the value of design in the public realm

I grew into a job (or rather, a job grew around me) where I use design to help plant people to communicate with the public. My colleagues who inquire into the secrets of plants for a living do not necessarily love to address the public. In this context, design mediates between plant people and a broader audience, and I’ve always thought of my design work there as a kind of public service. Design give voice to ideas that otherwise may seem dry and obscure. Design helps shape experiences to render them readable, stimulating, and manageable.

A couple years ago, however, a colleague who felt threatened invoked the word “designer” in a way that curdled my blood. The word, which I’d always associated with pleasurable things– like that comfortable realm where nothing matters but clever permutations of color and form– was used like a weapon. The question in her angry eyes boiled down to, who is the designer? Is it you or me….?

I propose to reclaim this word from the short-sighted tongues of people who conflate “design” with “control”. I want to reclaim it from its use to market expensive consumer products. I will not renounce my enjoyment of such clever products, but want to empower the word “design” to include problem-solving on the most sophisticated life-cycle level….

I’m especially interested in the body of work from the social sciences that confirms that design can have an impact that is far beyond making things look “pretty.” Design doesn’t mean the designer should not listen to anyone else.  A good designer looks beyond what the client asks for and addresses the larger picture. This means a designer needs to be a good listener and observer. Their work needs to synthesize everything happening on  site: physical, cultural, economic, experiential, environmental….

Great design can still have that level of visual pyrotechnics involving color, proportion, and form. But if it is going to be successful for longer than opening day, it needs to account for things most users may not consciously be aware of, but that have a profound physiological and social impact.

Design can make spaces work better. Spaces that work better are good for our wellbeing, and good for the planet.

These words from the website of Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City, embody the impact of design in the realm of the built environment:

Many North American cities are perfectly designed to make citizens miserable. We have fewer friends, less spare time, grumpier kids and more heart attacks. We feel more stress and more social isolation than ever before. The shapes of buildings, neighbourhoods and even transportation systems are partly to blame.

This excerpt might be funny, sad, and a little too true. On his website are a slew of uplifting articles, and I’m very much looking forward to the book.


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