Individual things can be fine on their own,
but are we missing something?
When separate pieces are designed to work together,
we get another thing entirely: the whole.
I visit a certain large Midwestern town every year or two. This particular town is really just your average American place. It's filled with chain stores, traffic lights, cars, and parking lots. The buildings are all individual businesses. Each one has its own usual look, arranged on its own property, allowing for easy access into each parking lot, without regard for much else. The overall look of the town is haphazard.
When we drive through the town, I always feel sad about the place. I used to think it was because I was being a bit pretentious, with my background in architecture and design. On first glance, I dislike the order-less-ness of it all. The buildings are all over the place. Nothing lines up and nothing goes together. There’s a lot of asphalt and concrete. Green space is absent. I hate all the traffic lights.
Apart from a few grumbles to my husband, I always kept my thoughts to myself. But lately, I've been reflecting more deeply on my feelings about the place. I’ve uncovered what is it about the town that makes me feel sad. It’s not what is in the town, but what is missing from the town, that gets to me. I see all of the lost opportunities. By developing in this aimless way, without regard for an overall plan, so much is lacking. Sure, you can live in a town like this. But what are you missing?
Let’s say you live in this town and you need to do a bit of shopping. You get in your car and drive toward the business area. Multiple stop-lights try your patience as you frown at the rain and wish the light would turn green. Finally, you pull into the parking lot of the store. You park your car and quickly walk across the asphalt expanse to the door. You go in and get your shopping done. On the way back to your car, you see an acquaintance coming out of her car and you say hello. The drizzle prevents you from chatting and you both dash away and get on with your day. As you drive away, you notice a new store and you consider going to check it out. To get to there you’ll need to go through another traffic light, park in another parking lot, and walk through the drizzle again. The thought of all that bother prevents you from stopping. Instead, you drive home through all the stop lights, annoyed at how long it’s taking. You arrive home feeling stressed out and slightly angry and you aren’t sure why. You snap at your spouse.
Consider, instead, a town with a cohesive, overall plan. All the individual parts are still there, but they work together as a system. It's almost magical the difference it makes. Here’s another scenario:
You need to do a bit of shopping. You drive downtown and park your car on the street and walk the half a block to the store. Along the way you pass trees and greenery planted alongside the sidewalk. You breathe in deeply and feel a connection to nature. You notice a new shop and pop in to check it out. You realize this place is the perfect place to find a gift for your hard-to-shop-for relative. You feel happy to have discovered it. As you leave, you see a friend coming out of the cafe next door. You sit together on the bench outside the door, conveniently kept dry from the day’s drizzle by an awning, and chat about your lives. You smile at each other and wave good-bye. You are enveloped with a feeling of well-being from seeing a friendly face, and you’re prompted to say hello to the next person you pass on the sidewalk. He smiles and says hello back and makes a comment about the rainy weather. As you continue on, you feel a warm sense of community at having shared a common moment. You go about your day, get your shopping done, and go home, feeling calm and happy. You don’t even realize why you feel this way. You smile at your spouse.
Sure, we can live without good design, but when it’s there, things are better. Organization, order, and planning get a bad rap. Spending the time up front to to put a plan in place is sometimes seen as a waste of energy and resources. And I get it, when resources are short, corners need to be cut. Design seems the likely corner to trim, because most people do not even notice good design when it’s there. Design’s job is to literally be in the background, to make things run smoothly. The outcome of good design is a feeling of calm, ease, and happiness. And since humans are a social species, that feeling is passed from one person to another. And life is better for everyone.
What do you think? Do you ever notice when some things are combined thoughtfully together, the resulting combination is even better?
How about an orchestra? Each individual player is an excellent musician and each instrument sounds great on its own. But, with a conductor to guide them to play as one, the resulting music is amazing.
What about colors? Yes, the color blue is lovely in and of itself, but when you place a certain shade of yellow next to it, well, together the combination simply sings!
Even pictures on a wall can benefit! Photos and artworks are wonderful on their own. Hang them up any which way and you’ll get to admire some of your favorites. But, take a little time to arrange them thoughtfully in a group, and the whole room benefits beautifully.
What wonderful whole can you create with a little organization and a plan?
I am an artist and designer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My specialties are textiles and pastels.