Listening to Design
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Listening to Design

A Guide to the Creative Process

Andrew Levitt

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eBook - ePub

Listening to Design

A Guide to the Creative Process

Andrew Levitt

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About This Book

Listening to Design takes readers on a unique journey into the singular psychology of design. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, architect, and psychotherapist, Andrew Levitt breaks down the entire creative process, from the first moments an idea appears to the final presentation of a project. Combining telling anecdotes, practical advice, and personal insights, this book offers a rarely seen glimpse into the often turbulent creative process of a working designer. It highlights the importance of active listening, the essential role of empathy in solving problems and overcoming obstacles, and reveals how the act of designing is a vehicle for personal development and a profound opportunity for self-transformation.With clear, jargon-free, and inspirational prose, sections on "Storytelling and the Big Idea, " "Listening and Receiving, " "Getting Stuck, " "Empathy and Collaboration, " and "Presenting and Persuading" signal a larger shift in design toward staying true to creative instincts and learning to trust the surprising power and resilience of the creative process itself. This enlightening and timely book is essential reading for designers, architects, and readers working in all creative fields.

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Design as Therapy

I WAS STARING at the man in front of me as we stood queuing to receive boarding passes for our flight. He had a shaved head and wore a grey robe tied at the waist with a thick cotton belt. I assumed that he was a Zen monk. When I looked down I was struck by the package on the floor beside him. It was about the size of a small under-the-counter fridge, but the way it was wrapped was remarkable. The outermost layer was a dark-green plastic, perhaps made from rubbish bags, but the way it was wrapped with duct tape and thick twine was sublime. All the edges of the parcel had a constant half-inch radius, which gave the shape its soft appearance, like a big gumdrop. The bold pattern of duct tape reminded me of calligraphy and the heavy-duty twine delicately traced a secondary pattern suggesting the calculations you might guess were involved in carrying such a load. The whole thing managed to look completely relaxed and extremely strong at the same time. The handle was a neatly formed cat’s cradle of twine lashed together to form a comfortable grip. The sharp lines of duct tape were perfectly complemented by the delicate twine, creating an elegant and satisfying ensemble.
We were in a large airport terminal and much as I tried to look away, my eyes kept returning to the parcel. I finally gave up and just let my gaze rest on its economy and perfect equanimity. How long had it taken to complete the wrapping? It was obviously the work of a skilled craftsman. I could not tell if it had been fabricated at the last moment or carefully planned. Did the owner have help making it? Was the design the result of great effort or no effort at all? Just as I was thinking of asking the passenger if I could try picking it up, the woman at the counter signalled to him to step forward. He picked up his parcel and together they moved to the counter. A moment later the monk neatly pulled his travel documents from his shoulder bag and when the agent asked if he would be checking any bags, he placed his handsome cargo onto the scale. The agent leaned forward to see what was there and then asked, ‘Will you be checking just the one garbage bag?’ The monk nodded. I watched as she hooked a baggage label through the perfectly crafted handle and lifted his belongings onto the conveyor belt, where they sat for a moment before being swallowed and disappearing through a rubber door.
To the designer the whole world is crackling and breathing with design. It may be entertaining or useful, humble or pretentious. It may be lasting or transient, but for the most part, designers have no choice but to watch the world absorb yet ignore their work. To the designer, an alarm clock is as honed and considered as an opera house. An architect I know lavished years of care and concern on designing the perfect bakery. Both the bread and the client were wonderful, but the location was wrong and the bakery closed shortly after opening. All of its beautifully made, bespoke fixtures were thrown in a bin and a discount lingerie shop quickly moved into the space and flourished. I agree with people who say that design can influence a person’s mood. Of course a smile or harsh word can do the same. I believe that we design for the same reason that we become singers or mathematicians: love. We are called to it. We have no choice. The inexperienced singer thinks she is the reason that the audience is moved, but the wise singer knows that she is just a vehicle for a greater power that flows through her. That moving energy is the transformative agent. When a singer is moved, so, too, is her audience. The same can happen through the act of design.
WHEN I GRADUATED from architecture school in London I felt elated and exhausted. I had been working non-stop for five incredible years. I had given every ounce of my energy to completing my studies and when I crossed the finish line I was totally exhausted. Over the last two years of the course I had found my way into meditation and had done several ten-day Buddhist retreats, where I had felt profoundly happy and completely at home. I decided that I wanted to spend the next few years working part-time as an architect so I could focus on studying Buddhist meditation.
Living in London and studying architecture had taught me about the built world, and Buddhist meditation had pointed me to the value of the inner world, but I had no idea how to bring these two worlds together. I became increasingly frustrated by this impasse during my fifteen years working as an architect, so I decided to go back to university to study urban design. I wanted to somehow bring my experiences into a single stream. I was in the middle of researching postgraduate courses when a conversation with an old friend suddenly highlighted another possibility. Why not study psychology? Over the last ten years I had been increasingly drawn to that field and had been attending many kinds of classes, workshops and retreats, where I had tried everything from Holotropic Breathwork to yoga, Reiki and dreamwork.
I became convinced that this was the leap I was looking for. I was drawn to a school in Philadelphia that distinguished its programme from others by allowing students who had no undergraduate training in psychology to do a probationary term. If I scored high-enough marks in the first semester, I would be allowed to pursue a master’s degree in counselling psychology. I went for the interview on the campus – which had been founded by the Sisters of St Joseph – that reminded me of Montreal’s beautiful convents. Buoyed in part by the architectural quality of the place and in part by my lack of other options, I packed everything up and moved to Philadelphia.
When the course began I settled into a small, stone residential building and pronounced myself ready. The first psychopathology class, however, was a shock. I did not understand a word of the lecture. My lack of undergraduate psychology courses was going to be a huge problem. Psychology has a particular and esoteric language that is just as specific to it as anything I had learned in architecture. My colleagues, some of whom had come from backgrounds such as law or political science or veterinary medicine, had no problem because they had all studied undergraduate psychology. My sense of accomplishment after persuading the school that teaching architecture and attending meditation retreats and workshops would make my transition simple seemed pitiful. I was in trouble. On my first day I ran out at lunchtime to buy a dictionary of psychology so I could try to keep up with the new terminology. The amount of reading expected of me was formidable and after four weeks I was in a hole so deep that I would not be able to catch up until the term was over. Sitting in the back row of the class I began to take stock. I could take notes, but I was not really sure what I was taking notes about. I read for hours every night, but comprehending even the most basic concepts was proving elusive. I began to wonder if perhaps I had bitten off more then I could chew.
Then, in my darkest hour, sitting at the back of the psychopathology class, I had a eureka moment. I began to draw architectural diagrams that explained what the professors were saying. I had always liked to draw and knew I understood best what I could see. Suddenly obscure theories about the psyche, the dynamic between inside and outside, ego and unconscious, classifications of differential diagnosis, became something I could visualize and understand. My quick sketches of buildings converted the once opaque psychological world into architectural drawings. The familiar clarity of parti diagrams that I used to show the concept of an architectural design with arrows pointing to sections, elevations and plans allowed me to feel at home in the world of psychology.
For the first time I began to understand what I was studying. I joyfully drew what I heard. The architectural diagram became my best friend. Psychopathology lectures were still a challenge, but when they were translated into architectural language, I began to comprehend the enigmatic language of psychology. I diagnosed case studies as I would buildings. Glass facades helped me to understand congruence. Transference turned into transportation studies. Psychological transparency reminded me of essays by the architectural historian and theoretician Colin Rowe. I began to get a grip on the world of psychology and immediately realized what I found so exciting and profound about architecture: it was powerful because it was both physical and metaphysical. It existed as a built structure and an inner world, and psychology was both its perfect counterpoint and soulful twin. The concepts of inside and outside are related to both disciplines, and the congruence or dissonance between outside and inside is an important working premise for both professions. Context, narrative, mood, body and language are common to both. Comfort, presence and shadow are heard in both architectural and psychological case studies. Armed with dictionaries, textbooks and my faith in the magical power of architectural drawings, I passed the first semester.
Architecture and psychology have always been important places of learning for me, but their relationship to one another became clear when I began to teach in the design studio. Here I found the worlds of architecture and psychology to be overlapping and inseparable.
It turns out there is no formal training for becoming a teacher in a school of architecture – no special courses to take or exams to write. Some colleagues run architectural offices in conjunction with teaching, while others have more academically oriented interests. I never really had a long-term plan, and my journey to becoming a teacher in an architecture school has rested on a series of unlikely decisions. After I received a degree from the Architectural Association in London, I decided to immerse myself in the study of Buddhism. When not working in architecture offices, I took extended sabbaticals to travel, study and meditate. After completing my psychology degree I settled down and began working as a psychotherapist. Finally, as so often happens when we take a journey, I found myself needing to return to where I started and began teaching in the design studio. Life’s twists and turns can seem disconnected and without purpose, but in the end I feel fortunate to have found my way back to doing what I love. Every design is a journey into the unknown and calls for equal measures of creativity and compassion. My own experiences tell me that good things happen when you stay true to yourself.
When I meet with students, I am interested in discovering one thing: what do they want to create? I am always listening to hear what moves them. If I have a philosophy of education, it is that to educate one must first discover where a student’s desire and enthusiasm is located, so that it can be supported, strengthened and allowed to flourish. I want students to learn to trust their creative instincts so that they genuinely acquire the experience necessary to withstand the challenges of life and the design studio. Once students discover the power of their architectural instincts, the process of educating this creative drive flows easily. This may sound simple, because it is simple. Students bring a passion to their beliefs and this effort and determination is a remarkable and precious resource in any design studio.
A friend told me about a group of architecture students who, after an evening of passionate debate in the design studio, left Montreal at midnight and drove to see a Louis Kahn building in New Hampshire. They arrived at dawn, but it turned out the building they were hoping to see wasn’t finished. In fact it was not yet out of the ground. When they reached the fence surrounding the construction site they found themselves peering into a deep excavation in the earth and were transfixed by the building’s perfect concrete foundations illuminated by the rising sun. They stood there speechless and in awe as though they had travelled to the Holy Land.
I have never advocated that anyone follow a particular style of architecture or design process. I really have no set rules about how to teach design because I have witnessed remarkable designs spring from multiple interests and combinations of approaches, many of which I could never have predicted. I am convinced that everyone has their own inspirations and challenges and therefore their own ways of being creative.
The most important thing about the architecture studio is that it is a safe place where the interests and enthusiasm of students can be nurtured. I do everything in my power to create and maintain this atmosphere, and I would consider anything less a failure. The result is always an opening of the great door of courage, learning and hope. When the design studio is filled with positive energy, it naturally runs itself. If given a choice, I would always rather students develop a deep connection to their own creative journey than try to impress or please another person.
What does a desk crit have in common with a therapy session, one that might deal with serious emotional problems that often have been building for years? It seems, at first glance, that the answer is nothing at all, yet I have experienced many desk crits that were as charged as any therapy session, with a student in tears from feeling overwhelmed by multiple deadlines, who has not been sleeping well and who is suffering through a terrifying creative block. The anxieties, frustrations and desires that we experience during the creative process are as real and tangible as any of the more obvious formal, cultural and technology-based issues that are universally accepted parts of the design process.
Even if the design process has gone reasonably well, it is important to acknowledge that every time we create something we form a deep and sometimes stubborn attachment to our work. Its fate inevitably becomes our fate. A creative setback can undermine our mood and shake us to our foundations. Consciously or unconsciously, we relate to our creations the way a young parent watches their child. Knowing how to stay related to what feels right creatively while being open to making changes is one of the most difficult lessons of design. Helping a student connect to his or her passion and awaken their sense of creative flow, can untie long-standing patterns of negative thinking, self-doubt and self-judgement, and can be very healing. Emotional blocks usually underpin creative frustrations. Many students are motivated by a genuine desire to bring greater beauty, social justice and amenity to the world. These aspirations underpin their entire approach to design. In this way their aspirations resemble those of a therapist; however, instead of healing an individual through a therapeutic encounter they bring healing to the built world though the act of design. This is an important way in which students learn to wrestle with their place in the world.
Today the idea and practice of therapy has moved well beyond the principles of psychology’s founders. It is easy to find a therapist dedicated to helping you promote wellness for every part of your mind and body. Movement-based therapies, art therapies, dream therapies, sports psychology and life coaching have added an ever-widening array of support to more traditional talk therapies. Psychology, like architecture, is a rhizome invisibly influencing everything it touches. So perhaps it would not be too much of a stretch to say that in the life of an architecture student, the desk crit, which is a special kind of interview with a focus on design, has the potential to be a therapeutic event that can only be enhanced by psychology.
A building can be photographed, an ego cannot. Yet there are buildings in every city that appear to be nothing more than the work of an egomaniacal developer, politician or architect. These very recognizable projects have no relationship to the conditions around them. They demand attention without making any contribution to urban life. They take far more than they give. A basic education about the characteristics of a healthy ego could help planners, designers and organizations recognize the difference between someone who is full of themself and someone with a more developed personality that is centred in themself. Every desk crit is at its core relational, as teachers try to find out more about a student’s project and students try to find out more about design. Sitting with a student and listening to him declare his intentions for a more soulful world is something that has to be taken seriously. While some may doubt this, most designers try to use design to positively influence and enliven the well-being of the people who use their buildings, landscapes and artefacts. The ambition of architects to uplift and enrich the lives of those who enter or hold their designs closely mirrors the ambition of therapists and others in the health-care field.

First Dress

Halfway through one student’s final year of the architecture programme, I was beginning to think that my colleagues were right. The project we were marking wasn’t great. After three months of work, many aspects of it still failed to add up. Like a brilliant trial lawyer or barrister, one of the professors analysed the project and expertly listed all of the incriminating evidence. Another colleague led the charge to a fail verdict, reminding us of the institution’s high standards. She claimed that this student was obviously not working hard enough and therefore did not care about what he was producing. There was a growing consensus that the student should not be allowed to complete his final term. Only one question was left unasked: why was an obviously smart and creative student doing so little with his talent? We adjourned for the day without a final decision and I decided to go and talk with the student.
The next morning, I met Jackson at his desk in the studio. At first, he refused to talk, but I persisted, telling him that he was in danger of failing and I really needed to hear his story in order to help him. There were three months left in his final school year and I wanted to see if we could turn the situation around before he had to pack his bags and go home after five years of hard work. Reluctantly, he began to tell me his story. In a very quiet voice he admitted that he had never wanted to be an architect. His dream was to be a fashion designer but he had been terrified to tell his conservative parents. He knew that they would never approve of his desire to study fashion. Over the years he had managed to hide his feelings and became a reasonably successful student, but now, with just a few months to go, the pressure of graduating and facing an unwanted future was too much. Jackson just could not keep up the deception. He told me that he felt like a fraud and could not go on, that he had no more to give and needed to be true to himself. He knew that it made no sense to quit now, but did not know how to finish the year. He loved textiles and the world of fashion and had no love at all for what he was doing. Moved by his honesty and suffering, we came up with an idea that he was willing to accept. He would complete his project as best he could by pretending that he was designing a textile rather then a large public park. He would try to fold into the design everything he loved about fashion. I talked to the other professors and convinced them to give Jackson a low probationary pass.
For the next three months, he worked diligently until he thought that he had done enough to pass. When the time came to assess his final grade, my colleagues were unsatisfied – they wanted more from him. They were unconvinced by what he had done. They wanted to know why someone so skilled was settling for a low pass. I defended his work and argued that he had done enough. I was somehow able to prevail, and Jackson received a passing mark, which meant no additional work was required of him. I was satisfied that the best interests of the student and the school had been served.
About a year later I received an email from Jackson asking if I would write him a letter of reference for fashion school. I was happy to do it and wrote about his courage, creativity and determination. Our connection went silent again for another few months and then another email arrived. The subject line said ‘First dress’, and when I opened the email I saw two images. The first was a beautifully tailored polka-dot dress on a mannequin. The second image showed Jackson wearing a dark hoody that covered his face so that only his eyes were visible. In the email he told...

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