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Can Design Change the World?

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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 more about how to realize a movement of designers who want to get to work on designing a 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

green tree during sunset

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.

In it Bruce Mau states that a designer is necessarily an optimist.


Because a designer has to believe that the future can be better than the present, otherwise why would you bother trying to plan it?

So, while I might not be a little girl with a magic crayon, I’ve think 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 love the idea of imagining a better world and then creating the concrete plans to bring that vision to life. Beyond inspiring other people to get on board and do the same, I can’t think of anything better than working toward building the future!

Designers love being designers

I have a pretty good imagination, but I have a hard time imagining a designer who doesn’t like being a designer.  In my personal experience, almost all designers love being designers. I’m sure disillusioned designers exist, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s rare. Designers are optimists, and some of the most positive people you’ll meet, outside of programmers.

Design gets under your skin and changes the way you think. Even designers who find themselves in a profession where there is no opportunity to practice design every day still wear their design knowledge like a giant analytical filter. Viewing the world through this “design filter” becomes their practice.  Try as they might to turn it off, a designer can’t help but notice the problems in the world that are sorely in need of changing. The good news is that they are also uniquely equipped to initiate those changes.

Besides understanding the possibilities, a designer knows the right questions to ask in response to a design problem. In my view, this is a super power.

Seeing the world through a design lens

person holding magnifying glass

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 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.  Yet even the bad presents opportunities.

There is a famous story told of two shoe salemen who went to Africa, both with explicit instructions from their respective companies to research the market for shoes on the continent. The first returned with a negative report on current market conditions. He summed up his findings by saying, “Nobody wears shoes in Africa!”

The second salesman, on the other hand, was fired up after returning from his trip. He wrote a lengthy, glowing report on the potential for the company’s products and his plans to roll them out. His conclusion?

Everybody in Africa needs shoes!”

Great designers, and the type of designers who will actually change the world, are the ones who believe that it is possible in the first place.

Facing and evaluating design problems

person in black pants and black shoes sitting on brown wooden chair

When it comes to modern day home building, there are so many sub-optimal rooms and space planning arrangements.

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

Change in the industry happens slowly.

So, how can design help to save the world? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have a few ideas. First, viewing the world through a design lens forces us to constantly be noticing what is working and what isn’t working in our living and working environments and to continually ask, “why?” or “why not?”

We can explore the reasons things are successful or why they fail.

-There may be psychological reasons at work. 

-There might by physical or materiality causes. 

-Often it’s a space planning problem.

-Sometimes economics can cause problems when we aren’t able to afford the wiser, safer, greener or more aesthetic choice.

At this point you might be asking yourself, what makes for good design?

A lot of people much more intelligient than me have taken the time to explore this question. Dieter Rams, in particular is famous for his (timeless!) ten rules for good design.

My biggest takeaway from learning design myself is that good design requires empathy and thought. There is a psychological aspect to good design.

Psychology is central to good design

architectural design architecture buildings clouds

Psychology in interior design can extend to the psychology of the building itself. What the original architect envisioned for the space matters, and it’s worth investigating whether or not the building is being used to its greatest potential.  When this is lacking, the interior design needs to make up for the lacks of the architecture.

Another really important aspect involves considering the expected users of the space and their needs. For this we might try to understand their reasons for being in the space to begin with, as well as their expectations for their experience within it. 

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 and interiors they inhabit.  Think about this: Anytime you have been in a place long enough, it begins 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.  We might even love its idiosyncracies the way we love them in the people we know well.

aerial shot of maze

Its important that we are comfortable in our interior environments. For most people this means that we are at ease, calm, and that we have a good understanding of where we are and the conditions surrounding us being there.  

How we interact with our enivorment an dwhen can be important to consider too. At home, for example, 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

woman standing in room with unfinished walls

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.

modern buildings under constructions in city

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

planet earth first poster on a concrete post

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!

Stay badda$$!

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