of diversity of programming the agricultural landscape is discussed. While the Grow City post focused on the educational aspect of designing for food, it highlighted (whether intended or not) the fact that the possibilities of local food production are nearly endless. 

We can think of food on numerous scales, consider it as an educational tool, an outlet, a recreational program, or as a planning tool as well as a piece of urban infrastructure. 

Of course, a shout out to Rutgers University Professor Holly Nelson on her part of the panel as the main focus of the Grow City post!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


I was recently shown an article about overt consumerism from Domain Design that poses an interesting question:

What is the impact of extreme wealth on design and what is the role of design professionals when retained to participate in obscenely expensive projects?

The article discusses the role of branding in design as well as in development and construction. I, for one, believe there is a place for branding and marketing in the world of design - just not necessarily in a way that creates predictable architecture, devoid of place and cultural identity. I believe that individual designed landscapes and buildings have a great potential to be marketed and branded as a way to define their identity and place in an ever-fluid culture - i.e. The Highline, Brooklyn Bridge Park. However, the idea of branding a certain style of architecture or a certain composition of landscape to be essentially mass produced as if it's for sale on the global market, defeats the purpose.

Architecture is not commodity. Landscape is not commodity. Most people will say, 'ok, well you just contradicted your above statement about branding. How can you brand and market something and remain luxury over commodity?' Simple. It goes back to the idea of designing something very much "of the place," specially designed to blend with culture, tradition, while at the same time being very much of the time. Some of the most used or recognizable buildings and landscapes are the ones that are unique to their region, city or community but at the same time very well developed in their image, their program, their fun-factor, for lack of a better term.

So this brings up the next question. How can you brand and market your firm and remain unpredictable, unique and visionary? Look at Apple, for one (of course, prior to the last few quarters since they've become miserably predictable). If we brand our firm identity as energetic, fun, innovative and curious then we can continue to advance built work, intellectual concepts and the design fields at large. This is synonymous with the notion of the individual building or landscape that is well branded, but still, 'of the place.' However, once we develop a style, or a kit of parts and that becomes our brand and our identity it's harder and harder to transcend that. This is synonymous with an architectural style or landscape composition as mass commodity (ok, modernism was cool for a minute).

But, think about it: how do we want to be perceived as a firm? As a profession? There's a role for branding and marketing as well as a fine line for its effectiveness or its detriment.