This is a column about design. The theme here is always the same: design is not opinion and it is not decorating. It is a logical process of hard work. In fact, Design Lieutenants, when you see the word ‘design’, automatically insert the phrase ‘design process’, which will yield an informative frame of reference, allowing you to picture the designer rigorously working the process, examining every option.
Yes, frequently I drop back to discuss horticultural issues. Why? Because a great designer knows her materials cold. But design process is the heart of landscape architecture.
How does one recognize good design? What exactly is good design? How is good design achieved? Recent events have revealed a few insights. Chuck Close, a modern American artist, wrote
Inspiration is for amateurs…All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. …inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive.
Deceptive? Design solutions are not born of inspiration or personal preference. The work yields the alternatives. Ideas spring from the process.
Don’t confuse style with design. Some of you wacky people like your gardens clipped and square and just neat as a pin, don’t you? Others see an English country garden and think they are in heaven. I love all of you.These are preferences, not design. A garden’s style is irrelevant to the resolution of functional issues.
The professional design business owes a lot to Steve Jobs, who demonstrated the effort and reward of great design:
In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation…
It looks ‘best’? Designer Jeffrey Zeldman notes that
Design in the absence of content…is decoration.
He’s not alone in drawing this distinction. Designer Wouter Stokkel famously said
It’s art if can’t be explained. It’s fashion if no one asks for an explanation. It’s design if it doesn’t need explanation.
Steve Jobs knew and demonstrated this clearly. Pick up an iPhone or a Mac, devices delivered with extremely brief instructions because nothing more is needed. Design.
Remember smartphones before Apple came along? Blackberry was the best, wasn’t it? And it was an awful, clunky thing. Steve Jobs knew that. Apple spent more than five years figuring out how to build a phone so good that now every feature seems ‘obvious’.
This simplicity of design and function was the result of consistent application of design process. Functional, natural, obvious ease wasn’t simple to achieve.
Samsung Electronics recently learned this fact in a very expensive way. Modern phones like the Galaxy S® were so much like the iPhone, for example, that Apple’s design efforts had been clearly stolen, according to a California jury. At least part of Samsung’s argument was the form-follows-function defense. They are right, of course, but missed the key fact that Apple figured it out first.
Samsung learned a billion dollar lesson in design. It’s the function that matters, it’s the function that requires huge resources to resolve, and it’s the function that makes people covet iPhones. Apple has a hard-won process in place that yields consistently, ‘insanely great’ objects, one after another.
Are we clear on this? ‘Style’ and ‘decoration’ are not design. Design has a temporal element, if you will; time is required to work out the solution. If nothing else, the effort by Apple to protect its own design process will disabuse the world of the idea that sudden insight is the kernel of great design.
I am not saying that insight has no place. That would be wrong. Very frequently, approaches to knotty design issues become evident while I am walking on the beach, listening to an audio book–on my iPhone. Importantly, though, this insight is the result of thirty years’ logical thinking and processing of problems.
A version of this piece appeared in the Naples Daily News on 9.14.2012. Download a PDF of the printed version here: Download 9.14.2012.