Hopefully, we all agree that homogenous bad design is a problem.
But what about homogenous good design?
Sure, “good design” is better than “bad design”, but it presents a potentially massive problem for our cities and places.
Over the last several decades, strip centers, master-planned developments with faux facades made to look like individual buildings, and greenspaces in the middle of busy roads that nobody would ever safely access have been spreading bad design across the country.
The good news is that slowly, thanks in part to the work of fellow contributors here at Proud Places, more and more people are realizing that aesthetics and design do matter in shaping our places. Additionally, with the growth of Instagram, Pinterest, Etsy, and easy to use creative tools, the average person’s access to and respect for good design has never been greater.
The bad news is that specific elements and aesthetics, that while perhaps good design, are becoming so commonplace that many places around the world are beginning to lose their unique identity and are all starting to look the same.
We want places to improve and we believe that everyone deserves for their town, their coffee shop and their main street to be beautiful, revitalized and full of great design and style. However, it would be a tragic loss if every main street was full yet with the exact same shops and aesthetics you could find in every other town.
There would be no reason to travel, no reason to explore and nothing unique about our places.
You may have heard of the term “Airspace” as it was coined to describe the specific aesthetic that is rapidly taking over the world and was defined in an article published on Verge that describes it as,
“It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / workspaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.”
So here’s the rub – I like all of those things. Minimalist furniture, craft beer, reclaimed wood – sign me up! Who wouldn’t want their main street that is currently full of vacant buildings to be revitalized and full of all those cool places with that on-trend aesthetic? We should want progress, any progress and shouldn’t be design snobs, right?
Don’t get me wrong – I am fully advocating for progress and the revitalization of our places, but as we start to get there and places start to improve, I think we can do better.
I’m a designer and run a design agency. However, I didn’t always know that I was a designer and looking back I can see that I was always a designer. Even as a child I remember walking into a restaurant and immediately sizing up the place and thinking “I’d rearrange this waiting room. The font on this menu is bad. They should change the lighting in here”. Within minutes I would subconsciously redesign the entire restaurant. I was a child – with no design training, no restaurant experience and yet I can assure you that my instantaneous design recommendations would have been an improvement. I think many of us do the same thing. We know exactly how we’d fix up that storefront, how we’d put string lights across main street, and how we’d create an inviting space that brings people in. However, I think that knee jerk approach can lead us to the problem I’m describing.
I don’t want to get in the way of progress and revitalization, but my advice is this – before you critique, pause – before you design, reflect. Even if it is just for a moment to consider – what makes this place unique and authentic? What about its history, culture and the people that came before us shaped this place? How can this be done in a way that is truly authentic?
When we work with communities on branding and help them rediscover and define their identity, we spend months in the engagement process before we design a single thing. We do far more listening than talking. Just like when I was a child sizing up the restaurant decor, we could certainly fly into a community and immediately start making recommendations – but we don’t. We believe we need to truly understand the community so that we can make powerful changes that are authentic and not just the latest, homogenous design improvement – even if it would be better. I’m not suggesting we delay improvements and take months strategizing. I’m all for quick, incremental activation and improvement. But just pause for a moment and don’t just make it nicer. Make it nicer and authentic.
Where people get this wrong is they overdo it and turn things into a caricature of their places.
Have you ever seen on HGTV when they are redoing somebody’s house and that poor person accidentally lets out that they like the beach? All of a sudden their house is full of seashells and fishing nets on the walls. You don’t need to go in the opposite direction and make everything unique and different just for the sake of being different.
It’s about being subtle and finding the balance and what makes your place authentic. I want well-designed places in my town and I want to visit well-designed places in your town. But I hope to find something unique about how you did it in your town.