This inner drive to re-make the world around us and re-engineer how we inhabit it is at the root of what it means to be a designer.
The human species is exceedingly well designed. We are equipped with five senses which enable us to fully comprehend our surroundings. We can balance on two feet rather than four, so we’re both mobile and agile. Our unique opposable thumbs give us the ability to make things that other creatures cannot. We also have something called imagination which allows us to dwell in worlds beyond our own that may (or may not!) actually exist. We’re a clever bunch, all right. But perhaps the most interesting thing about human beings is that we’re perpetually dissatisfied. This is a very useful trait because it drives us to solve problems and invent new things all the time. In fact, the distinguishing characteristic of homo sapiens may well be that we are not content – ever – with the status quo.
This inner drive to re-make the world around us and re-engineer how we inhabit it is at the root of what it means to be a designer. It’s an innate desire that we all share to some degree. In a real sense, everyone is a designer, regardless of formal training (or lack thereof), because embedded in human nature is the desire to shape our environment, influence events, and build a better, healthier, safer, and more prosperous world. Everything that takes us in that direction is an act of design.
Building is one of mankind’s oldest activities. It’s been said that architecture is the residue of civilization – the surest evidence that we are important enough to exist at all. Structures that were erected thousands of years ago, like the great pyramids of Egypt, still astound us. Great cathedrals such as Chartres, which were fashioned by thousands of hands over many decades, are just as audacious and dazzling today as when they were first erected. And yet, as inventive as we are, the basic way that we build hasn’t changed in thousands of years. We still make big things by putting small things together, one piece at a time.
All that is about to change.
Architects and designers are thought of as solitary, head-in the-clouds visionaries, existing mostly in a dream world of imagined possibilities, not particularly practical or overly interested in meeting schedules or budgets. Yet in reality, the practice of architecture is grounded in highly pragmatic considerations, requiring close attention to the details of zoning regulations, building codes, engineering requirements, and public approvals processes, all of which require a great deal of teamwork and tend to be at odds with singular creative effort. It’s interesting to note that a relatively small percentage of the standard architect’s contract concerns itself with the most creative part of the job (schematic design), while the majority (far more than half) concerns itself with detailed technical aspects such as construction documentation and administration. This only serves to underscore the point that truly exceptional results depend on the proper blend of the creative and the practical. It’s in the taffy-pull between the two where the really interesting solutions reveal themselves.
In design, there are always more solutions than problems, and no problem is insoluble. Indeed, so many things that we take for granted today, from CAT scans to cell phones, existed only in the imaginations of science fiction writers not too long ago. Design changes everything, because we’ve finally learned that if we can imagine something, we can create it. But to get the answers we seek, first we must ask the right questions, and we must have the right people and processes in place.
So what’s different today?
There are three significant paradigm shifts in design that are shaping not only what we do, but how we do it. The first big change is that the myth of the solitary design genius is fast giving way to the reality of “team design” – the engagement of many talented minds working simultaneously and cooperatively to solve problems. Design is fast becoming a team sport and a social art. The second big change is the impact of technology, which permits designers to display their thought processes and decision-making in three and four dimensions rather than only two, and to do so very quickly. This makes the design process far more transparent and accessible to clients and the public alike, further encouraging (and in fact requiring) broad participation. The third big change is speed. There have been breathtaking advances in how fast things get done, from travel to communication to manufacturing …and even delicate surgery. Design is not exempt from this phenomenon, nor should it be. Taken together, these three paradigm shifts unlock vast new possibilities for architects and designers everywhere (and for their clients!). Under the rules, everyone is an architect, both empowered and enabled to help shape tomorrow’s world. The necessary corollary is that we have collective responsibility for the results that we produce. We are indeed today’s trustees of tomorrow’s future, and our biggest challenge is to make sure that we can be counted on to be good ancestors for future generations.