Can Design Change the World?


A personal essay on why interior design matters.

If you had the power

When I was a little girl my mother told me about a book she had read as a child: The story of Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Since I never had a chance to read the book, or even find out exactly how the story ended, the only thing I really took away from that conversation was this:

Basically, there was this little boy who discovered, to his amazement, that anything he drew would come to life. 

Wouldn’t this be the best tool to help people who genuinely needed it?’ it made sense to ask.

While I was pretty sure that I had everything I wanted at the time, that crayon still sounded pretty useful.  

That night, I lay awake. I imagined the crayon in my hands, and what I might do with it. 

I actually thought about this magical crayon dilemma long and hard enough that I got anxious thinking about how I would know what to draw, and theorizing what would happen if I made a mistake?

I also worried that I might not be able to draw well enough to warrant being the person who should have this crayon. 

It was an awful lot of responsibility for a five year old.

These, I realize, are not questions most kids have.

These days I wonder what I might make a three-dimensional model of next, and how to realize a movement of designers who want to get to work on designing the world that doesn’t just look better, but inherently is better. 

Designers who don’t just believe that design can, quite literally, save the world, but who understand deeply that it can, and want to be a part of it.

The sustainable future of our world as a design problem

Revolutionary designer and design theorist Bruce Mau has said that we should start looking at the future as a design problem, and I agree with him on this.

If you are unsure of what I mean by the future being a design problem, I also highly recommend checking out “The Third Industrial Revolution on YouTube.

I might not be a little girl with a magic crayon, but I’ve evolved into something better: A grown woman who is a designer. I didn’t become a designer by accident.  In fact, I became a designer despite a lot of obstacles on the way. 

Perhaps that is why I am so enamored with architectural, interior and urban design. I really love everything about interior design, especially.  (Yes, even building codes, believe it or not. I’m sure there’s a lawyer in me somewhere, right next to the real estate developer.)

Designers love being designers

Bruce Mau stated that a designer is necessarily an optimist.


Because a designer has to believe that something can be better in the future, otherwise why would you bother trying to plan it? Although I’ve always had a very enjoyable imagination, I have a hard time imagining a designer who doesn’t like being a designer.  I’m sure it exists, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s rare.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you were a designer who found themselves in a profession where there was no opportunity to practice design every day. I believe that you would still wear your design knowledge like a giant analytical filter. Viewing the world through this filter would become your practice. 

I’m speaking from experience, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Seeing the world through a design lens

Suffice it to say, I believe that designers have a unique point of view, and also a unique role to play in the future. It goes beyond the pure aesthetic (although aesthetics are important too!) and enables them to see the world around us as it could be, rather just how it is.

My fellow designers and I will likely always be able to see things that other people just don’t; both appreciating the good and at times being bothered by the bad.  

Why can’t the general public just understand certain things? -Like signs, arrows and directions? 

Why do we keep seeing the same decorating mistakes over and over? -Like hanging pictures or arranging graphics in every way BUT the right way?  

Why is it so hard to be green in the design industry?

Designers want to scream.  

The mistakes we are looking at in the built environment are planned mistakes, so in this respect, designers can’t help feeling that people should be held more responsible. Until, that is, we remember that the people in question probably didn’t plan it is as well as we imagine they did.  

Facing and evaluating design problems

When it comes to modern day home building, there are so many sub-optimal room and space planning layout arrangements. Change in the industry happens slowly.

I’m referring to types of things that as a designer you don’t want to see repeated in the built environment again.  If only it was up to you.

Viewing the world through a design lens forces you to constantly be looking at what is working and what isn’t working in our living and working environments and to continually ask, “why?” or “why not?”

-There may be psychological reasons at work. 

-There might by physical or materiality causes. 

-Often it’s a space planning problem.

-Sometimes the economics causes problems.

So, what makes for good design?

Psychology is central to good design

Psychology in interior design can extend to the psychology of the architect of the building, and what they envisioned for the space and whether or not the building was being used to the best of its functionality given its current use. 

The psychological aspects to interior design should also involve the expected users of the space and their expectations and reasons for being in the space. 

This includes their relationship with the space in terms of their reason for being in the space, as well as their connection to the space as an individual. 

For example, did they grow up there? 

That is a very different legacy and range of experience to have with a space than one would have renting that same room as an AirBnB overnight stay.

Pyschology of interior design: The intimacy of inhabited space and its effects on productivity and health

We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.

winston churchill

All humans have relationships with the buildings they inhabit.  When you have been somewhere long enough, a place starts to take on a type of persona.  We get to know everything about it, it’s good points, it’s bad points, it’s hidden and secret treasures. 

Being comfortable with your physcial surroundings would be considered by most to be a good thing. It implies that you are at ease, calm, and that you have a good understanding of where you are and the conditions surrounding you being there.  

We might have ritualistic spots in the house that we inhabit at certain times as part of our routine.  How upset would we be if someone messed up our morning by moving our favorite chair or not owning up to the fact that they broke our favorite mug sooner?

These small details of our lives are easy to gloss over, but the psychology of the way humans interact with space is fundamental to the study of interior design.

Interior designers work from the macro scale (that of the building), down to the human scale. Psychology, logistics, practicality, zones, laws, feasibility, ease of use, best practice. All must be considered, but the end user is always paramount.

Back to that coffee mug. Something as important as a morning ritual gears us up for a successful day.  We perform routines because they are important to keeping us running our lives and being productive human beings.

When our environment also considers our health and happinesss, we’ve got a step further: Into the realm of environmental engineering.

The physicality and engineering of designed interior environments

Physical and materiality problems with buildings often come down to economics.  The use of cheap or inferior materials affect both human health as well as the environment. 

Easily implemented, practical solutions must be found that address both of these important considerations.  A poor environment, whether on the micro scale (building interior) or macro scale (the entire ecosystem), will still result in the same outcome: Unhappy human beings.

Thus, interior and architectural design are incredibly important.  Design thinking is an especially problem-solving focussed type of lens, and it has the power to change our physical environment, not unlike Harold and his magic crayon.

The great thing about having a tool like interior design, (also referred to as environmental design in some spheres), is that once you can accept that you have issues you can go in looking for the problems and then come up with a very specific plan for how you will resolve them.  

It’s not unlike your first group therapy meeting. You must first admit that you have a problem.

And herein lies the challenge. How long before we admit that we need people with design skills, and the heroes who make the designs happen (like structural engineers and construction specialists), to make things better, even if it means doing it a totally different way?

Are we as designers asking the big enough questions?

Can creativity save us?

It’s fair to say that creativity and good ideas alone won’t save us. Designers are great with ideas, but we need to involve many other professions in order to put landing gear on them.

Luckily, that’s where design comes in.

To design is to go beyond concepts. It allows us to take a future goal, and “prove” that our creative idea is the tight solution, long before it is implemented.

In the future I hope that every building will be designed with the guidance of a knowledgable interior design specialist. I also hope that in the world of the future everyone has access to counselling for their mental health.

Designers must lead the way

The creative process that is design is an incredible tool if we use it correctly, and to its full potential. One of the most beautiful things about design to me is how everything is kept in a sort of state of flux right up until the best solutions have been iterated, adjusted and compared before implementation.

The design process is a beast all of its own. It has a powerful and volatile elegance all the way up until the final design solution is reached.

That is the nature of design.

-It’s not a decree of rules set in stone.  It is, instead, a process, which is a tool to deliver on creative ideas.

Design is the best tool that we have for reshaping and reforming our world. 

The caveat is this:

Alone, a single good design can’t change the world; but one good design can light the way.

Let’s provide a map for others who will be inspired to build what we dream.

What do YOU wish could be different? Comment below!

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