Friday, August 28, 2009

Project M Detroit

I'm on my way to the Motor City for Project M. Dispatches in the days to come...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cultural Context

Screenshot from the Soyjoy Website.

Reading a magazine the other day, I paused at a full page ad for SoyJoy, one of the many products offered in the ever-expanding category of nutritional food bar. The ad included a watercolor of a soy plant on a tea-stained background, roots and all. Layered over the root system was a watercolor of a Chinese tea garden and an image of a Buddhist monk in meditation. The copy of the ad praised the long year history of Chinese nutrition and lauded the soybean as its pinnacle ingredient. Now, 5,000 years later, food science has distilled the soybean into a 120-calorie bar (with a few other ingredients thrown in for good measure, like Maltodextrin, derived from the thing Americans love best: corn.)

On the SoyJoy Website, you can scroll through a flash image of the soybean roots, and link to stories about the history of the plant.

This is what pops up when you click on "28th Century"

What's so funny and frustrating about American culture is that we always want to extract the essence of things, to take the unencumbered ingredient and turn it into the great panacea. In our Thoreauvian desire to suck the marrow, we disregard the whole of the animal. Soy is a wonderful example. We want to believe that we can capture the physical and mental health benefits of an entire culture, an entire way of life, by extracting one ingredient (and then manipulating the hell out of it in a food lab). We don't seem to grasp that it is the entirety of the Chinese lifestyle—the very elements of which are identified in this ad campaign—that yields the health benefits our extensive food studies tell us about. The Chinese live longer! They are not obese! They have less heart disease and breast cancer!

We forget about cultural context. We forget that soy is a mere player in a bigger vision of nutrition and lifestyle. It is an integrated component within a complex system.

I would argue that it is this same component thinking that has rendered us incapable of building sustainably in this country. We are excellent at the parts—a new facade material, a better solar panel, a high efficiency HVAC system—but terrible at the whole. The construction and design industry is just too fragmented and we have failed to effectively research the post-occupancy realities of our buildings. How are they functioning once they are up and running? We understand how one thing works in isolation, but we have no idea how they work in tandem; we just don't know how buildings work as systems, and until we do, we will never be able to meet our lofty goals of netzero energy.

On the Soyjoy Website, we are told that we can incorporate the food bar into our diet, and should consider consuming up to 3 a day. "Sometimes, our busy schedules make missing a meal unavoidable. SOYJOY® can be enjoyed as part of a meal on the go."

I wonder what the Buddhist monk featured in their ad campaign would think of that.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Signing with Ellen Lupton

Ellen Lupton will be doing a short reading from her new book, Design Your Life: The Pleasure and Perils of Everyday Things, at the Ivy Bookstore in Baltimore tomorrow night. Pop by and get a signed copy.

(And check out this short piece on the Metropolis magazine Web site.)

Thursday, August 27, 7:00pm
Ivy Book Shop
6080 Falls Road
Baltimore MD 21209

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Q & A with Emily Pilloton

first met Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H Design, when she came through Baltimore last spring for a lecture at MICA. She talked about her reasons for founding a non-profit dedicated to creating life-enhancing product design versus following a traditional career path. I saw Emily again this summer at the offices of Metropolis magazine in New York where she was working on her new book Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People. It comes out in September through Metropolis Books and was designed by the talented Scott Stowell of Open.

I caught up with Emily again recently via email to ask her some questions about the direction of design for an article I'm writing for the October issue of Urbanite magazine (more on that when the time comes). In the meantime, Emily agreed to let me share our full exchange:

Your manifesto articulates so well why you took the trajectory that you did with your work. If you were talking with someone in the general public just learning about design today, how would you describe the work that you do? Would you qualify it as "social design?"

I think I am allergic to the keywords and sound bites that tend to describe this kind of work: "social design," "humanitarian design" or "sustainable design." To me, Project H is merely a way to use design for what it's really all about: problem solving. And Project H hopefully is applying design to the most urgent problems, in order to provide meaningful solutions in places that need them. We don't just design for the developing world, we look locally and produce solutions WITH rather than FOR clients and partners in education, community empowerment agencies, foster care, disabled and mental health care, childhood development, and more. "Social design" to me sounds like "social engineering," and I would hope the work we do is less about design as the be-all-end-all solution, and more about a process through which to empower people and help co-create the best and most scalable solutions for big problems.

Do you believe there is a general increase in designers (of all disciplines) practicing social design?

I think there is a huge increase in interest, but I think the expertise is still very much "in progress." Because designing for fourth graders, or the homeless, or the elderly, often requires designers to drastically change their traditional design approaches, we are all learning as we go. While there is a new generation of "citizen designers" coming out of school now, there is also a lot of model-building, feedback looping, and metric analysis we need to engage in to ensure that these design solutions for social impact are in fact solutions, rather than just design for design's sake. There is a fine line between real design solutions and a sort of self-indulgent "design as charity" practice, and we all have a duty to not just commit ourselves to social design, but to be critical of our own processes and ensure that we're doing it right. Ultimately, these big social issues we are designing for require the most scrutiny, more so than, say, luxury or accessory design, because often it is our clients' livelihood for which we're designing. The stakes are higher, so we can't just call "design for the greater good" good simply because it is an act of service—it has to WORK.

What's driving this?

I think it's a combination of the urgency of big global issues (global warming, population growth, disease, hunger, resource shortages), that we can no longer ignore, coupled with an influx of new communication networks—people can now talk to basically anyone in the world in a single Tweet. At the same time, the time has come not for worrying or analysis, but for action—these global issues are not just big nebulous problems, but things that are affecting our livelihood. Designers, as solution makers, are inherently receptive to that and want to take action.

You spent some time at MICA working with students. How was that experience? How did the students relate to design? What message did you hope to impart?

The MICA students were amazingly engaged in the type of work Project H does, and not in a superficial way. They were genuinely hungry for this kind of work, offering suggestions and critique, and, like Project H, trying their hardest to find the best models to do meaningful design for social impact work. With design students, it's not just a zeitgeist, but a responsibility to equip these young designers with the tools, values, and initiative to go out and be more than just aestheticians, but activists with a finely tuned skillset that creates change. Spending time with the students at MICA reminded me that design for empowerment and social impact is all about looking forward to the next generation of designers, and to solutions rather than hindrances.

Where does design go from here?

Some days I honestly think that design, as we know it, is fairly superfluous—that we've created an industry that will soon be obsolete if we don't take a revolutionary approach. We (Project H) have walked into homeless shelters offering services, to which they reply "design? We don't need that here." Design is viewed as a luxury, rather than a right and a first line of defense, it's viewed as an "added bonus" rather than a necessary problem solving process. And we have to undo a lot of the design world we have created, to prove to people that design has value beyond the aesthetic, and beyond the luxury. My hope is that the next phase of design is not about ego, but about function and beauty and sustainable solutions for real people—whether they are families in East LA or farmers in East Kenya.

As more and more people use words like "social design" and "social justice" to describe their work, do we run the risk of it becoming diluted? Does it become the next "green?" (people complaining today about so much "greenwashing").

Absolutely. "Social design" is a very slippery slope: one that requires the MOST critique and feedback of any kind of design. If a vase is designed in a less-than-great way, what is the worst that can happen? If a water filter is designed less-than-perfectly, it's people's lives at stake. What designers sometimes don't understand (I'm guilty of this too sometimes) is that to engage in these "social design" projects is not about us: it's not about us as designers having "charitable" projects in our portfolio- we are designing solutions that in some cases are life-or-death for their users, or at the very least, have the possibility for real life improvement if done well. Overusing the sound bites and keywords only dilutes the gravity of the concept and process. "Social design" is not the place for half-assed solutions. Fancy renderings of homeless shelters made from shopping carts and blobject water filtration devices for communities we don't even know are not going to cut it.

The Hippo Roller designed by Project H created a safe and easy way to transport potable water.

Where do aesthetics come in? How would you define what is "beautiful" design?

The problem with design is that all too often, we use aesthetics as our starting point, rather than allowing beauty to be drawn directly from our material choices, or the ease of use, for example. For humanitarian solutions, aesthetics can be a great tool to engage the user in a visceral, emotional way, and to ultimately enhance the function and durability and adaptability of a great design.

When does your book release?

Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, will be available Sept. 2009 (hopefully first week of Sept). Get all the info by clicking here.

*And here's a little more about the book, courtesy of the publisher:

"Industrial design is more than the latest shiny housewares and disposable objects. It’s time we began to design for people instead of consumers, as activists rather than aestheticians. Design Revolution is a showcase, a resource, and a call to action. The book provides a comprehensive collection of product designs, systems, and concepts that improve the lives of people around the world—solutions that address global and local issues in education, transportation, energy, play, and other realms, and catalyze individuals and communities."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Abstract Urbanism

Howon by Hosang Park. Available on 20x200.

The Web site 20x200 has made a simple process for buying art. Jen Bekman, site curator, introduces limited edition prints online and offers them in various sizes and prices, ranging from just $20 to $2000. (Bekman also formulated a nice visual for determining how big a print really is:)

I like abstracted patterns found in everyday things, especially urban settings and rural landscapes, such as ike Frank Thiel's photographs of Berlin. 20x200 offers a few examples of what I mean:

Uman by Hosang Park.

Houndstooth Pattern in Parking lot at Disney World, FL by Alex MacLean.

Untitled, Neighborhood (Overgrown) by Chris Ballantyne.

Red Truck on the Back Road to Manigango by Raul Gutierrez.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cultural Tourism

I had a job for a few years where I traveled the country and spent an inordinate amount of time in hotels. One of my favorite pastimes was checking out the Chamber of Commerce and tourism brochures to see how a particular place decided to present itself to the world. You can learn a lot about a city by how a marketing team chooses to sell it. You can also see how the official tourism material begins to impact the way tourists themselves identify with the locale. There have been studies on how tourism images effect economic and social perceptions. People begin to reconstruct the very photos they see, consciously or unconsciously framing their own shots to mimic those in travel books and tour guides. At times, it truncates the true exploration of the city and perpetuates the constructed image.

I'm researching an article for a magazine and I need to interview someone from Denmark this week. Online research led me to the Visit Denmark homepage (and to daydream that I was being funded to conduct this interview in person not via Skype). I couldn't help clicking on the "photos" section. The images they use to present the country to potential visitors are a curious mix. Among them you have...


Rose Hips:

Wooden monkeys in tree:

Wooden soldiers:


Modern furniture:

Making out:

I still want to visit, but I wouldn't replicate a staged shot of toy monkeys in trees. That chair photo, however...well, maybe.

Monday, August 10, 2009

When Crises Collide

With so much arduous and ugly argument over reform, healthcare seems mired in debate and atrophied by politics. What are we missing?

An article I wrote about the potential for entrepreneurial opportunities in healthcare is the cover story for the latest issue of One magazine. I get lots of interesting people to talk shop, including Donna Shalala. Here's an excerpt.
When graphic designer Deborah Adler picked a topic for her master’s thesis at New York’s School of Visual Arts, she decided to address a very personal matter. Adler’s grandmother, Helen, took the wrong medication after mistaking her husband’s prescription pill bottle for her own. Other than the addition of childproof lids in the 1970s, the ubiquitous amber-colored vial had not changed since the First World War, even though polling found 60 percent of prescription drug users were taking medication incorrectly. Adler decided to revamp the prescription pill bottle, and the result was a revolutionary design born from a simple need: clear and detailed labeling that included different color-coded rings for different users. In 2004, a creative director at Target saw her work, and the company quickly purchased patent rights. The bottle went into the store’s pharmacies the following year. The product instantly captured the attention of the press and the design industry, which lauded its simple ambition. Adler not only effectively addressed a major health care concern, her work also raised an interesting question: Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? READ MORE

Deborah Adler's new prescription bottle at Target.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

It's (A)LIVE!

In journalism they call it burying the lede. It's when you put an important piece of information too far into the article. I did just that when I blithely mentioned in an earlier post that D:Center Baltimore is now alive and well and living on the Interweb. This is big news and it deserves its own special announcement. After a year of gathering, conversing, debating, the D:Center now has a mission, a vision, a path forward, and a virtual home online. (You can learn more about that path forward by downloading the report PDF at the bottom lefthand corner of the homepage).

So while Twitter tries to regroup, don't despair. You can focus all that social networking energy onto the D:Center blog. Be a part of design in Baltimore (and beyond!) and become a D:Center collaborator. If you have a design blog, you can upload a link of it to the homepage. Just click on the link that says "Share Your Blog" and the following will appear:

Once your blog is uploaded, it will appear on the Web site like this:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Is EDAC the Next LEED?

B.ARCH. M.ARCH. AIA. NCARB. LEED-AP. CSI. ACHA. It's time to add another set of letters after architects' names: EDAC.

Short for Evidence-Based Design Accreditation and Certification, this latest acronym comes courtesy of the Center for Health Design (CHD), a California nonprofit dedicated to advancing the use of evidence-based design practices in healthcare architecture. The accreditation test launched in a beta phase in February and was opened to the general public in April. One of its primary goals is to formalize what evidence-based design entails, in order to bolster its legitimacy and galvanize practitioners around a shared definition of the term.

A new accreditation in evidence-based design seeks to clarify this misunderstood term. My latest feature article on the topic is now live on Architect magazine's Web site.

Sound Design

Architect David Rockwell's interior design for Bobby Flay's Bar Americain.

I just finished reading Gael Greene's memoir Insatiable. Greene is now donning her signature hat at the judge's table on Top Chef Masters, but she was the food critic for New York magazine for 30+ years during "that wondrous moment between the pill and the plague,"as she puts it. (Greene hungered for a lot more than just foie gras in her heyday). When she got to the 1980's in her timeline, she spent a page or two talking restaurant design. Architects like Sam Lopata and David Rockewell were changing the New York dining experience.

"The fusty French restaurants seemed irrelevant. Hushed eating in a temple was giving way to grazing in a raucous gym. Everyone wanted to be in the restaurant business...The stakes were awesome now. Where once an amateur could toss fleamarket tables and chairs into the basement of a Village brownstone and create a restaurant, now design reigned...It had to be noisy. 'Noise is cozy,' an architect, proud of his shattering decibels, assured me. 'Noise creates energy.' And no one really missed the glitter of conversation, because mostly people just talked about how many sit-ups they'd done that morning and which California chefs were rumored to be moving to New York any day."

Noise as architecture. Sound as an element of design. Funny to think that the annoying din and clatter of a loud restaurant is intentional. Interesting, too, to consider this as a cultural shift. As Greene suggests above, we went from hushed interiors focused on individual dining experiences and conversation, to raucous free-for-alls. I remember waiting 2 hours for a table at Manhattan's Momofuku Ssam on the corner of 2nd Avenue. We were ushered back through the narrow dining room and stuffed into the corner of the restaurant's adjacent bakery, barely able to breath for the crowd. The windows fogged from so much human exhalation. When we finally sat, our table was the corner edge of a long banquet. It felt as if we'd been plunked down at someone else's family dinner (and, in truth, we had. They were very nice—adventurous tourists from the Midwest who shared their crispy pig's head with us). The food was incredible. Crispy shaved brussel sprouts that had been pan seared and tossed in tangy and complex Asian vinaigrette with hot peppers. Lots of pig. Warm pork buns. Calamari in a spicy garlic sauce with sprigs of mint. More pig. We could barely talk over the '80's music (I forgot how much I like Tears for Fears) and I was hoarse the rest of the night. Whereas Greene's dinner guests rambled on about their aerobics classes, today's dining experience has become the endurance sport.

Momofuku Ssam, above, and the interior of the adjacent bakery, below, in a rare peaceful moment. I suspect these photos were taken at dawn.

How else does noise and sound play a role in design? You've got some time to think about this. The monthly Baltimore Design Conversation is taking a summer break for August (so no convo this week), but will return on Wednesday, September 2. The theme: SOUND. It will take place at The Wind Up Space starting at 6:30 PM.

If you want more information on the Design Convos, as well as ongoing design dialogues, news, and event listings, check out the brand new D:center baltimore Web site. Join the conversation online through the site's blog. If you have a blog of your own, upload it. If you have an event, you can email the details and add it to the calendar.

Screen shot of the new Web site.