So Blooloop invited me to contribute to its blog, Bemusement, and I said yes. Then I looked up the word “bemusement” and found it defined as “confusion resulting from failure to understand.”
I often look words up because I find that through osmosis (defined as a subtle or gradual absorption or mingling) I’ve developed my own definitions for many words and that my definitions are sometimes far from accurate. For instance, I thought “bemusement” was really just amusement with a “b” added for some phonic snob appeal and that it meant "a wry smile, " as in "He said it with a look of bemusement." And still, even with this new definition in front of me, I can’t shake the idea that bemusement is a positive and happy thing. We may be confused, but we’re not all upset about it. We rather enjoy it. It’s like being dazzled by a great magician and finding that our only possible conclusion is that magic must be real.
There is in fact (and I feel somewhat unfortunately) a second definition of bemusement. It is “to cause to be engrossed in thought.” (Sigh) This is probably the definition that the Blooloop editors had in mind when they named this blog. Or perhaps they had both definitions in mind. Perhaps they were giggling about the yin and yang subtext in this choice of title. And regardless of how you define “bemusement” I’m pretty well qualified to be here, and happy to belong.
So to get us acquainted, I thought I might share something on a piece of paper that has been hanging over my desk – bemusing me, in both senses of the word – for the last 20 years. Back when I was the young designer with the crazy ideas, somebody (I’m trying to remember who) came back from a meeting and handed me this piece of paper. They said it was something they thought I should have a look at. I have no idea who wrote it. Here is what it says:
“Details, Dimensions, and Specifications Are Not The Real Thing.
You design, detail and specify on your desk, where everything is controlled, close at hand, under a bright light, and at a small scale. Never forget that your lines and words are not subject to wind, rain, rust, or the laws of gravity. Nor are they seen in their actual context. Neither do they have full scale exposure to the complexity of the individual hopes, fears and wishes of those for whom the work is being designed. An "approved’ drawing does not mean that the person who approved it will love the result. The words and drawings on your desk, give no evidence as to whether their dimensions and shapes actually fit their purpose. The words and drawings are not the actual materials, but merely symbolic representations. No inspector can "red tag" your lines and words, nor can they fall down, freeze, crack, leak, or discolor. No one can trip or fall over your drawing. Last but not least, no lawyers are likely to have much interest in your words or drawings as long as they remain on your desk.
However, as you know, these carefully crafted, rather passive looking words, dimensions, and details don’t remain on your desk. They leave and get played out in life size form through the actions of others, in many cases by people you’ve never met. At that point your work takes on a life of its own. And when your efforts become three dimensional, they trigger every possible consequence, both good and bad. To the extent that you’ve thought about, not only what you had on your desk, but the full scale proportions, the nature of the materials, the methods of construction, and the four-seasonal, life-cycle impact of all that it implies, all will go well To the extent that you haven’t, you have just played roulette with the lives of everyone involved The price of a lifetime in architecture is eternal vigilance When problems do occur, be the person who is absolutely certain there is a solution, and don’t rest until it’s found. From start to finish, your education, your awareness, and your commitment must be to the delivery of the physical reality. In summary, you must master two problems. Details, dimensions, and specifications are not reality, but merely a tool along the way. The greatest problem is that a bad detail, a wrong dimension, an improper specification, while still on your desk, all look as good as good ones. ONLY YOUR UNDERSTANDING CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE.”
I think when I first read this (way back when) I was actually a bit offended. Hello, I know my designs are not the final product! But then on some level I kind of did think my designs were my final product. And it dawned on me that if I really wanted the ideas to survive, and for the intended message or experience to come across, I was really going to need to do what the piece of paper said. The price is eternal vigilance? Holy crap, eternal (without beginning or end; lasting forever; always existing) vigilance (state or quality of being vigilant; watchfulness) sounds long and difficult. In fact it sounded kind of impossible.
I now know I was both right and wrong about this. I was right to think that moving my designs – details, dimensions and specifications – into the real world, and having them perform EXACTLY as I intended is, indeed, impossible.
I was wrong to be worried about this. In fact, what life has taught me is that this very task – moving design off the page into “meat space” (aka the real world) and then responding to the unforeseen challenges that (inevitably) arise – is itself the primary task of the designer.
Put differently, being impossible is what makes the task interesting.
When working with my favorite colleagues we often discuss projects as if they are our children. We love them as a parent loves a child. We know their strengths and we know where they need focus and attention. Areas that are unclear or undefined or don’t make sense "need some love." And this means simply giving the attention that is required so that the area or idea or person is strong enough to go into the world and stand on its own.
I sometime wonder what might have happened if I had been handed a different piece of paper that day. Somehow this one 8-1/2” x 11” sheet with the text block copied out of square on the page has stayed with me. I don’t read it often but each time I have, it has refreshed and redefined my sense of responsibility as a designer. Again, I have no idea who the author is (if you know the author, please let me know), but I am very thankful for his words.