Last night I was cooking dinner as I like to do fairly often. Cooking is more often a pain for most people. And on days when work and errands can take all the energy out of you, it’s sometimes nice to just order takeout and not think about it. But when I’ve spent the time looking through the grocery store, washing, slicing and chopping, waiting for all of the flavors to meld after assembling everything in just the right order, a recipe comes together and it’s time to enjoy. It’s not always perfect. It’s not always what I had imagined in my mind. It’s not always worth the effort.
But sometimes. Sometimes all the work feels like it was effortless. What had been a decent idea and something new with which to experiment ends up being just right. The 45 second phone call to the de facto takeout joint would have been a waste of time compared to the hours spent organizing, shopping for and preparing this meal. There’s a pride in knowing something I had an idea for has come together and it’s so perfect I wouldn’t change a thing. Yet, it’s almost indescribable. A well trained chef or scientist could probably give me an in-depth explanation of what I’m eating and why these flavor compounds were made in the process and how they work together. But I don’t text my friends a photo of my dinner and quantify the work I did or give them a chart explaining why my dinner was better than theirs. Nor would they care. I just know it was.
What does this have to do with design?
First, a little background. I’ve grown up drawing and painting. When I was young I watched Norm Abrams’ New Yankee Workshop and This Old House instead of cartoons. I drew plans for baseball stadiums and life size mechanical drawings of mountain bikes I couldn’t afford. I was more excited to get Legos and books about skyscrapers and Frank Lloyd Wright than I was video games. I’m not sure how many pieces of graph paper got thrown away with layouts for my dream home/volcano lair with lagoon grotto for my catamaran. I even spent a summer in roughly 7th grade planning, in extreme detail down to the cent and tenth of an ounce, everything I would need for a solo trip to Antartica. This all led to me definitely wanting to become an architect. So I went to architecture camp at the Illinois Institute of Technology one summer in high school. It was amazing. I learned how to really sketch something and then to pick a tree out with good features for a tree house, design it and build a model to scale. The Chicago architecture boat tour opened my eyes to so many new things and seeing the fine details that make up the whole.
But then we visited an architecture firm and the highlight was the book of mechanical drawings that the architects did for a skyscraper they were designing. The speaker, an architect himself, told us that we would probably never get to actually decide what the building we were working on would look like. That’s up to the partners of the firm. And they’re all old. At least that’s what 16 year old me took from it. If I became an architect I would be stuck figuring out where millions of bolts went and designing things nobody cared about.
Then we got to speak to a woman who was working on a rendering of the finished piece. I asked her what her job was and she said, “graphic designer”. For some reason, that changed my mind forever. I know now that she had even less say in what the final structure looked like or how it worked. But at that moment I felt like she had been the one turning the architect’s vision into reality. Though I was wrong about her actual job, it did make me want to design more than just buildings. Someone had to design the clothes I was wearing, the boat we had been on, the street signs I was looking at. But for the longest time I have only really thought, “yeah that looks well designed. I like that.” Or, “I dislike that. Not how I would have done it.” And maybe just like my younger self, I had been close minded in what it was I wanted to ‘design’. Back then it was buildings. Since college, it has been mostly print and web projects. I hadn’t really considered that my love for cooking could be related.
Sure, just like certain flavors go together and there are classic recipes almost everyone loves, there are rules in design and classic looks that never go out of style. As a trained designer I like to think I can break down a web site or a logo or a piece of furniture and explain the grid system used or why a sans-serif font was used or why the classic lines of an Eames chair were a result of an experimental manufacturing process. But most of the time it’s difficult to immediately explain why something is well designed. There is a feeling that it came together and is just right. When you look at a well designed piece, it feels effortless and perfect.
Design is also important. Good design makes life easier. Easier to read. Easier to use. Easier to navigate. More comfortable. More efficient.
And last night, more than ever, I felt refreshed with a new enthusiasm for design. So this post is the first of, hopefully, a consistently updated blog where I share my thoughts on all things design. Whether it be print, web, or branding – the things I do for my day-to-day job – or features from my new car I feel are well designed, stunning architectural details, a beautiful map or a really tasty dinner I didn’t just settle on by calling for takeout.