First post, and the (strategic) nature of starting (in design)

Here is my first blog for my newly created EnvisagedCity website.

In thinking about a first post for EnvisagedCity, the immediate and prevailing question had been: what to write about? The obvious answer was that it should be something about EnvisagedCity/myself. But understanding I would cover this, somewhat, in the About and Background sections of this site, I was interested in how the requirement of writing a first post was an activity in starting something, and how this could become the very subject of a first post on the nature of “starting” in design.  Consequently, this first blog is partly about EnvisagedCity and partly about the nature of starting in relation to design. And given EnvisagedCity, like all brands, will be what people other than myself think it to be, the part about EnvisagedCity will not be articulated in a didactic way. It will begin to be revealed through the narrative on the nature of starting in design.

Starting something can mean different things to different people. For some it can be daunting; for others it can be exciting. No less in design, where the reality and complexity of the real world and the blankness of a “canvass”— site/trace/page/whiteboard — can provide great opportunity or bring about hesitation.

Design, for me, poses a particular challenge which demands a particular approach and, therefore, starting point. This is part design — wanting to address what I think is most relevant and important — and part management — wanting to do so most efficiently and effectively. It is with this consciousness and intent that I often check myself with the thought of one of “graphic designer” Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth” items. His is an acknowledged quote from John Cage, providing encouragement to effectively start anywhere.

“Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.”

During my time at WEST 8, one of the firm’s partners, Edzo Bindels, would often say, in opposing reaction to some other firm’s design proposal or an audience’s suggestion that was contrary to his firm’s work: “… but it’s not our starting point!” The way WEST 8 approaches their work in urban design and landscape architecture all over the world is very particular, stemming from a highly developed and consistent position based on their world view — a world view different from that of mainstream urban design and landscape architecture practices. And there is their rationale for upholding the starting point as critical.  Who they are and how they see the world shapes their work; their work is defined by their world view. No wonder founding director, Adriaan Geuze, has aptly said, to get better at design “you need a life”.

Yet contrast this ideological approach to design, with the unbridled action of a child at play. Anything goes. Action and connection are everything. Not starting is not considered. As a consequence, the drawing, game or activity performed develops and builds, and an outcome is realised. And usually with children, this activity is highly creative.

This creative immersion in activity is perhaps partly what Cage and Mau are saying is important in beginning. Maybe they are saying what’s really critical is to simply begin, to make a start, to follow the essence of Nike’s slogan, “Just do it”.

But should design be started anywhere?

It’s worth framing just what design is. Design is a purposeful activity. Unlike music or art — both highly creative endeavours (interestingly, John Cage was a composer and artist) — design is defined by its intention-based application to provide something of use and meaning — either denotative (functional value) or connotative (emotional value and identity) — to people. It takes real-world experiences, problem situations and circumstances and through abstract conceptualisation develops ideas for accommodation back in the real-world. This is what makes design so useful, so applicable, and yet so misunderstood and undervalued. It is not something limited to the appearance of things, or confined only to the making of products, or only of relevance to particular industries.

Because design is both real-world derived and real-world intended, context is everything. What’s a good colour? Depends what it’s for. Is Madrid a nice city to visit? Depends who I’m with. How many lanes should this street have? Depends on the purpose the street is to serve within the way of urban life being envisaged.

So, should design be started anywhere?

My answer is: no, and yes!

My design starting point is always to enquire into context — the bigger picture, the essence of a problem, what the design is for, the ultimate reason why something exists (and hence my “no” to the question). With this approach to design — which isn’t child play nor, in the context of design in/for the “city”¹, necessarily confined in outlook to the particular level of urban intervention practiced by WEST 8 — my “yes” in support of starting design anywhere, is contingent upon a very BIG proviso: Yes, start anywhere if that’s what helps get you going, but as long as you can think and react strategically!

The transfer from the real-world to the abstract, from circumstance to idea in design requires strategy. Some products may be beautiful to look on. Some creations may be like no other. Some things may work extremely well — like machines, groups of people and organisations but, for something to have been designed it must be the outcome of conscious invention for an application to context. This demands strategy. And the starting point of design can be a vital part of that strategy.

For this reason I share and favour Bindels’ discipline in having a starting point in design. Especially in the complex environment of urban design. However, the only way starting anywhere can be truly effective, is if one has the capacity to constantly and progressively trim the consequences of starting anywhere toward context — like a skillful sailor on the jib of a yacht on-course — which is a form of progressive strategy.

The importance of a strategic process, with or without strategy as the starting point, is consistent with another one of Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth items, and which is a favourite of mine:

“Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”

In stressing the importance of process, Mau is recognising strategy. He’s not just talking about an anything goes, random process of designing something. He’s talking about a driving force. And in seeking to go to new places, he’s talking about seeking a particular outcome, one not defined by what is already known, but defined none-the-less — by opportunity; the space for an idea. Strategic thinking is creative thinking. It is the defining essence of design.

So, in seeking to achieve great design, how we start is certainly less important than how we progress. “Just do it”² may work to sell running shoes and provide useful encouragement to begin design, but strategy — either at the outset or progressively developed immediately thereafter — is essential in design. It will help us creatively channel our efforts towards designing for application to context; towards designing just what the “it” ought to be.

1. For the city-urban distinction, refer the About section of this website.

2. Of course, the Nike slogan is a vital part of a well-conceived and executed design strategy. As Marty Neumeier points out in his book, The Brand Gap (2003), the “Just do it” slogan appeals to the well-understood tendency people have to procrastinate about undertaking exercise (and to quit soon after embarking on a new exercise regime), and it also provides encouragement to overcome any lingering doubts we may have about our actual ability to be “out there”.

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