Design is Design is Design. Period.

In my every day interactions, I receive a lot of questions from people outside the design industry, confirming my belief that design is rather misunderstood by the public at large.  I believe there are numerous reasons for the prevalence of some common misconceptions, and in an attempt to explain a few of them I will likely only scratch the surface.

Though I am only formally educated in one design discipline—interior design—I believe there is much crossover between disciplines as far as design process, thinking, and theories go.  Each discipline—whether it is graphics, web, industrial, interiors, architecture, fashion, etc.—has its own inherent intricacies and unique properties but conceptually speaking, design is design is design.

Recently I was asked, “What kind of design?” in response to my statement that I write about design.  As I responded with, “All things design, in relation to society and culture,” I was met again with the same question: “But what kind of design?”  I then found myself approaching an intense monologue, explaining that our entire world is designed: the chair I’m sitting on, this glass, this napkin, this space we’re in.

Design is everywhere and everything.  This concept is lost on most, though I personally take every opportunity I have to share my thoughts on the subject.

Another recent question I received, “Why are you writing about architecture when you studied interior design?” again broaches the same subject, but I have to address this topic more specifically.  Too often when I speak the words, interior design, I literally cringe at the responses I receive: “Oh fun!” or “I always wanted to do that!” or “I need your help!”  Basically, it is assumed that an interior designer just makes things pretty.

Thanks to cable television and the invasive species of one version or another of Decorators-R-Us, many people think interior design is all about sewing pillows and curtains and—I don’t know—maybe choosing a new matching set of toilet paper holders and toothbrush cups for Sally’s new bathroom in her McMansion.  Alas, it is not.  Interior design is about making spaces where people will live, work, shop, play, and exist.  It is, essentially, the architecture of a building’s interior.

[It is indeed a problem that anyone who chooses to call himself or herself an interior designer can do so.  Some states have legislation regarding this issue, but my home state is still lacking.]

I must break the news: an interior design education at an accredited university doesn’t come with sewing lessons.  Technically speaking, it comes with much more “fun” stuff—like structural and mechanical systems, construction documents, and nitty-gritty detail work that has a tendency to make one (read: me) want to poke her eyes out and run for the hills.

In part, it is these misconceptions that led to my frustration with the industry.  Misconceptions don’t appear out of nowhere; there must be a bit of truth to them, or how would they exist?

On the other hand, it is mostly the idea that design is everywhere and everything that makes me both love and hate it at the same time.  The fact that everything we touch, live with, and interact with on a daily basis is the result of some form of design leads me to the premise that design is, in part, about power.  A clever designer can mold a person’s behavior, shape society, shape life.  It is, at once, scary and exciting.  As with any power, abuse is far more than a possibility; and is often more likely a probability.  Throw ego into the mix and what do you have?  Often, a disaster.

As a result of my discontent with much of the design-world status quo, I began a quest to discover the other side of design.  And I did in fact come across some people and projects that turn the “design = power” scenario upside down—making it a useful, rather than abused, thing.

Project M

During a visit to Hale County, Alabama to study Rural Studio, I learned of Project M—a program inspired by Rural Studio and its co-founder, Samuel Mockbee.  Project M is essentially the graphic design counterpart to architecture’s Rural Studio.  It is a program designed to inspire young graphic designers and other creatives to utilize their skills in a way that positively impacts society.  Project M’s simple motto is: “We just want to change the world.”  They operate under the manifesto that “ability equals responsibility.”

That, I can get behind.

During the summer of 2007, Project M participants took their work to Hale County, where they searched for a project that would best utilize their services. They discovered one-quarter of Hale County’s residents did not have access to clean drinking water, and determined this was an important issue they could help resolve. They created a program called Buy A Meter, which connected residents who were drinking from contaminated shallow wells to the municipal water system, for $425 per household. Working collaboratively, charrette-style, Project M participants designed a series of newsprint advertisements to solicit donations that would give families access to clean water. In addition to Buy A Meter, Project M became a permanent resident in Hale County through its Design Lab—a studio and workspace for Project M participants and visiting designers to stay and work in Hale County.

PieLab and (blank)Lab

As direct descendents of Project M, PieLab and (blank)Lab are prime examples that demonstrate innovation of ideas, and turning ideas into actions.  PieLab—in Greensboro, Alabama—is part pie shop, part community resource and design center.  With such a simple, yet beautiful concept: PIE + CONVERSATION = IDEAS and IDEAS + DESIGN = POSITIVE CHANGE, I can’t help but marvel at its innovation blanketed in simplicity.

(blank)Lab, working under another simple equation: MOBILITY + DESIGN = POSSIBILITY, is a mobile studio, traveling the country to unite communities and designers.  As the name would indicate, it seems to work under the guise of not specifically defining itself, leaving the process open to what may happen along the way, though the program’s intentions have been stated: “The conversations that will naturally occur when disparate groups are introduced, possibly for the first time, will be the catalyst for design projects meant to foster positive change.”  It seems, in essence, to be a thinking machine.

Project H

Project H Design (not to be confused with Project M) is a non-profit product design organization aimed at creating “initiatives for Humanity, Habitats, Health, and Happiness.”  Again, founded on the belief that design can change the world, Project H “connects the power of design to the people who need it most, and the places where it can make a real and lasting difference.”  Project H is run entirely by volunteer designers, and has a special focus on projects that directly enhance and affect education and experiences for youth.

Project types are wide ranging; to name but a few:

  • Learning Landscapes–a playground system that integrates math learning with play;
  • Empowerment through Food–an urban farming and school farmer’s market program designed to teach ecology, health, and business skills within academia;
  • Safe Spaces–a concept development project to create “engaging, comforting, and inspiring therapy solutions” for children in foster care.

It is projects such as these that have the ability to turn my feelings of cynicism to those of optimism.  I can’t agree more with Project M’s motto of ability equaling responsibility.  This is not to say that every designer in the world should work entirely in philanthropic ways, but I do believe it is important for anyone wielding the designer’s power to be cognizant of this power and what it means in a cultural and social sense.  To forget that design—in all its realms—is about humanity, is to ignore the core purpose of design.  To be devoted to design holistically, one must also be devoted to those for whom the designs are created.

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Photo Essay: Portland Graffiti Part Two

Another round of photos taken in Portland–this time on NE Alberta.  While I’m not sure Portland is, in any way, a hotbed for serious quality graffiti or other street art, it has been interesting to notice that once I open my eyes to it, it is indeed everywhere in the city…

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

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Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

What Language Does Design Speak?

Design, in all its contexts, communicates.  Imagery, text, physical location and context, connotations–it all sends a message.  And we all interpret messages differently, depending on our own knowledge, education, preconceived beliefs or ideas, among numerous other factors.

The images below are taken from a currently vacant site on the outskirts of Portland’s Pearl District.  The sign is part of an on-site advertising campaign for what I presume to be a new condominium tower.  The two images represent opposite sides of one sign.

I’d like to know what these images communicate to you (and you, and you, and you!).  Anything and everything–whether it be the actual message, the signage, the location, etc.  I would like to publish some responses as part of the post, so get commenting!

Photo Essay: Portland Graffiti

As a follow-up to my recent post on graffiti and New York City’s High Line, I thought it appropriate to do a little exploration of the state of graffiti in my own city.  These photographs were shot during a few hours of an overcast, drizzly Sunday in Southeast and Northwest Portland.  Some pieces are more significant than others, in the context of their art.  However, I believe it all to be collectively significant in telling the story–even the visibly painted over.  Let the photos speak:

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Photo by Audrey Alverson | Nov 2009

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An unsuccessful design? Not so fast…

I’ve long questioned the idea of successful design, and how we go about determining the definition of successful. Design is a big word—much bigger than its physical stature would imply—so I’ll not make any blanket statements here about whether this question I’m posing applies to all things design.  I’ll just use a specific scenario as an example from which to pose the question.

I spent a year of my life searching for the answer to this question—as I studied the work, the process, and the people of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—for my own thesis project in design school.  I was drawn to this particular program because of its inherent humanitarianism—providing architecturally designed homes and community buildings for impoverished people in rural Alabama—people who, under any typical circumstance, would never have access to an architect.

Rural Studio is a pedagogical anomaly in architecture schools, as its purpose is as much sociological as it is architectural.  Students are required to leave their university homes and live within the small, rural communities where they design and build.  In the process, many societal lines are blurred, including racial ones—as white middle class students work closely with extremely poor African American residents.  Not your typical architect-client relationship, for sure.

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

I recently attended a Portland screening of “The Rural Studio,” a 2002 documentary about this program.  After having been to Alabama earlier this year on a research mission, I was mostly curious to see this film because of its relatively outdated status.  I realize 2002 was not that long ago, but Rural Studio has only been around since 1993, and when Samuel Mockbee, its co-founder, died in 2001, a change in leadership naturally led to an evolution of the program that wasn’t evident at the time this film was made.  I was curious to see how the program would be portrayed, and interested to view the film with my newly gained ‘more informed’ perspective.

By conventional views, two of the major projects profiled in the film would likely be considered failures, due to their statuses today.  But maybe conventional views don’t always apply?

The design-build process of the Sanders/Dudley house, built for a young woman with six children, was chronicled in the film: Interviews with students and the client were paired with footage of interactions between them, and footage of students physically building the home.  For anyone who believes in the power of doing good, acts of kindness, and the power of design, it is an emotionally heart-wrenching scenario to watch.  I observed others viewing the film, and could see them visibly moved.  I was moved as well.  It was the perfect portrayal of the entire reason I chose to study this program in the first place—because it is about people.  But I had this nagging little morsel of doubt, of defiance, swirling around in my head—because I knew what happened with this house after all was said and done.

As of February 2009, when I was in Alabama, the Sanders/Dudley house remained vacant, even though it was built some eight years prior.  From what I understand, the client—for one reason or another—did not like the house once it was complete, and chose not to move into it.  Her preference instead was the doublewide mobile home on the same property, adjacent to the new house Rural Studio built for her.  [One of the conditions of the Rural Studio “charity” houses is that there are virtually no conditions.  This home was given as a gift, with no expectations.  It was handed over, and the new owner may do with it whatever she pleases.]

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Sanders/Dudley Site: Rural Studio house on left; mobile home where the family lives on right. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

Another project profiled in the film, the Glass Chapel, might also be seen today as somewhat unsuccessful.  While I know of no story with the Glass Chapel as dramatic as the story of the Sanders/Dudley house, the building appears as though maybe it’s unused, with the surrounding vegetation taking over a bit.  Regardless of its status today, my preference with this building is to sing its praises, as I believe it is a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity—of turning trash into something useful.  With a rammed earth structure made from local clay, and a roof composed of 1980s GMC sedan windows salvaged from a scrap yard, this building speaks volumes about what can be created with material resourcefulness.  For that reason, it is probably my favorite Rural Studio building.

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Glass Chapel: roof of salvaged car windows | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The film—again—profiled the creation of the Glass Chapel in an emotionally riveting way.  Students were seen playing with local children during the process, and neighbors were frequently on-site, interacting with the students.  The students were working tirelessly, in extremely unforgiving heat.  They were dedicated to the job, and it came across loud and clear that a big part of the reason why they cared about what they were doing was because they cared about the people for whom they were doing it.

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Music Man and his Rural Studio house. Much of the materials were gathered/found on-site. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

The most important thing I have learned through studying Rural Studio is that—often—our definitions of success and of beauty could stand some reworking.  Nothing taught me more about this than my meeting with Music Man, at his Rural Studio designed and built home.  Music Man is a legendary character in Hale County, Alabama, and rightfully so.  I’ve never felt quite so fortunate to have met anyone, as I do to have met him.  He really made me rethink my whole paradigm.  Following is an excerpt from an essay in my thesis project, about Music Man and this subject of successful design and beauty:

Music Man is truly an enigma.  He defies all logic and typical preconceived ideas about poverty and its people.  Music Man’s love for life simply blows my mind, and causes serious reflection on the things upon which we typically place value.

How do we define successful design?  And what is beautiful?  If a design is serving its purpose—a safe, structurally sound shelter that is beautiful and functional to its user—dare we call it unsuccessful simply because it hasn’t changed or “bettered” its user’s way of living?  Are we really so judgmental, and so predisposed to the idea that sterility equals beauty, that we can’t accept another human being’s way of living?  If Music Man’s house is filled to its gills with items we’d assume are junk, does that mean the design of his house was unsuccessful?

As designers, we are trained to be problem-solvers.  But as societal sheep, we are trained to think, act, live, and breathe conventionally.  We are stifled.  We are caged.  We are often boring and dull.  We work with prescriptions.  We are afraid.  We are weak.  We are out of touch with humanity.  We are touched by objects, by buildings, by light, by form, by shape, by texture.  And yet we forget to be touched by the people for whom we create these objects, buildings, light, form, shape, and texture.

How about we reconsider the notion of successful design, and most certainly the notion of beauty?

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Music Man and Me | Feb 2009

I Heart Grit, Grime, and Graffiti

I’ve always had a fondness for graffiti, and the vibrance it adds to an urban landscape.  One look through the library of photos I’ve taken as a traveler will clearly indicate that urbanity, including the grime and grit that come with it, is attractive to me.  Add that to my propensity for all things controversial, acts of defiance, and artists gone rogue, and it’s no surprise that I am one who loves graffiti.

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Rome, Italy | Photo by Audrey Alverson

What some may see as vandalism and defacement of property, I see as valuable additions to the visual landscape.  It’s not even about whether I “like” the actual art.  It’s more about the act—and the fact that a city awash with graffiti is, to me, a city with color.  I mean that both literally and figuratively.  In the figurative sense, it is about activity, life, participation, and a general lack of homogeneity.  It is about artists who are willing to be defiant in order to make a statement.

So when I see colorful, artful graffiti given such disregard as to be painted over with flat gray paint—something akin to what I imagine prison walls to look like—I see the transformation from life to death.  Participation and activity turned into absence.  Vibrance and color that become dull and drab, with an air of corporate cleanliness.

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Rome, Italy | Photo by Audrey Alverson

My current interest in this topic was inspired by a recent New York Times blog post about the removal of graffiti along the High Line in New York City—a process that has been both lauded and criticized.  The High Line, in many ways, is an urban-reform success story: a formerly abandoned railroad line converted to a park, offering views of the city from its elevated perch.  But the recent and impending removal of graffiti from most of the High Line’s neighboring buildings has left many feeling that a key element of the site’s history, and part of the city’s grit, has been wiped out—or painted over.

While graffiti has been around since the days of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire in the form of inscriptions and cave paintings, modern graffiti gained prevalence during the twentieth century—much of it expressing political activism.  It is graffiti’s connection with hip-hop culture, however, and their concurrent births in New York City that bind the High Line’s graffiti to its history.  Given that the High Line was abandoned in 1980, at virtually the same time as the birth of hip-hop, the graffiti on-site provides a true visual indication of the time in which it was abandoned.  In essence, it is part of the story of what it once was.

So is it appropriate to essentially “wipe the slate clean,” particularly in a city like New York that is truly America’s most diverse and colorful city?  And a city that is as much about its grit as anything else?

The iheart project, a self-proclaimed “exploration of symbols, a love affair with representation,” painted its signature iheart symbol at the High Line in November 2008—both as an homage to the already present street art, and in protest of its rumored removal.  The process of High Line’s transformation—from graffiti-covered, abandoned railroad to pristine city park—is well chronicled and photographically documented on iheart’s website.

It kind of breaks my heart (no pun intended) to see this transformation.  I find the whole location much more beautiful, and most importantly, interesting, prior to its “cleanup.”  I see it as one thing to give the space validity within the city’s context by making it usable, but to completely alter it to the point that it has no resemblance of its former self?  I don’t get it.

Graffiti is inherently controversial: It is seen by some as art; by others as vandalism.  In all fairness, I would say it is both.  But vandalism or not, the act and the art of graffiti are inevitable elements of a city with any amount of cultural diversity.  And its acceptance—or not—is, to me, an indication of a level of respect—or disrespect—for both diversity and art.

A vibrant urban environment has personality, culture, and diversity—which can come in many forms.  Are we trying to uniformly strip our cities of this life?  Is being pristine better than acknowledging cultural differences within a city?  And a big question: How do we define art and beauty?

One person’s dream is another’s nightmare, and one person’s art is another’s trash, but I happen to be a lover of all things urban—including grit, grime, diversity, culture, and street art.

Sour Grapes

And here she goes again…

Another Portland design event brings another set of thoughts and, likely, questions.  I’d like to start by climbing to the highest rooftop I can find, so I can do my shout from the rooftops rant.  But instead, I’ll settle for this metaphorical rooftop I have here.

This story will begin and end with grapes.  That’s right—grapes.

Last night I attended an open house at Portland’s Leftbank Project, a cool revamp of a 1923 building originally designed by architect A.E. Doyle.  In theory, I’m a supporter of the building and its purpose: to connect and support mission-driven businesses in an inspiring environment, and to do so in an ecologically responsible way.  But based on my recent post about The GreenVille Project—one of Leftbank’s tenants—one could say I’m a bit leery of what this “mission-driven” concept sometimes means.

I was hanging out in the office of dc202 design collective, and became privy to a conversation that really threw me for a loop.  One of dc202’s neighbors (a Leftbank tenant) came by and started grilling a dc202 employee about their sustainability practices.  I guess it’s fine to ask the questions, but here’s where it turned strange:

Apparently, there was a question posed about where the grapes dc202 was feeding its guests came from.  As in, the neighborly tenant thought it necessary to remark on the large size of said grapes and therefore, the fact that they probably weren’t from the local farmer’s market.  No, sorry people, the grapes were from Costco.

Oh, how I hate that I have to repeat myself from a previous post, but:

Really?!?!

Again, let’s not get caught up in the details, folks.  Before we start nit-picking about grapes, we’ve got to think about the bigger picture here.  Sorry, but local farmer’s market grapes will do nary a thing to save the world.  Yeah, yeah, I get it that all those little actions add up to a greater whole.  I’m not completely oblivious to this concept.

But for the sake of point-making, how about I call attention to another silly sustainability detail from last night: the PLA “biodegradable” corn cups used to serve wine.  I could go on and on about the fact that the term biodegradable is awfully generous, given the process required for these cups to biodegrade, and the lack of availability of said processes.  I could rant about the fact that most people don’t have access to the required commercial composting system—and that these cups can’t be recycled—so more often than not end up in landfills, or contaminating recycled traditional plastics.  I could go on for hours about the fact that these cups are made from genetically modified corn, and that the epidemic agribusiness of corn growth is extremely harmful to the environment—by using excessive amounts of insecticides and herbicides, and contributing to soil erosion and water pollution.

Yes, I could do all of that.  And for the sake of illustrating my point, I just did.  But the real point I’d like to make here is that if we all can’t get off of our sustainability high-horses and stop this nit-picking about silly details, we’re never going to get anywhere.

News flash: the problem is much bigger and much deeper than grapes or corn cups.

I guess what it comes down to for me is this:

Are grapes and corn cups really worth fighting over?

I’m beginning to feel that sustainability—a word I’m starting to despise—has just become another way for people to express their superiority, their virtuosity, their perceived willingness to do the right thing. It’s another topic to fight about, and most of the arguments are truly futile.

I waver between feeling that there is hope for change, and feeling that we should all just do the best we can, and most importantly—live and let live. Because really, if we aren’t willing to seriously tackle the root of this problem, which in my opinion is over-population, chances of any major turn-around in the state of our environment are slim to none.

So let’s just stop with the sour grapes, please.