Design is inherently optimistic

Design is inherently optimistic. That is its power.
William McDonough

When I first read this I wondered about it for a little while. That design is “optimistic” makes immediate and perfect sense – who doesn’t like the thrill of starting a new design project? So that seemed a somewhat simplistic stance to take. The initial stages of much of life have a happiness and hopefulness attached to them as we are able to believe that this time everything will go better/faster/to budget.

Then, because life is like that, snags arise, a spec is changed, and a much loved – and often fought for – element has to be dropped from the design. Then we have to to return to the design with a little less of the dewy faced optimism we began with. Now we have to believe we can succeed, or there is little point in continuing. Yet, continue we do. Experience has taught us that it is only by getting back to work that we will finish, and maybe – just maybe – experience that liminal awe and wonder that comes from having done something we didn’t know we could do, or having an idea that would never have appeared during the initial, honeymoon, phase of the optimism.

There are surely other processes that we enter into with optimism, such as the first day of school, complete with pristine notebooks, pencils, and shiny shoes? Maybe, we hope, this year will be the year when we find that maths is no longer to be tolerated, but enjoyed? But then the cold light of reality dawns and we realize that this year, like its predecessors, has some new and good things, but continues to present us with many of the same challenges as did last year. Our optimism settles down to a more reasonable level and we move on. So maybe that isn’t a good parallel as it is more prosaic.

Perhaps the shorter duration brings the blessing of optimism to design projects? While some projects stretch out into the future, technology and new ideas are constantly inserting themselves in to the agenda, so it is more difficult to become jaded. We find we have new skills to master, new concepts to integrate into the process, and facing those challenges, we feel the optimism rising within us again. Design seems to have a very short shelf life these days, so even a mediocre project will soon be in the rear view mirror, and a new, shiny, design brief will have taken its place.

So maybe that is the “power” McDonough mentions? It is not that optimism alone is powerful, but that its allure is so strong that we keep seeking to be drawn in to it? That as we sink our teeth into the project and start to wrestle with the meatiest and most difficult parts, we reassure ourselves that we can do this. It is that optimism, that comes from the knowledge that we have always found the way to succeed in the past, and will do so again this time.

It is certainly a powerful experience to find we have created something that exceeds our expectations of what we initially thought we were designing. The moment when we start to see the finished product as it really is, and no longer as the sum of the many thoughts, decisions, u-turns and puzzles that caused it to be the thing it now is. This is result of the power of optimism.