Designers are Always Annoyed
A story about patio lights that explains why design is so important…and so hard.
A few summers ago, my girlfriend and I received a visit from her family. They’d traveled across the country from Pennsylvania to Oregon, and we all stayed together at her place in Portland, a lovely mid-century ranch house with a small yard and patio out back.
She and I had gotten in the habit of eating dinner out on that patio several times a week, sitting at a long table I’d built from some pieces of scrap lumber, mounted on restaurant supply store legs. Not the most elegant piece of furniture, but on a warm summer evening it was hard to imagine a better place to be. When the family arrived, they happily joined us for dinner on the patio most evenings.
If there was a shortcoming to this arrangement, though, it was the lighting. I’d purchased a long string of outdoor light bulbs a month earlier, and strung them back and forth over the patio, between some hooks screwed into the side of the garage and a couple of posts pounded into the garden bed across from it. After a few weeks of this, I’d realized that the light strings were spaced too closely. The zig-zag they formed above the dining table was so bright and so low that it created a mildly oppressive “ceiling” effect, casting light harshly downward, and masking faces in shadow.
So on the third day of the visit, I decided to do something about it. Enlisting the help of my girlfriend’s younger sister, the two of us spent an hour and a half carefully lowering the light strings down to the ground, and re-mounting the hooks to form a perimeter around the entire back yard. It was fun work, but also surprisingly meticulous, requiring frequent measuring and recalculating to make sure the light string made it all the way around without coming up short, or leaving excess slack.
Her father teased us relentlessly throughout the process. Why, he wondered aloud, would we spend a beautiful summer day sweating on ladders in order to make a change that no one was even going to notice.
When we walk into a space and we “just like how it feels,” there are reasons for that.
That evening, eating dinner under the new, less oppressive lighting arrangement, the teasing resumed. He went on and on about how much the ambience had improved, how it had been so intolerable before, etc. — essentially, that lights were lights and rearranging them was pointless at best. This recurred each evening we ate out on the patio, all the way through the end of the visit: the good-natured kidding, the eye-rolling, as we all languished comfortably around the table after dinner for at least an hour.
By contrast, on the first two nights, before we’d changed the lights around, the evenings had ended much earlier. Dinner under the zig-zag “ceiling” would wrap up as soon as we finished eating, followed by a retreat back inside the house to watch a movie or check our phones. Over five nights of outdoor dining, two ended immediately after we ate, three lasted far longer. And our tendency to linger correlated perfectly with the configuration of the lights overhead.
On the final night of the visit, I pointed this out to the parents, who quickly found other reasons why we’d shifted our behavior. Perhaps we’d started eating later on those first two nights (we hadn’t), or we’d been more tired. Anything but the change in lighting.
Naturally, we left the lights that way for the rest of the summer.
I bring up this story because it’s a fairly simple and straightforward illustration of two realities of design, that confound nearly every client I’ve encountered in a creative relationship.
The first is that the impact of creative decisions can be profound, even when the shift they enable is intangible, and even when the people experiencing it don’t realize what’s shifted. When we walk into a space and we “just like how it feels,” there are reasons for that. Lighting is part of it. So are the acoustics of the space, the way the visual elements are arranged, the configuration of seating, the color scheme, and a dozen other things. All of these elements add up to “how it feels.” The same is true of a physical product that we just like holding. Or an app or piece of software that feels inherently legitimate or approachable.
This willingness to put effort into the intangible is, by and large, what you’re buying when you buy design.
Nobody is immune to the intangible effects of design decisions, but few of us are able to pinpoint what they are. Instead, we tend to rely on explanations that are familiar and concrete. We like that restaurant because it’s good value. We like that app because it’s faster (it’s probably not). Even when we do notice things like lighting, we tend to go immediately to its more quantifiable aspects, making observations like “the lighting is good because it’s bright enough”, while knowing full well that dimly lit spaces can be profoundly comforting (as can bright ones).
The second thing this example illustrates is that you need to take intangible effects seriously if you want to control them. I’m not a lighting designer, but three years of design school and 15 years spent working in the design industry has convinced me that if the lighting doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right. Moreover, it’s convinced me that it’s worth climbing ladders in the hot sun for 90 minutes to fix it.
This willingness to put effort into the intangible is, by and large, what you’re buying when you buy design. You’re paying for someone to look at the challenges your business or organization is facing, from the perspective of the user, and to take the intangible aspects of their experience seriously. And you’re asking them to either fix that experience, or create a new one that shapes those intangibles to your user’s benefit, and ultimately, to yours.