As If!

Oracle Keynote

Design’s Willful Optimism

Design is not a what if? But an as if! It’s not a question, but an answer. Each design is a story told as if our wishes had come true. The designer commits to inhabiting an alternate reality, describing it to him or herself and to the client as if it were real, as if all the criteria were satisfied – and as if it were a good idea!

To make this commitment to an idea requires a particular optimism. Optimism that the problem can and will be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, even delight! When someone hires a designer, they are clearly nurturing a serious optimism of their own. At the very least, they have a problem to solve, a business plan to execute, or an opportunity on which to act. The client’s optimism—hopefully well-founded—is a crucial component of their willingness to take a risk. In a great many cases, the client’s optimism extends far beyond a simple contractual obligation or ROI. Quite possibly they have a statement to make, a vision to make manifest, a dream to fulfill.

But how do we as designers justify our optimism? How can we back up the promises we make? We must have well-deserved confidence in our powers of perception, our knowledge, preparation and experience as well as a broad and well-honed capability. Optimism alone won’t see us through.

Shopping and dining along the boardwalk, Wai Kai, Oahu.

Design is used to evaluate all sorts of what ifs, but it’s not actually a what if itself. We evaluate the design (the as if) against the criteria (the what if). Let’s make up an example:

“What if I built a carwash here?” The carwash is the what if. The proposed carwash is the as if, the design. “Look! It’s as if you built a carwash here!” Of course we soon learn that this what if is too simplistic to bring any sort of useful response. “Then you’d have a carwash there.” That’s about all we can say without first asking more questions. If your what if is too ambiguous, the as if will be just as vague. Let’s improve the specificity of our what-if, so we can better evaluate the as-if response.

“What if we built a carwash here? One just like Joe’s Carwash on 38th Street?” All of a sudden we have a design we can evaluate – well, not quite yet. We will have to adapt Joe’s to our site. That might be easy or it might not. Maybe our site is too small, or without the proper access, or restricted by zoning to another use. But let’s pretend our site is almost exactly like Joe’s site. Now we can evaluate the design (but not necessarily the wisdom of the business plan.)

“Gosh, it’s a lot like Joe’s Carwash.” With this solution, what else can we say? We can only evaluate our design against the level of criteria we have defined. “OK, what if you built a carwash pretty much like Joe’s but with twice the throughput?” “What if you built a carwash with twice Joe’s throughput, and with a gift shop and gourmet café – and you made it look like a giant dinosaur? You see where this is going.

What if, what if, what if? This might start to wear you down after a while. But the designer must remain enthusiastic and optimistic through a million what ifs. How can one maintain this optimism through a million revisions, revising, rethinking and re-proposing a design every time an additional criterion is added?

Arden Park summer
A lovely summer’s day in Arden Park. Canoe, tube, play, barbeque … relax!

The first answer to this question is that before design even begins, an enormous proportion of the most important criteria should already be defined. This is known as programming. The most effective designers flush out all the criteria they possibly can before they begin generating design proposals. This enhances their optimism that the solutions they propose will substantially satisfy the criteria, eliminating any really long trips back to the drawing board. Thorough programming is the designer’s first great challenge.

The second answer is that additional criteria are inevitable, and are often brought up and fine-tuned by the evolving design itself. The most effective designers ask these what ifs as soon as they come up, and they describe the resulting as ifs so that the client can answer efficiently and knowledgeably. Generating clear and appropriate proposals is the designer’s second great challenge.

A middle-eastern flavored hotel in a mountain? Hmm, might look something like this…

How are clients expected to answer unless they can understand the implications of the latest as if? This is the designer’s third great challenge- to make those implications clear to the client. You might also have guessed that, yes, a designer has first had to make them clear to themselves.


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