Salginotobel Bridge, Maillart

Good Design is like a Good Relationship

What is design? What is good design?’ We architects are designers, and we want to produce good design. How can we, unless we can articulate what good design is? (It’s a copout to say it’s like porn: I know it when I see it).
Here, I wish to explore one aspect of good design. It is the happy meeting of two things so they fit. It is the beneficial relationship of one thing to another. In this way, good design is like a good marriage. Things just seem to fit.
Let me dispel the notion that I am arguing for contrived design, or contrived marriage. One might hear in vernacular speech “their marriage was phony, designed to be perfect in every way.” This is not what I mean. The fruits of design may seem contrived or forced, but this is exactly the result good design seeks to avoid. Clever juxtapositions are not the result of good design, whether in a marriage or in a building. Those relationships tend to be a bit too loud, a bit too self-referential.
Rather, good design is the process of finding a fit that makes sense. In a primary way, a good design is the sensibility of a solution to a problem. Some of my favorite examples of good design are bridges, because the problem is very clear- I must get across to the other side- so it is easy to see if the solution works. Bridges are often designed as engineering solutions to commercial problems. What is the least difficult way to design a bridge from here to there?
Notice I did not say ‘what is the least costly way,’ although it was tempting to do so. The goal of an engineering solution may not be to find the least cost solution. Engineering solutions do tend to be the simplest: the math is simple, the problem is rationalized, and the execution is simple.
But a good design solution does not rationalize the problem into an easily understood typology. It is not simply that here is another river I must get over. It is that I must get over this particular river, from this particular shore to that one. Understanding the particularities of place is one of the challenges good design takes on. Good designers seek to hear the place out. We try to listen to what the context is telling us. Listening can be very hard, because we bring with us memories and experiences of having designed solutions to similar problems. Those memories need to be quieted down, so the place can be heard. A good design is what should be done at this particular place.
Good design takes time, because listening takes time. The solution will be one where people can see how the design responded to the site and the particularities of the task. It will fit, like an old couple in a good marriage.

Follow Mike Sealander, Maine Licensed Architect:


Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.

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