As the oldest and most established practice within design, architecture has many lessons to offer those of us in allied design disciplines including industrial, interaction and graphic design. One lesson lies in the distinction between vernacular and polite architecture. Vernacular architecture, such as the igloo, the log cabin or the medieval city, arises out of locality and use, or in other words, from the community and not from professional architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright, in Paul Oliver’s book Dwellings, describes vernacular architecture as “[f ]olk building growing in response to actual needs, fitted into environment by people who knew no better than to fit them with native feeling.” He goes on to suggest that designers could learn more from vernacular architecture than “all the highly self-conscious academic attempts at the beautiful throughout Europe.”
With the pace of technology in the 21st century, we risk losing the wisdom from vernacular practices by overlooking them, or worse, dismissing them as anachronistic whimsy. Take, for example, the courtyard and fountain found in Mediterranean architecture; cool air from the evaporation of water flows from the center throughout the building. With the introduction of a technology like air conditioning, we could easily abandon or overlook such a commonsense practice. The same is true for technologies in myriad other fields. On the other hand, new technologies such as social media outlets are rapidly facilitating new forms of vernacular design.
Design as a profession is a privilege. It springs from community needs, an origin that is easy to forget. As a kind of proof point, I set up a little thought experiment with a friend: “What would happen if the world did not have designers for a year?” In discussing this question – along with replacing designers with other professions – our conclusion, to my dismay, was that the world would be alright. The fact remains that even without professional designers, design would still happen. Three designer-less phenomena exemplify this.
The @, DM, # and RT
In the fabled history of Twitter, features such as using “@” to refer to another user, denoting “DM” to send a direct message, utilizing “#” to delineate a topic and acknowledging a Retweet with “RT” all grew out of a consensus organically arrived at over time. Only later did engineers formalize their use into features supported by the platform.
The Magic Credit Card
The American Express Centurion Card, also known as the Black Card, is the stuff of legend—literally. According to its Wikipedia article, “In the 1980s, rumors and urban legends began to circulate that there was a magic credit card through which its bearers could order luxuries instantly. Some of the reported uses of this card involve the bearer ordering a trip to Paris via Concorde and buying the horse used by Kevin Costner in the movie Dances with Wolves.” The mythical card turned out to be an urban legend, but in 1999, American Express decided to turn fantasy into reality and introduce the Black Card, an ultra exclusive card made of titanium that represented a never-before seen level of service and exclusivity.
This story is attributed to many college campuses: In order to determine where to place sidewalks leading to newly constructed buildings, grass was planted around entire halls, dormitories, libraries, etc. Wherever well-worn paths would form was where sidewalks were eventually laid. These paths are known as desire lines or social trails.
At face value, these examples seem to make the case for a diminished role for the designer. In my view, they reaffirm the value of professional designers not as the stylists or fine artists for which they are often mistaken, but as advocates recognizing a community’s voice and extracting its collective wisdom to forge solutions in its service. To do this, we designers must become masterful observers of human behavior. Fields such as cognitive psychology are helping us better understand the intricacies of the relationships between behavior, perception and decision-making, and we must also consider the mid- and long-term impacts our efforts have on the communities we serve.
Recasting the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, the design of products and services should be a response to actual needs fitted by people who know them “with a native feeling.” In doing so, designers become guides who facilitate the translation – not a blind, statistical adherence – of everyday behavior into meaningful and significant contributions, so that if the world was to do without designers for a year, our absence would be felt beyond the borders of our professions.