Design Matters


By Lisa Antenucci

“This isn’t going to end too well for me is it?”
“Nope definitely not ending well.”
“Do you still think I’m pretty.”

This cleaver wrap is the punch line for the iPad vs. Surface RT commercial currently running on television. When Apple initially launched the iPad we were awed. It was pretty, sleek, well-designed—it did things that we thought only our computers could do. The iPad, like the microwave, presented us with a device that we didn’t even know we needed, and we had to have it. It was true innovation powered by design.

Shelter Architecture. All images provided by Shelter Architecture.

Shelter Architecture. All images provided by Shelter Architecture.

Now along comes Surface and it has added features that make it more usable at a lower price making it an appealing competitor to the iPad. This expansion of ideas that make things more user friendly is the nature of human-centered design. That is what architects and interior designers have always focused on. So, if you pause for one moment and look around at everything you see. You realize that every single inanimate thing is created by someone. And more importantly, the design of these things makes a difference in your life whether you realize it or not.

Everything required someone to decide how it should happen, where it should happen and how much it will cost. In that sense designers make ideas tangible in ways you can touch and experience.

There seems to be a renewed appreciation of great design brought about, in no small way, by businesses realizing that great design boosts their bottom line. Some of today’s most inspired companies are propelled by design: Target, 3M, Apple, Dyson, Nike and Virgin to name a few.

Designers are becoming influencers of corporate structure as well as products. Approaching problems from a designer’s point of view typically places the users (customers, workers, patrons, etc.) and the overall experience as the guiding force in the creation of innovative solutions. The buzz phrase among designers is “human-centric design”; putting the human experience, on all levels, at the forefront of the design criteria. Great design should consider both the intimate individual human experience and the broader global implications of the things we create.

An unused Japanese toothpick.

An unused Japanese toothpick.

On the small scale, consider a toothpick. Traditional Japanese toothpicks are pointed on only one end. The other end has grooves. The grooves are designed to allow the end to be broken off which indicates that the toothpick has been used. It also allows for the pointed end to be propped upon the stub to keep it clean. Even toothpicks are designed. And when designed with intention the beauty of the object is expressed.

On the global scale, the fact is that the things we design usually take resources. They also have a life cycle. It is becoming more and more imperative that designers consider the full ramifications of their work and strive to develop methods of total reuse and recycling of the resources we use.

Design is a process, an architect would not simply sit down and in one fell swoop draw a floor plan. There are progressive steps that a design team takes to arrive at the final product. Every designer has their particular approach but the basic outline of the design process is fairly universal and looks a lot like this:

This is where designers look, listen, and imagine. There is a necessity to see what is the actual situation and at the same time, trying to see latent potential. Where are the opportunities? How can this be better used? What if we (fill in the blank)? How does it work? The questions trigger the imagination to begin to see things in a new way. This is an exciting part of the process.

Design process.

Design process.

The next step involves not only looking at all of the collected information from the Discovery phase but also refinement of the objective. One method is to phrase a question as a “How might we…?” statement. It is meant to open up possibilities while helping get the scope of the question to the most potent scale. “How might we create world peace?” may be too large in scope while “How might we find the best height to place a light switch?” is probably a bit limiting. You can also think of this phase as defining the critical elements that must be met in order to define success. There are usually a multitude of factors that a client brings to the designer for consideration. We use these factors to define the question so that it encompasses the entire aspect of the product/space/object to be designed. It becomes the criteria of success used to measure the progress of the design process.

A well defined question frees the design team up to test every possible iteration they can think of as long as it meets the “criteria for success”. The development phase is where the process of trial and error is unleashed. The more things that can be ruled out as not working for the end goal the more the good options rise to the surface. This is an iterative process and the more good ideas are worked and reworked, the more refined and successful the final solution will be. During this part of the process, great design teams have good organization, schedule and reach milestones and deadlines to help focus the process, and are not afraid to let go of ideas that are not allowing for the greatest outcome.

The ultimate goal is to get the design out into the world. In architecture and interior design the delivery phase focuses on the creation of all the design documents (most people understand these as blueprints and specifications/product selections), think of this as the instruction manual for the work that is to be done to create the space. There are many other components that the designers and architects are involved in during the “making” of the product, from reviewing bids by the contractors, to making adjustments in the field, to a final “to do” list before the homeowner/office team/restaurant/etc. move in to their newly constructed space that is perfectly fit to their needs and desires.

Construction documents.

Construction documents.

So why should you care about design? Because great design solves problems that people encounter everyday. Our environment is directly connected with our wellbeing and design is about innovating and making things better. One of the skills a designer brings to the table is the training and experience to see many of the things we take for granted. Humans are really amazing at finding inventive work-arounds to situations and objects that get in their way or are not tailored to their needs.

Design directly effects the products you buy and the daily choices you make. A recent study from the University of Missouri found that beautiful environments are a deciding factor when people choose to frequent a business. A study on the effects a waiting area has on diners, conducted by the College of Human Environmental Sciences, found the design of the waiting area directly effected both the restaurant’s profitability as well as a willingness to wait and the enjoyment of the experience by the patrons. This same effect carries over into all aspects of our lives.

The environments of our homes and our work places are where most of us spend over half of our lives. It only makes sense that those places should be designed to fit our needs and to promote well-being. Many aspects of daily life are truly unique to this time period and our environments should be designed to accommodate and improve these unique conditions.

Time chart.

Time chart.

Design for well-being means designing spaces that allow for productivity and relaxation in our homes and in our work places. We need to design spaces that accommodate all abilities and ages. And, when designed well, our homes don’t need to be any larger, and ideally could be smaller, than most current homes. Leveraging design to reduce the resources we use both in construction and maintaining our built environment should be a primary focus of any designer. In many ways you can make an analogy between great design and great poetry. Design intends to get to the essence of an idea and manifest it in the simplest and purest form the design team can conjure. Great poetry has similar qualities of distillation and purity; of using less to express more.

Often a simple, well-executed design move can bring about a remarkable transformation. An example of this idea can be seen in a room from the 2012 ASID Showcase House located near Lake of the Isles. The home owner asked for a room dedicated to his daily practice of meditation. We outlined the requirements and defining factors of the project as: How might we create a meditation space that is quiet, with tranquil lighting both day and night? Some major issues that needed to be addressed were the direct southern light and the possibility of getting warm during summer months.

The solution centered around a screen wall that was pierced with holes laid out in a Fibonacci pattern (a mathematical sequence found repeatedly in natural forms) to produce a meditative and defused pattern of light. The choice of this pattern as well as all the other textures and elements were carefully researched and selected. A perfect chair, some lighting selections and a low profile ceiling fan were added and the room became a gorgeous sanctuary for meditation.

Fibonacci and Meditation. A room of well-executed design.

Fibonacci and Meditation. A room of well-executed design.

Usually an environment and the experience in it is specific to the individual. Designers often draw upon broad, commonly held culturally understood ideas combined with the specific desires and preferences of the individual user. This is most common in custom design items such as homes and custom furniture pieces. When you partner with an architect or interior designer to build or modify your home (or workplace) you have the opportunity to craft an environment that addresses the things that are most important to you.

The economics are also a critical item that cannot be left until the end. It must be incorporated into the design process and the criteria for success at the outset. Certain things that drive price can be dealt with in design such as complexity to build, material costs and any costs associated with operation and maintenance. By placing priorities where they are appropriate for the criteria of the project we often find the style and aesthetic of the design starts to take shape.

An easy example would be deciding to design a kitchen without any cabinet pulls. Immediately there are some things that are effected. Mostly what do the doors look like? Are they shaped in a way that the outside edge(s) are shaped to be grabbed? Are there shapes cut into the doors to allow you to open them? Are these modifications actually a cost savings? Can they be designed to make the doors more appealing than the common solution of screwing metal hardware onto the doors? How does this choice make it better? These are some of the questions that begin to take shape when you ask, “How might we save money on kitchen cabinet doors?”

Design impacts us throughout every moment of our daily lives. Designers spark ideas on how to innovate and make the world better. They observe the details, ask prying questions and notice how we navigate the built environment. It is an exciting and informative way to problem solve that most people find eye opening the first time they participate on a design team. By allowing yourself to see the possibilities and identify hidden opportunities, you can really leverage the power of asking, “How might we…?”

Lisa Antenucci is an award winning dynamo at Shelter; an innovative, creative, yet accessible design studio specializing in the architecture and interior design of sustainable homes and unique commercial spaces. See her work at

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