I know a designer who has a strong shell. I can call it a "pride",
" dignity", or "self-respect". Everybody has it.
The problem is that without other designers' feedback, her design becomes
self-satisfying and I do not see any progress. She also hides her design
At first, I thought
she is so full of confidence, she wanted to do her own design. Later,
after a long conversation, I found out that she was so afraid. She was
afraid to be criticized, laughed at, and forced to change her design.
Criticism on your
design is painful. Some will take it to make the design better. Some
avoid it to preserve their self-respect.
Design is, by its
nature, process oriented and collaborative. We are trained to do "break
through" thinking. We cannot afford to have a "shell"
and hide behind it for self-preservation.
I am a designer,
and I am afraid. I start my design from this point.
This is the text of the Commencement address by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple
Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, delivered on June 12, 2005.
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's
life. Don't be trapped by dogma which is living with the results
of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown
out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow
your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want
to become. Everything else is secondary. "
It sounds phony but it is true. I experienced it for the first time
when I was 19 and ever since, I am hooked. I was working on a school
design project late at night, or early morning, and just finished an
interior perspective of a library design.
I liked what I saw.
I was so jazzed. I was so proud of myself. I could feel the excitement
going through my body.
Some become addicted
to this Adrenaline rush. I heard that people seek this excitement by
doing dangerous sports, going to war, jumping off from an airplane,
and even take dangerous drugs for it.
My name is Kotaro
Nakamura, and I am a designholic. I am addicted to design.
The idea of "Secondary Function" is not my original. It is
described in "Function and Sign" by Umberto Eco (1980). I
explain the concept to my students using the difference between "eating"
Design, by its nature,
is utilitarian, therefore it has primary function. However, from the
ancient time, humans added patterns on the pots and blankets they made.
The patterns and artwork on the functional objects such as pots are
not the primary function of the objects. They satisfy the secondary
function of the pots.
If we define the
primary function as utility, the secondary function can be defined as
"emotion". Fine art does not have the primary function.
Good design is primarily
derived from the secondary function and it just satisfies the primary
When I design, I think of timelessness. It is my attempt to avoid being
trendy. It may be caused by the fact that I am getting older.
I do not need to
invent timeless design. There are a lot of them out there. The Egyptian
pyramids, California Missions, Hotel Del Coronado, Salk Institute, and
etc. These have something in common.
1. They never
lost their primary and secondary functions.
2. These designs will be kept even if they lose the ability to provide
the primary functions.
3. And, the
most important fact is that their secondary function is "spiritual"
When I go to these
places, I feel something. Not just being old and historical. There are
a lot of old buildings out there but not all of them have this spiritual
Design and Fine Art
We are forced to think about this issue of the difference between design
and fine art. We are commissioned to provide a public art for the Port
The difference is
"utility" according to a dictionary. Common issues are "beauty
and creativity". Without utility, fine art deals with a pure "idea"
then somehow communicate that in "effective ways". This effective
ways can take many different forms. Also, if this is true, designers
must do fine art AND utility solutions at the same time. I am more confused
than when I started.
On top of that,
there is good and bad fine art issue. Good fine art resonates with the
spectators. It touches and communicates with my soul. Bad fine art is
often decorative and does not speak to me.
The subjects that
influence me most are the issues of human existence. Happy or sad, beautiful
or ugly, when arts deal with the conditions of humanity, I listen.
I was up in San Francisco this weekend. One of the benefits of having
an office there. My partner took me to the new fine arts museum called
Young in Golden Gate Park. Its sprematism
form of the building, and thinking, struck me. I experienced art becoming
a building. Not the other way around.
I also realized
the simplicity of the building. It is an orchestrated simplicity with
care in every detail. Simplicity demands careful details.
What if a painting
becomes a building? Can we live in a sculpture? Can our everyday living
become art itself? Can we become part of art?
de Young made me
feel like we were a part of the art exhibits.
I made a sculpture
at home and put it on my coffee table.
at home and it was viewed in a gallery.
at home and put it on a public place.
The first one was
viewed by my family and friends. The occasion is most likely incidental.
The second one was viewed by public who is seeking art. The third one
is most likely viewed by public by coincidence.
Public art is site
specific and larger in scale. What designers do is public art.
What makes a design-work significant is its meaning. Just as any fine
arts and other arts such as literature, music, and dance. Meaning is
created by relationships the work has with surrounding issues. Different
level of relationship designers employ to create the meaning of an object.
Place - where it
Culture - in what context
Function - how it is used
People - who are they and why
History - in what time line - when
Conflict - what
kind of conflict is expressed
Resolution - how the conflict is resolved
These are pretty
good process of design. I added "conflict" after talking with
my partner. Conflict makes people engage with your work.
Good and bad
Old and young
Men and women
Life and death
Haves and have nots
Power and power
When my car was struck from the back by a truck, my entire life went
through my mind...no, it did not. I was busy trying to stop the car
without break rolling down on the freeway. I heard very distinctive
crunch sound when it hit my car. I was holding my back of the head where
my seat struck until ambulance came.
I am okay now. Other
than my elbow, I do not have any pain. I noticed that I am jumpy for
any kind of noise. When my dog sneezes, I jump.
Any sudden sound
connects my memory back to that crunch sound. Sound is highly overlooked
area in design. Sound and smell connect our mind to far away places
and long time ago. Yet, designers overlook this effect.
Designers of automobiles
design the "new car smell" and the sound of door closing.
In a small compartment like a car, sound and smell become important
I am surprised that
the sound does not have to be anything close to the original one. It
still brings the experience back to me, every time.
I saw Rembrandt's paintings. Other than religious overtone, they were
just paintings of people. No abstractions, no symbolism.
Almost total lack of meanings but they were so powerful. Why?
They speak more
than just paintings of people. They speak of life itself. How did he
do that? The way he painted? Color? Skill?
This explains to
me that we do not need to do a lot to communicate with the users of
our design. It is better not to think too much. Just do it and do it
well. Your work will do the rest.
Three Stages of Art
1. A painter paints an apple.
2. A painter paints a clock to express "time".
3. A painter paints melted clocks to express distortion of time.
#1 is painting as
recording. #2 involves selection of object to express some meanings.
#3 expresses abstract concept by utilizing object, forms, and color.
When photography was invented, the painting was separated from "recording"
functions. Painters started painting something not visible; abstract
Design will never
be separated form its function. But, it can have nonfunctional elements
I start with idea. The idea of what it should feel like; the secondary
function. Then solve the primary functional issues.
The public art for
the Port started with an idea. Idea of wind and water. After a lot of
discussion, I expanded the ideas to include "incompleteness"
and "movement". Abstracting the form took the "cuteness"
out of it.
After many sketches,
I started making a model. CAD does not do the work of models. Its intuitiveness
is not a match for a computer program.
I realized as I
made the model that it is time to depart from the idea. I need to forget
about all the thinking and discussion I had about this design. Empty
my mind and let my hands and eyes to decide the final form. This is
the Zen and art of true design.
I gave a lecture on the tea house today. There were about 40 people
in the audience and it was well received. I was relieved that people
felt it was worthwhile event to come to at 9:30 on a Saturday morning.
I was also surprised that there were several experienced professional
designers and historians in the audience. I am good, but not that good.
The Tea House was
designed to be a different world; a space where you are free from social
obligations and the materiality. You enter into a simplified space where
nothing matters except for the relationship between the server and the
served. Serving tea almost becomes "something to do" so they
do not stare at each other, doing nothing. Leaving the material world
behind, you enter into a spiritual world. Simplicity is necessary, as
it is in a chapel.
When I was young,
I needed many material things. Getting married, having kids and jobs
necessitated to have more things in life. Materials controlled how I
behaved. As I became older and more established in my profession, the
spirituality became more important. I try to simplify my life. I try,
at least, to get away from materiality.
I did not care about
the idea of the tea house before. I thought it was just the rich pretending
the poor in the name of humbleness. I realize it now that the material
needs need to be satisfied to even think about spirituality.
This may be my quest
to build my own tea house. A tea house that contains my spirit, where
the server and the served reside, work, and worship.
Let's go to places where you've never been. Leave the comfort of your
home and go to a strange land where you do not know anybody. Leave your
family and friends and discover new people.
I am a stranger
in a strange land doing strange things. That is what my design is all
about. I am lucky to be able to do that.
A stranger does
not need a map.
My Cat's Death
I had to put my cat to sleep. My 20 years old cat's kidney failed and
she became skin and bone. She could not hydrate herself.
When I lost my father
6 years ago, I thought about the quality of life issue. My father who
was Ph. D. in Metal, wrote ten books from age 62 to his death in age
82. When he finished the tenth book, he lost the purpose to live. I
saw a soulless body of my father who was fighting cancer.
Amount of life can
be measured by its quality multiply by its quantity. I could have prolonged
my cat's life for a week or so by hospitalizing her and hydrating the
body. But, for what reason? Without the quality of life, prolonged life
is just an empty quantity of time. She won't be with us and she will
I do design work
like my life depends on it. The day I stop design related work, it is
time for me to go. I hope my family understands that.
The quantity of
design commission I obtain is limited but the quality of work is totally
up to me. This is why I put my 200% into my design work, every time.
Technology and Design
"It looks good
so it must be good"
With their dazzling colors and smooth shading, computer-generated images
are very seductive and can make convincing presentations, but all designers
know a well done, hand-generated presentation, such as a watercolor,
will sell the design to clients. A good design will generate a good-looking
presentation, not the other way around. A professor said it all with
this quote, "A computer gives the illusion of talent."
"I spent too much time (or money) to throw it out"
Some special effects for movies are so expensive the scenes must make
the final cut whether or not they enhance the story. Because of this,
some movies go down as poor productions. Similarly, spending too much
time using technology at the schematic phase of design has its shortfalls.
When we spend too much time drafting, we cannot throw it away anymore,
simply we are out of time or we have spent too much money. A good, old
fashioned, freehand sketch works much better because it is fast and
"I do it because the technology can do it"
Since technology handles odd geometry and curvature with such ease,
it allows us to do things we never thought of when drafting by hand.
This is great, the problem occurs when the method of drafting takes
over the design of the building. We must remember, we do not design
because technology allows us to, but because it is our creative outlet.
A design generated solely by the methodology of drafting is an empty
shell without meaning.
"Improvisation and motion"
Improvisation requires motion simply because motion creates design,
the originator of the idea of improvisation, Konstantin Stanislavski,
explains. Motion does not require thinking because logic cannot create
a design. When designing, we suspend our conscious mind and allow emotion
to take over and move our hands. This is not clicking the mouse; this
is sketching on a piece of paper.
2006 New Year's Resolution
At the age of 51,
I have to think about what I am going to do for the rest of my life.
Literary, life is short. I do not wish to spend it as usual. I left
my country at the age of 23 looking for something other than "usual".
As I get older,
what I am as my occupation is becoming not so important. The issues
we deal with are becoming much more important. For example, I being
a teacher is not so important but what I teach is.
I need to find out
what I like to do, instead of what I want to become.
I would like to
build healthy environment. Healthy in many ways such as environmental,
social, and artistic. I would like to find an activity that combines
all three issues.
I like good design
in any medium.
I like to see elimination of poverty. (Social equity)
I like to see green (sustainable) environment.
goals will require great efforts. At the same time, I know these monumental
tasks are done by accumulation of individual efforts. All I can hope
is I do my part for the future of our people while I am here.
I did it. I passed
the exam for LEED
Accreditation. Now, I can call myself a LEED Accredited Professional.
(LEED AP after my name)
I know, it is just
a title but people have to rely on something to judge my ability to
deliver the services they require.
There were 73 questions
in 1 hour 45 minutes exam at the computerized testing center. I needed
39 or more correct answers to pass. It did not tell me my score other
than I passed it. There were more process and strategy questions than
"how to get the points" questions.
One of my small
steps to achieve my new year's resolution.
Public Art 2
The public art for
the Port District is approved. It is a 72 feet high steel monument.
I designed it to be:
wing, leaf, sail,
wave, bird, feather, and fish
at the same time. These are the elements of the environment in which
this artwork is going to be located. It is designed to reflect and complete
There is nothing
much more to say about that.
Public Art 3
I presented the
public art to a group at the Port. It did not go too well. Last time
we met, I explained the art. This time, I explained what it will do
for the area business.
art. Some closes their eyes to anything abstract. All I can do is to
push it forward.
Yokohama International Cruise Ship Terminal
Over the spring
break, I took my son to Yokohama
International Cruise Ship Terminal in Japan. It was one of most
interesting places I have ever been.
It made me think
the importance of conceptual thinking and not to be afraid to think
outside of the box. I need to remember that the meaning of the place
is created by the relation between the visitors and their experience.
What we design is the experience, not the object.
I do not know if
the oil is going to run out by 2050 but we do know that the oil is going
to be expensive before it runs out.
We will come up
with solutions so we use less oil and plastic in our lives. We design
cars that run on energy other than oil. Cars that have very good mileage.
We build houses that do not need too much energy. Houses that use sustainable
There is a concept
called "embedded energy" that describes the amount of energy
to harvest, manufacture, package, advertise, transport, install, and
run a product. We call it "cost."
The value of a product
is also decided by what it does for you, physically and psychologically.
Low cost and good
function is a good practice of design. When the design produces emotional
value, the feeling of "must have it", it becomes good design.
Can you define
what good designer is?
Vietnam Veteran's Memorial
I was in Washington
DC this week. I went to see buildings and monuments at the mall. This
is the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial designed by Maya Lyn. Best design
at the mall next to the East Wing of the National Gallery.
Pendulum is swinging
between high-tech and high-touch. As we employ more technology in our
design, we also need to balance it with more human touch. The old fashioned
sketches and hand drafting have more than their nostalgic value. The
intuitive aspect of freehand drafting employs the artistic improvisation.
The only aspect of humanity that technology will never be able to replace.
is a Japanese word for "play" as in child's amusement. Its
extended use is "tolerance" as in tolerance on machine parts.
In English, this word is also used as "freedom of movement"
and "freedom for action."
The concept of play
was one of characteristics in Japan's history in Edo era (1603-1867).
People were amused by and valued the idea of having or doing things
that are not the necessities of everyday life. The idea is not foreign
or new. We collect paintings and antiques that may not be essential
to our living, or are they?
Primary reason of
our existence may be to live and continue our species. Even little bugs
do that. What makes us a little different from them is that the fact
we cannot live without this life's "play." Take birthday cakes
as examples. Why are they decorated to be so pretty? We cannot eat "pretty"
but we enjoy it.
Design without play
is like using a sponge cake without frosting for a birthday party. Do
not be afraid to introduce unexplainable and unjustifiable ideas in
I was reading about
Haiku, a Japanese poem with 5, 7, 5, syllables. It explained not to
say everything. Say 70% and leave 30% up to the reader.
Old pond, a frog
jumps in, the sound of water (by Basho)
This poem is not
about the pond or the frog. It is all about the silence. It says that
it was so quiet that he could even hear the sound of a frog jumping
in. Basho did not say that. I concluded in my mind.
This explains that
what not said is much more expressive than what is said. I apply this
to my design. I do not explain everything.
This is the true designer's spirit. I received this mail form one of
"I was completely unhappy with my floor plan after I started making
the model because I realized that the house was going to turn out like
a big box and there really wasn't any way I could make the house more
interesting by the roof. So I completely scrapped my floor plan and
started from scratch. I want to build my model over the weekend..."
Art and Design
They say that art needs to appeal to people's senses as well as
mind. If it appeals only senses, it becomes decorative. If it appeals
to mind only, it becomes philosophy.
Design needs to
do all that while dealing with function, budget, clients, codes, and
This semester, I asked two questions to my students.
1) What aspects
of the design stimulate the human senses?
2) What aspects of the design stimulate the human mind?
Question #1 deals with the visual effects and communication. Question
#2 deals with philosophical side of the communication. I did not have
too much difficulty explaining #1 but explaining #2 was difficult. What
stimulate human mind?
After seeing some
exciting design projects, it became clear that it was not what the design
looked like but it was who designed it and their thinking process behind
what I saw on the paper. In other words, human mind can only be stimulated
by another human mind.
I designed a pond and it is under construction in our backyard.
Pond satisfies and
heals my mind. The pond is the expression of the mind, not its function.
As I sit at the site and listen to the birds and wind, the trees and
stones talk to me. I listen to the reason why they are there and why
I am there to build this pond. This coincidental meeting has reasons
beyond my life and creates meaning to my being.
When we look around
our houses, we find many things we have that are designed to satisfy
our mind. They are often combined with their functions, such as watches,
cups, chairs, cars, etc. These items do things for us but their designs
often satisfy our minds. We value these items by their function as well
as how they satisfy our emotional needs.
In order to satisfy
our mind, we need to know what our emotional needs are. We do not eat
candies because we are hungry. We eat them to satisfy our mind. Design
process is the reverse of this. We need to discover the thirst of our
mind first then design to fill this emptiness. Just as we do not know
why we want to eat sweets, the process of discovering the right design
is more mental and logical. We know the right design when we see it
just as we know the right sweets when we see one.
What is my relation to the world?
What is my relation with the nature?
What is my relation with self?
questions will give me the reason why I design things.
My world has many
problems like war, oil, and environment. But it also has culture, beauty,
and friendship as well.
My nature is myself. I take care of it whenever I can. Healthy nature
makes me healthy.
I am conscientious about what I do which defines who I am. I get frustrated
when I cannot do what I need to do.
Do not apologize
Learning takes place by questioning.
If you do not have any questions, you are not learning.
Van Cliburn from
KPBS Radio 3/1/08:
These days, Cliburn rarely plays in public, but still practices every
day often, he says, in the middle of the night.
"You feel like
you're alone and the world's asleep, and it's very inspiring. I was
never really the type that needed the stage. I love music. I love listening
to it. But when you just listen, you can be 100 percent; when you have
to serve music, you must be thinking of others, not yourself."
Design involves clients. Designers often compromise to meet clients'
expectations. I thought all piano players must do is to play their best
creative work. It is not so, it seems. I never heard the term "serving
music" and he will do less than 100 percent to please the audience.
Does this apply to fine artists as well? Is the painting for sale often
different from the painting for yourself?
225,000 people died
by the tsunami of 2004
Oil price shoots up to $150 a barrel in summer 2008
Worldwide financial credit shutdown in 2008
69,000 people died at 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China
Discovery of global warming (1.3 degrees F in 100 years)
World population is 6.7 B today and 9 B by 2050 (UN projection)
500,000 dead from violence and disease in Darfur, Sudan form 2003 to
One manmade or natural
occurrence has an effect on a large number of people than before.
One manmade or natural occurrence affects worldwide.
Fear and panic causes social disorder including financial.
There is high demand on natural resources including energy, water, and
Human activities exceeded the planetary ecosystem.
will come as high price.
Food and water shortage will be triggered by panic buy.
The worldwide financial market will be paralyzed by fear and panic sell.
needs to be lowered.
Be connected worldwide but live on local resources.
Be prepared for worldwide shortage of energy, water, and food.
Limit the childbirth
per capita by increasing competition and cost such as education, employment,
Creation of closed ecosystem units (villages) which can buy/sell eco-credits
for energy, food, water, and waste including CO2.
Limit the amount of energy, food, and water people can buy per capita
When there were a few cars on the street, they did not need regulations
such as lanes, traffic signs, speed limits. As the number of cars increased,
regulations became necessary. As the world population grows, more regulation
must be in place to manage the growth and control panic.
Deregulation will cause hyper growth as well as panic.