Often when I meet someone new and we declare our occupations, my companion will assume a wistful expression and say something like, “I always thought I might have liked to be an architect too if I hadn’t gone into…” Perhaps one of the reasons why the “I always thought…” remark is so common is that most of us are architects from time to time in various ways, regardless of how we make a living. Even small children will rearrange their things with purpose and who among us has never had to lay out the furniture in a room or office?
Most people live in houses or apartments that are a big part of their lives and more or less under their management. The principles of architectural design and design in general are among the tools we use to make a life. If we use them skillfully, the things we live with will help and please us. If we apply them badly, we risk dwelling in an expensive, ugly clash of stuff. This article and its companions are devoted to the skillful use of design. What separates good from bad design? Creativity and great ideas are important-certainly coming up with consistently bad ideas will slow progress, but the truth is most of us come up with both good and bad ideas at the same time when working on a problem. Rejected ideas are no cause for shame and good ones won’t make a design by themselves. We need to edit our inspiration. Often, the problem with an idea is not even that it’s bad; it’s that it doesn’t fit the Big Picture.
Which brings me to the first rule of good design: have a Big Picture, even for a small project. If you want to impress your friends, call it a concept, but under any name it should provide the energy that both supports and tests your ideas.
Suppose you want to remodel and rearrange your living room. To find your Big Picture and create a concept, ask yourself these basic questions. The answers are useful whether you are setting up a campsite or designing a multimillion dollar building:
* What do I want to do in here? Your answers might include… entertain one or two couples in the evening, watch TV with my family, read and listen to music, or impress the parson at Sunday Tea. Most likely, you will get more than one answer; few rooms serve only one purpose. Record your objectives and refer to them regularly, any design element that doesn’t serve them needs a hard second look. If it’s difficult for people to chat face to face, the TV competes with a sunny window, there is no good light for reading, or the mood is all wrong for spiritual communion, then something needs to change. This seems elementary and not worth mentioning until you think about the number of rooms you have visited where the question seems never to have been asked.
* Where is the sun? The amount and quality of natural light in a space will have a significant effect on how you experience it. Take a look at the window exposure and think about what kind of light you have at what time of day. If you are never in the room in the daytime and it gets the best south light in the house, maybe you, or the living room are in the wrong place. If it faces north and it’s where you like to meditate, you may be on to something good.
* How will I move through and in the space? Architects call this “circulation” and it’s a critical part of any layout. Generally, the best circulation (except in a corn maze) is straight and simple. If you have to dodge, weave and vault over obstacles to move through a space, you are probably giving up room to walking around that could be better used otherwise. You will probably also be creating unnecessary complexity and formal confusion, which is another word for ugly.
* Put out the trash. There is no shame in rejecting an idea that is not working; even of you did think of it yourself. One of the hardest parts of the creative process is saying good-by to notions that you love or are very used to. It may be that the Morris chair is just too big for the corner or that the couch and the computer are never going to play nicely together. If you have a solid Big Idea and are true to it, you will probably have to change your mind about some of the details as you go along. Be fearless.
If you think of yourself as an architect, work with a Big Picture and ally yourself with the Sun and simplicity, you can expect your room, your house, and the time you spend in them to be better by design.