Why do we tell design stories the way that architects photograph designs?

I think that design accomplishments like those reported in this article and in many others like it are, indeed, to be celebrated. Moving from closed, contained, and fixed environments that consume capital and energy and that suppress organizational success to more open and sustainable environments must, surely, move people and their organizations forward in very satisfying ways.

I am, however, growing more concerned about the extraordinary consistency of the design concepts – and the overlay of design and business language that accompanies them – in these transformation projects.

I am concerned because many of them appear to use a language that has been stripped of meaning. That is, many of the new environments I see published seem thin, insubstantial, imitative, disconnected, but yet use the same narrative of significant organizational and cultural transformation. I doubt that there is so much universality of objectives to make the universality of solutions universally valid.

I am concerned because even more substantial projects with true transformation intentions make me yawn. That is, I have seen this before. I have seen those glass partitions and those collaboration areas and those social settings and those colors. I am seeing a mere stylistic overlay on an era’s need for thoughtful strategies in a time of great cultural and business revolution.

I am concerned because the success stories use data about the space to signal success rather than the stories about people’s lives, experiences, accomplishments, capabilities, growth, and influence. That is, we nominally begin these project with a philosophy and belief that space affects the way that people perform, but we do not uncover those success stories. Instead we count seats and square footage and reductions in leases.

I am worried about a profession losing its credibility. We are now telling the stories of design much like architects photograph their designs – before the people get into them.

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3 thoughts on “Why do we tell design stories the way that architects photograph designs?

  1. I don’t get you. You complain that the design’s success is evaluated before people get into it, but the space was completed 18 months ago, according to the article. You complain about data outweighing “stories about people’s lives,” but the article focuses on how “welcoming” the place is and quotes users as saying they like it. You say the design makes you “yawn,” but your own work looks exactly the same (judging from the background image at your “about.me” page): white walls, floating soffits, beige floors, brightly colored furniture, high-back chairs derivative of mid-century modernism, etc. Does your own work make you yawn? You criticize language that has been “stripped of meaning,” but you describe your own work with the same impenetrable jargon of conventional archispeak: “Our concepts change the conventional formal lexicon of work and the workplace.” Do you think the average reader has any clue what that means? In the end, as far as I can tell, the thing that set you off is the article’s list of “data” in bullet points. I for one would much rather hear about “real” accomplishments (i.e., hard data measuring actual performance) than I would rely on the likes of you to use vague, fluffy language to assure the rest of us that a design works. (By the way, grammar lesson: “design accomplishments like those reported in this article” should be “such as,” not “like.” If you’re going to blog, learn the language.)

    • Derrick,

      Thank you very much for your comments. I think you’ve made some excellent points. I’d like to offer some follow-on comments, mostly to clarify context, not to refute what you say.

      First, I think I may have moved too quickly with my post. I frequently use articles and postings from other places as a starting point for thought and commentary. My error here was to use that article and that project so specifically. My intent was to offer thoughts on a general state of design and the professions that practice workplace design, not to offer a critique of a specific project or design firm. I apologize for that.

      Yes, I have a portfolio and have worked with firms whose portfolios include the types of projects I am referencing. My work and that of my colleagues practicing in similar ways, gives us a basis for some reflection on what we’ve done and how we might adjust as we move into the future. Thank you for digging deeper into my background as you considered what I had posted.

      My commentary was not so much about evaluating design before people move into it, but more about evaluating design without assessing how people are moved by it. That is, we claim to move organizations and people to better performance through our design work, yet we do not seem to have the discipline, or opportunity, or tools to return to our projects to learn just how the organization and its people have progressed and improved. That is, do we over-promise and under-deliver? Does the proliferation of designs responding in similar ways for similarly stated goals from organizations of very different scales, types and cultures signal a need for more careful deliberation about what we hear and what we promote? Hence, my “concerns” about groupspeak and spatial metrics.

      Finally, thank you very much for your grammar corrections and other editorial comments. I’ll use them.

      All the best,

      Jim

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