Designing the Good Life

Beauty is a desirable bonus when design improves our lives.

It doesn't look like much, this baby blue tube with cobalt blue fittings on the ends. In fact, it resembles a child's toy, an oversized whistle or kaleidoscope. But the LifeStraw saves lives. A personal mobile water-purification tool, the LifeStraw, designed by Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, can turn any surface water into safe drinking water. The November 2009 boil-water alert issued in Portland for homes and businesses west of the Willamette River because of the detection of E. coli bacteria may have been the city's first such warning, but a lack of safe drinking water in many places means half of the world's poor suffer from waterborne diseases, and six thousand people around the world, mostly children, die each day from causes traceable to unsafe drinking water. For them, this humble polystyrene tube is a lifesaver.

the LifeStraw is part of the Design for the Other 90% exhibition recently on display at Mercy Corps' new headquarters in downtown Portland. The exhibition, which originated at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, featured innovative designs for low-cost treadle water pumps, cargo bicycles, off-grid energy systems—products, in other words, designed for the 5.8 billion people in the world's poorest countries who have no access to services like clean drinking water that we in the developed world take for granted. As Barbara Bloemink, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, explains in the exhibition catalog, the design of these products “is not particularly attractive, often limited in function, and extremely inexpensive.” But like the LifeStraw, products featured in the exhibition have the potential to change people's lives for the better.

Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, says that at its simplest, design means making things for other people. It's something humans have been doing for nearly 2.6 million years, the approximate age of the earliest stone implements with sharpened edges, which were discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia. Design includes everything “from sofa cushions to city-building”—or “Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau,” the motto and scope of activities of the early-twentieth-century German design association Deutscher Werkbund. From the legibility of a sign and the width of a doorway to a path of sunlight illuminating a plaza, the screen on your computer, or the life of your street, design shapes the way we live. Or, as Antonelli says, design, when done right, helps us “live better within the broad context of the world.”

Design for the Other 90% was conceived after the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center towers, which prompted the exhibition's curator, Cynthia E. Smith, to ask, “In what ways could I, as a designer, make a difference?” The exhibition resulting from her efforts focused primarily on designed solutions to basic human needs (food, water, shelter), those psychologist Abraham Maslow suggested must be met before an individual can move on to attempt to satisfy needs of a higher order (friendship, belonging, self-esteem). Between the extremes of blunt need and material excess, just how do design and designers make a difference? How do they help us not only solve problems but also create a good life?

Whether or not you have a good day—which is 1/24,298th of an average good life—can pivot on moment-to-moment experiences. Did you have a “Princess and the Pea” night, or did you sleep like a baby? Did the corrugated sleeve on your paper coffee cup prevent you from getting burned? How easy was it for you to find stories that interested you in your morning Oregonian or in the online version of the New York Times? And how did you feel when you walked through that plaza on the way to work? Thank or blame an industrial, graphic, or interface designer; a landscape architect; or an urban planner.

 

It's easy to forget the profound power of design—that it can be life-changing—when the past couple of decades have seen design fetishism reach the heights of absurdity, when a celebrity architect's latest creation or a high-design chair is cast in an aura of Versailles-esque frivolity by glossy publications and slick websites. If architecture designed to inspire awe dates to the building of several of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the production of consumer goods designed to generate desire is much more recent. With the widespread manufacture of machine-made consumer goods and the rise of the department store at the turn of the last century, the first product stylists were hired to increase the desirability and, therefore, saleability of goods. A hundred years later, over-the-top adulation of “styled” objects reached a fever pitch. Wealthy consumers purchased high-end, high-design furniture and lighting objets as if they were works of art, while those with budgets of $19.99 rather than $1,999 could purchase candlesticks by renowned Dutch designer Marcel Wanders at Target. The company's slogan, “Design for All,” is just a new twist on an old game first played by retailers like Philadelphia's John Wanamaker, a game in which a consumer good is sold as a signifier of a consumer's taste, as a marker of the good life.

John Maeda, associate director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, once asked legendary designer Paul Rand, “What is the difference between ‘good' design and ‘bad' design?” Rand responded, “A bad design is irrelevant. It is superficial, pretentious … basically like all the stuff you see out there today.” Even before the economic downturn forced every consumer to reevaluate his or her purchases, the DIY craft movement at one end of the spectrum and the ubiquitous use of the word “authenticity” by top design and branding firms at the other signaled a weariness of manufactured desire for the manufactured. And all along, good design quietly continued to do the heavy lifting, creating objects and spaces that are often beautiful while also being useful, responsible, economical, and even meaningful.

What does it mean to call an object “meaningful”? How can an object contain or embody meaning? Portland-based architectural designer Randy Higgins observed that “design is an opportunity to figure out what we're about and embed that in objects so that it is a reminder of who we are, of how to live.” One object whose form embodies meaning is the book Cradle to Cradle. At first touch, it seems to belong to that class of objects designed for aesthetic seduction, with cool, smooth pages that slip between the fingers. But in its introduction, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart state, “This book is not a tree”; instead, the book is made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers that, at the end of its use, can be ground up and turned into another book. The book itself is an expression of the authors' utopian notions of an ethical design that not only doesn't do harm by cutting down a tree or emitting toxic chemicals, but also makes the world better. In this scheme, for example, the soles of shoes are made of fertilizer so that when the user walks in them, the soles decay and fertilize the ground, or a factory will have outflow that is cleaner than the tap water that comes into it. Their visions may sound like pie in the sky, but these are mostly projects they've already designed.

The struggle for the designer of objects or space who aims to be ethical, to design sustainably, is that all production or construction entails human and environmental costs. When designer Larry Olmstead couldn't find vegetable-tanned leather for his sustainable Entermodal line of handbags in the United States, he turned to Italy, though he knew that the environmental benefits of not using toxic chrome-tanned leather would be offset by the energy used and pollution generated by shipping. McDonough and Braungart imagine a future in which there are no such trade-offs and yet no need to do without. They reject “reduce, reuse, recycle” as half-measures and embrace enlightened design, especially through materials research (a philosophy that harkens back to DuPont's 1935 ad slogan “Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry”) as the path to a good life that is more than sustainable, making the world measurably better for our children and theirs.

And a range of companies, including Nike, have taken steps toward embracing Cradle to Cradle ideals. For Nike, which has, admirably, collected discarded athletic shoes and ground them up to make playground surfaces, the next step is to design footwear that can be recycled into new shoes, closing the manufacturing loop. Toward this end, what began as a small product group called Considered has become a Considered Index of various sustainability metrics against which Nike designers can measure product designs. Choice of materials, solvents, and the amount of material wasted are all taken into account as the environmental impacts of the design are assessed. It sounds idealistic, and there has been resistance within the company, but the Considered line does not represent an impossibly far-off future. In fact, the company has set target dates for 100 percent of its footwear to meet minimum Considered standards by next year.

 

Design also influences whether or not you will say hello to your neighbor this morning, where you will go today, and how you will interact with other members of your community. The invisible hand of design (with apologies to Adam Smith) determines how welcoming, how comfortable a place feels to us, or whether we'll choose to go there at all.

In his book The Experience of Place, Tony Hiss discusses research done in German cities by filmmaker Toni Sachs Pfeiffer, who found that “organization of space organizes people's experiences and much of their behaviors—including, startlingly, whether they feel that they are allowed to interact with one another and with their surroundings, and whether they will assume responsibility for maintaining … places they use by watering a street tree, say, or weeding a planter.”

How the design of public spaces affects the way we use them was studied in the United States by William H. Whyte and described in his 1980 book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Whyte and his team observed spaces in New York City in the 1970s to find out “why some work for people, and some do not, and what the practical lessons may be.” Whyte studied children playing in the street, sidewalk foot traffic, and the ebb and flow of people in well-used plazas and parks. He discovered certain physical attributes of spaces that people regularly used, attributes that seemed to attract people, including ledges or stairs on which to sit, places to purchase food, and the options of sun or shade. Whyte also discussed one more factor that makes a place “work.” “Triangulation … [is] that process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not.” That stimulus might be a busker or a statue, a fountain or a tree.

Although Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, designed by Willard K. Martin, is hailed as one of the world's best public plazas by New York's Project for Public Spaces, another, newer public park located a dozen or so blocks to the north better demonstrates Whyte's findings. The Pearl District's Jamison Square, designed by Peter Walker & Partners, features square rocks stacked at heights that make them ideal for adults to sit on and kids to climb. On a warm August day, water spills from the joints between the rocks into a wading area, and, after an interval, the water stops flowing and slowly drains away to begin the cycle again. This pattern surprises and delights visitors, encouraging them to interact with one another. Movable chairs, another Whyte favorite, are available so that mothers can be close to their wading children or can retreat to the shade of one of the park's growing trees. Jamison Square marks a lively nexus of transit, retail, housing, public space, and play that is so attractive that the immediate area is a design model others are trying to replicate, most notably at Orenco Station, a 260-acre development in Beaverton that is built around a main street and parks on the westside MAX light-rail line.

If one aspect of the good life is a lively and convivial public space, Pfeiffer's and Whyte's research demonstrate that that kind of space is no accident. The good things about a city or town that we take for granted are not dumb luck but are as carefully designed as the ipe boardwalk bordering Jamison Square. Urban planning, zoning, and policy have created thriving downtowns as well as underused, struggling downtowns. Portland's walkability and the sociability of its downtown streets have much to do with the small size of its blocks, a design decision made when the city was first platted. Salem's lively downtown was noted in Whyte's book as a smaller city that was getting many things right by choosing to retain character through historic preservation and attractive reuse. Meanwhile, other small cities like Eugene have struggled because of redevelopment missteps and suburban shopping malls that confound lively downtown street life.

Recognizing that the design of homes affects the life of the city and the way one interacts with one's neighbors, some cities have gone beyond zoning and setbacks to legislate in this area. In an acknowledgment that the design of a house as it relates to the street affects the way its inhabitants and neighbors interact, Portland's city council in 1999 made it illegal to build “snout houses”—a home with a big garage out front and a tucked-away front door—because they create a barrier to neighborhood communality, which begins with brief exchanges on sidewalks and stoops. As noted in the New York Times, Charlie Hales, the former city commissioner who spearheaded the effort, wanted houses to pass what he called the “trick-or-treat test”—“when kids come around to trick-or-treat, they actually get a sense that somebody lives in the house, and they can find the door.”

Given all that design does and all that we expect it to do, can we also expect well-designed places and objects to be beautiful, or is beauty just frosting on the cake, and often expensive frosting at that? This is how questions of aesthetics are phrased as Portland considers a major project like TriMet's new pedestrian, bike, and transit bridge, which will span the Willamette River south of the Marquam Bridge. The bridge, designed to move people, not cars, says a great deal about who we think we are and what we value as a city. The aesthetics of its design will say something more: whether the decision makers believe that Portland deserves design that is as unique as the city itself or whether that level of civic ambition is not part of our DNA. Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, a member of the steering committee for the bridge who has cost concerns on his mind, called the innovative wave-form design proposed by Boston architect Miguel Rosales and favored by many in Portland's architecture and design communities a “prestige project” better suited for Seattle. Just afterward, TriMet selected a modified cable-stay design for the bridge, similar to Eugene's Delta Ponds Bridge or the Ed Hendler Bridge in Kennewick, Washington.

The bridge's western landfall is proximate to the site of Portland's last great aesthetic battle, that over the aerial tram designed by Angélil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl Architecture. The silvery, futuristic cars rise from the city's South Waterfront to the Oregon Health & Science University campus on the hill to the west. As costs rose on the construction of the project, cost-saving designs were floated for the tram that would have made it an unremarkable industrial box with a trestle-like lattice tower—as then City Councilor Sam Adams put it, an “ugly ski lift at a bad ski resort.” But clearer heads prevailed, and today, just watching the tram car ascend from the street below and pass the elegant, sculptural tower takes your breath away. Does beauty make good design better? Yes, good design elevates, but beauty makes good design soar.

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Also in this Issue

A Closer Look

Go Ahead and Look

Abnormal Beauties

Just Look and Read

Designing the Good Life

What Remains

Seen Though Not Heard