Words we use for what we make

I just saw that the BBC tv documentary series based on Stuart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” has been posted on Google Video. Huzzah!

It’s been a while since I read the book, so I watched a bit of the first episode, and it kicked up a thought or two about the language we use for design. Brand makes a sharp distinction between architecture that’s all about making a “statement” — a stylistic gesture — and architecture that serves the needs of a building’s inhabitants. (Arguably a somewhat artificial distinction, but a useful one nonetheless. For the record, Joshua Prince Ramus made a similar distinction at IASummit07.)

The modernist “statements” Brand shows us are certainly experiences — and were designed to be ‘experienced’ in the sense of any hermetic work of ‘difficult’ art. But it’s harder to say they were designed to be inhabited. On the other hand, he’s talking about something more than mere “use” as well. Maybe, for me at least, the word “use” has a temporary or disposable shade of meaning?

It struck me that saying a design is to be “inhabited” makes me think about different values & priorities than if I a design is to be “used” or “experienced.”

I’m not arguing for or against any of these words in general. I just found the thought intriguing… and I wonder just how much difference it makes how we talk about what we’re making, not only to our clients but to one another and ourselves.

Has anyone else found that how you talk about your work affects the work? The way you see it? The way others respond to it?

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  • http://www.alteredeye.com Tanya Ahmed

    I have come from an architectural background and am now involved in design, principally web design. I find the correlation and possible analogy between “inhabiting’ an architectural space and the spatial experience you have when navigating through or “inhabiting” a website. .. This approach affects the design process and ultimately the resulting “experience” in my opinion. I am very interested in the links between the two and how words can be related to both design realms…

  • http://www.joelamantia.com Joe Lamantia

    As someone who’s just moved from New York to Amsterdam, I can vouch for the dramatic experiential differences between ‘inhabiting’ an architecture – say, by living in that place – and ‘using’ it – say by visiting a place, to extend the conceit.

    As someone who’s inhabited the user experience field for a while, this recent change of personal and professional context also makes starkly clear – at least to me – how the applied semantics of professional labels persist in being context specific, to cultures on the level of IT / marketing / sales, and to Cultures on the level of American, Dutch, French, etc.

    Accordingly, I’m staying away from hard labels as much as possible when working with other people on a problem, be it design, process, UX, biz model, metadata management strategy, whatever.

    This is a calculated risk to trade on the strength of the context that I bring with me walking into the room – my personal brand, to the (very!) limited extent that it’s known – show I have confidence in my own value in being in the room and the people who brought me into the room in the first place, and widen the range of my potential contributions and the role I might play by avoiding barriers / boxes / tight definitions.

    When working with people who don’t know my personal context – clients, management, the electrician, etc. – I choose a label in cooperation with someone who knows the local lay of the land; how the semantics will apply in the room.

    I’ll let you know how it works out.