Design is More than a Backdrop
Just a few weeks into this job, I was talking design with a client. We were staring into the space, trying to visualize all the proposed ideas, and engaging in the usual volley of opinions that I’ve come to recognize as the norm. “The best design is something you don’t notice.” They said, to support their viewpoint. I had heard this before, as it is a sentiment shared among designers across many design fields. And even though I disagreed, I nodded.
Being as new as I was, I didn’t feel I could be anything but diplomatic. And to be fair, I could see where they were coming from. Much of my real-life design experience is in exhibition design for museums, and so I’m familiar with the challenges of coordinating a balanced but subdued interior where the artwork could shine.
The actual quote floating around the internet takes various forms, but the best reads, “Good design is in all the things you notice. Great design is in all the things you don’t.” It’s a valid point in some regards, but I think it’s often misapplied and misunderstood. Design is a name we give to a series of choices that dictate how we experience something. Not all design is good, or thoughtful, or intentional, but it exists in some form all around us. In many cases, it’s important that these design choices are unoffensive and unobtrusive, so that we can focus on something deemed more important. For example— the typeface used for street signs is very intentionally chosen for legibility over visual interest. It’s meant to convey information, not emotion. But not all design has to be a backdrop. Just as I didn’t think the quote applied to the context of that design discussion, I don’t think it applies to most of what I wish to achieve as a designer. I’m no longer working in a museum, or designing street signs, or strictly functional spaces. I’m helping businesses create interior spaces, where the choices I make can directly impact the physical and emotional experience people have there.
Here in Vermont, people present us with compelling stories that set them apart and make us excited to work with them and help them communicate that story in a physical space. With every new client comes the opportunity to create something unique to them that hasn’t been done before. But another challenge is convincing clients to agree to riskier design concepts. More than budget or any other practical constraint, a lack of trust can really limit creative freedom. A lot of people gravitate towards what makes them comfortable, or what they’re used to seeing. That’s why architecture is slow to change, and why interior design follows trends. But the kind of innovation that makes design exciting generally defies convention. With platforms like HGTV and Pinterest and Instagram, design is more accessible than ever, and its subjectivity makes it hard to stand out as an authority in a room of conflicting opinions. Safe and subtle will always be appealing and easy to execute. But I really believe that the best way to grow as an individual and part of a design firm is to keep taking those risks, and work to make my opinion heard and my decisions trusted.
The power and rising popularity of design is in its ability to express emotion. The reason museums have subtle backdrops is because they are not trying to make a strong statement. The art, and the way it is curated, is doing that. But in interior design, the way the space comes together is the art. Interior spaces don’t have to be just a backdrop. Design can and should enhance our lives and facilitates the type of experience people want to have, or want to create for others. And creating spaces that do anything less feels like a missed opportunity.
The best design can be the things you do notice, too.