Friday, November 8, 2013

Let's think more like engineers, and not so much like artists

I've just finished my presentation at the 2013 Society for News Design annual workshop. It was a little disaster, unfortunately. Not because of me or of the organizers, who were wonderful and extremely helpful. If there's someone to blame, it's whoever designed the building where the event took place, Louisville's Muhammad Ali Center.

I could try to explain what happened with words, but I thought that it'd be better to draw it. Here's a little infographic I've just made:

You got it right. The talk was at 4.30 p.m., four hours ago. The windows were on the West wall. The shades were really thin, so sunlight went through them, hit the screen, and made most of the slides almost unreadable.

There was a secondary screen (and a projector) on the South wall. We used it, but it didn't make things better because its quality was not great, and the room was flooded with sunlight bouncing off the white walls anyway.

This situation got me thinking about a point I make in presentations sometimes: All designers I know —and this includes architects— have an inner desire to be fine artists. Many of us won't admit it, but we wish to create beautiful things that attract people's attention, that surprise and awe. I'm fine with that. I share that desire, actually, although I might not feel it as strongly as others.

However, I'm not fine at all when that legitimate aspiration leads us to sacrifice the true purpose of our work, which is to make things useful and usable first. What kind of evil genius could think of a West-East oriented conference room in which the screen is on the opposite side of several large windows that lack opaque shades? The kind of evil genius who thinks that small windows and opaque shades are not "elegant," maybe.

After the presentation I also remembered Alvaro Siza, a famous Portuguese architect. Years ago he designed the new School of Communication at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the place where I got my BA in Journalism. As you can see in photographs (here and here), the building looks gorgeous from the outside. It's like a richly detailed abstract sculpture.

The downside of Siza's building, though, is that it's not made for humans. It's meant to be admired, not to be used. Among many problems, the acoustics of its classrooms are terrible, and some of the faculty offices are so narrow or weirdly shaped that you can barely get a desk inside. Architects that see themselves as artists drool when they write about this disgrace, but that's just because they were never forced to inhabit it.

Where do I want to get with this rant? Read the title of this post. Then, read it again. And again. Keep it always in mind.