Contextualism in Design

There’s a topic that’s been coming up in our classes that doesn’t really have a name, but it’s drawing a subtle line in the sand between classmates and colleagues as of late; I’m going to relate it to contextualism, as found in architectural theory.

It’s the defining of what is ‘right’ in design. How things should be. The problem (if you can call it that) could be phrased as “To what extent do we overrule a product’s contextual style with a personal or philosophical style.”

Let me explain:

I’ve mentioned Karim Rashid before, and he has a deeply engrained personal style which has become universally recognized. Our question could be brought up here as: “should he maintain his personal style if he were contracted to, say, the military?” Should the military accept his design if it were bulbous and pink as Karim would no doubt come up with? To what extent should things designed for the military be done in the existing military style?

So that’s a pretty polarized example. Obviously they come from very different ends of the spectrum.

It’s interesting for us as young, budding designers who are already finding themselves into neatly defined styles, to ask ourselves these questions. Do we put down our preference in favor of some external style? Or do we have faith in ourselves and try to break the mold not for the sake of mold breaking (see my thoughts on originality) but for the sake of solving the design problem in a better way. See Apple’s original ipod redesigning the MP3 player or Ford not giving people a faster horse, but the car. These are things that bucked the standard because they replaced it with something better and set the bar higher.

And I think the true result, the true outcome of contextualism is the wisdom to know the difference, see the outcomes and act on them for the best outcome.

Autumn Tracks

I feel bad for missing this past Music Monday, I really do.

If you like the sound of that last one, you can pick up the three song EP for FREE.

Modernism Fail

I get this every so often: “Brennan, I think you just repost everything you find that’s clad in wood paneling. That’s hardly critical of you, and I don’t like your bias.” to which I’d reply “Hardly. There’s a lot of absolute rubbish architecture out there, putting perfect colours over terribly geometry is just lipstick on a pig.”

There’s a fine line that gets walked here when I write about these things, but I will risk seeming elitist when I say: architecture is hardly about the colours. Interior design is worthless if the space itself is worthless. I suspect that’s why the pretentious architecture is white – the emphasis isn’t on the interior palette, but the volume itself.

This is the Casa Lara by architect Mihai M. Tudose for his own family.

I disagree with it.

The first photo at the top seems promising; rectangular prisms, white stucco, warm wood accents, neat lines of hedge. The front gate thing is sort of awkward, but alright, nothing is perfect.

Then the second photo, the bridge. Um, diamond plate? Interesting choice. Why do you have to escape through the window to get onto it? Why don’t the steps line up at neat angles? This whole photo says to me: “We saw this in a Dwell magazine and really liked the idea, so we made our own version of it.”

Third photo: living room. The couch, of course, is opposite how it should be but architecturally speaking, the windows are severely lacking. That whole wall should be glass. The roof should hover, as if not a roof at all but an awning. Theirs is firmly planted, adding an intense claustrophobia to the room(s) which should be the lightest, airiest, and most desirable. The ceiling ledge lighting is patchy.

The shelves are Texas thick and cluttered without care, and it appears they have two coffee tables in front of the already heavy sofa area. I don’t mean to use the word again, but it’s really the adjective that keeps coming to mind: claustrophobic. Everything. Annoyingly full. Stuffed without care or harmony. It’s not even that you have to get rid of it all (well, maybe that second coffee table) but just design it to be cleaner. Minimalism isn’t about living with less than you need, it’s about living in harmony with the stuff that you have.

I’m not sure if it’s just terrible photography (you’ll notice he took his own photos) but everything just seems dark and closed in. There’s no appeal, nothing inviting here. I like the lighting behind the shelves there, but the wall separating the interior cavity from that large wall of frosted glass is twice as thick as it needs to be, and probably useless altogether – given the frosting was acceptably private, I would say it should extend around the corner, lighting the whole area.

Overall, the house feels like they saw things they liked and then copied them, but didn’t bother to learn why they liked them in the beginning. Modernism isn’t just white with wood panels, nor is minimalism concrete with steel and glass. They appear often in the same sentence, but the defining of it; the passion of it is entirely unrelated to the materials. It’s a lifestyle and a philosophy. This house just copies the lipstick, but places it on the wrong animal.

Thanks for trying, and props to you for doing it. It has it’s moments and does have some nice features, but I just feel like the overall execution was less than ideal. Then again, meta-architectural philosophy: Are you happy living in your own house? If yes, than it’s a resounding success. Some armchair critic can’t say if you’ll be happy of not, and what are houses if not places to be as you intend them.

Photos via

Toyota GT 86

I was driving the other day and thinking about it: “Why don’t they revive the Celica?” because, I mean, we’re seeing revival cars all over and most of them so far are pretty mediocre.

The spirit seems to be here; a reasonably priced, sportscar-at-heart coupe for those who can’t afford, say, a 370Z or whatever the entry level normally is for driver’s cars.

I like that.

Photos via

General Advice for Students

From a 2nd year, regarding the things I’ve learned in my first year and a bit so far:

On Happiness

I’ve been described as “overly content” which is a sort of bizarre statement. I am too content, apparently. I’m not even sure how that’s defined or why that’s a problem. So my first comment will be about the differences between happiness and contentness. People, as I see it, the mass population, are seeking happiness; which I believe to be inherently unsustainable in that no one can ever be 100% happy 100% of the time. There will always be spikes up and down between happiness and sadness or maybe disappointment and excitement or depression and ecstasy. In balance, this is pretty normal. There will always be those ups and downs. The key to being content is to realize exactly where you are and accept it for what it is. If I’m sad, I don’t immediately try to make myself happy, maybe I’ll pull out some slow, jazzy music or watch a nostalgic show in the background while I sketch or write. It’s not dwelling in sadness for the sake of sadness, it’s dwelling in sadness for the sake of balance. It’s sort of crazy to explain, but it makes you content which in turn gives an immense sense of satisfaction. And if you can feel satisfied in sadness, there isn’t much that can bring you truly down.

On Realism

Similar to the above, I think a sense of realism is very important not only for my trade as a designer but also for myself as a person. Am I an optimist? Yes and no. Am I a pessimist? Yes and no.

I think it’s about being honest. The world doesn’t owe you anything, so hoping and praying really only gets you so far. The world doesn’t care about your complaining, so being negative about something won’t make it change either. Look at the situation, know it, and then make plans and routes in and around it. Sometimes that means inspiring hope in others even if they don’t believe they can do something, in this way be a mentor and role model of optimism. Sometimes that means kicking people in the pants and telling them they’re hoping too hard, and in that way be a role model of pessimism. We forge our own paths and it requires both approaches used wisely to accomplish things. Always have a back up plan for the back up plan. Mull over all possible outcomes and the outcomes of those outcomes. Prepare accordingly.

On Eating

As a student money is tight. Time is money, and a penny saved can be a penny earned here: do some research to get the most nutrition out of that same dollar. 1 kg of apples is not the same as 1 kg of Kraftdinner in price or health factor. Not all veggies are equal. Peanut butter is a lot cheaper than you’d think. Despite congress, pizza isn’t really a vegetable. Read the food guide and realize what your ingesting. A lack of time isn’t an excuse for eating crap – remember, you don’t actually have to make meals, you just have to hit the food guide’s targets. Why make a salad when you could just gnaw on a cucumber? Do your grocery store research, around here you can pay almost double by going to the store across the street; why they’re still in business I have no idea. Since you’ll be eating less filler when you strip down the meals, you’ll probably need to look for a cheap way to get empty-ish calories. Things like cashews can be handy here- super filling, slow burning energy. Make a pattern and stick by it, noting how long it takes to go through each food, some you’ll buy weekly, some every year. Evolve the pattern based on what you do and don’t eat and what works best per price. Sadly, you’ll have to cut some things that you like and are healthy simply because of price. Yogurt? I’m sad to see you go.

Sometimes it’s cheaper to eat out than buy the food. I figure when Subway does $5 footlongs, I’m getting about the same as if I’d buy it at the grocer and I don’t have to prepare or keep any of it from going bad. Whenever possible, water is free. Usually restaurant pop is ~$2.50 but you can buy a 2L of the same thing for 70 cents at the store. Then, remember pop is terrible for you and don’t drink it at all.

On Academic Life

Studying sucks, but if you can find a public place to do it (libraries, the empty corners of mall food courts) there can be benefits. Distractions are good and bad. Ideally, of course, you want to increase the good and minimize the bad. For me, I like being in a public place because every few minutes I can look up and watch the things around me, which helps maintain my focus on the task at hand. I can also limit my distracting internet access better if I’m not sitting at my computer desk. The noise is nice, especially during Christmas season when the malls smell like caramel coffee, wet shoes and giddy anticipation. If you’re sketching, it’s a great way to get out and sketch some new scenery. Likewise with photography and architectural modelling. If you’re single, you can wait around and hope someone sits down opposite you and comments on the book you’re reading, leading to a lifelong best friend and future spouse. Then, remember that you’re a lot more productive / distraction free / happy when you’re alone.

On Failure

Kids, it’ll happen. You can’t be the best at everything. But! You can sabotage the best kid most of the time, making your project look relatively better. You don’t learn much by succeeding on your first try, so get out there and fail as much as you can. It’s just a school project and most (good) teachers will recognize your learning, not your outcome product, and mark you on that. Make friends, not enemies. These people are the same people you’ll be in the workforce beside, and the world is a lot smaller than you might think. They have a surprising amount of say into your future ventures. With that said? Always maintain a competitive edge. Find something that makes you unique and irreplaceable by them.

On Life Itself

No one escapes it alive, so have fun and remember that everyone in society is people just like you, and half of them will be below average. Very little is truly a big deal. Remember all those things that were a big deal to you last year? Are they still a big deal now? Probably not. Why were you worrying. So, by the same logic, would the future you look back at what you’re doing now and laugh? If so, stop worrying and laugh at it yourself.

Be good.

The Design of Sports

DYNAMICS – AARON HADLOW AND SAM LIGHT from andi jansen on Vimeo.

I’m trying to think of other examples, but none are coming to mind. War, maybe.

Sports, as a whole, is a really interesting topic for design. It has two elements that are fairly unique to it: (a) evolution, people trying things and learning from it, tweaking slightly every time, and (b) deep, deep integration between manufacture and usage, usually to the point where one person does both.

Even when you have large companies like, say, Burton snowboards, they spend a lot of time in R&D simply sliding down the same hills the final buyers will be – they hire snowboarders to come and test their manufacturing for them in order to get that first hand feedback. You could say that about a lot of industries, of course, like cell phones have focus groups, but I think the attitude is slightly different. The cell phone groups look to what makes the best selling phone, the sports groups look to what accomplishes the sport’s goal the best. Are these broad generalizations? Yeah.

But where we can’t build our own cell phones (usually) the sports people can often build their own equipment. Surfers will make their own boards, for example, with exactly the right specifications for themselves. They take them out, see what they like and tweak them endlessly, sometimes never reaching an end goal of perfection, just always striving for better.

So it’s cool to see young sports because they aren’t quite sure yet. They need time to evolve and for those changes to be made, those edges be smoothed and refined. I like watching young sports because the people who participate (and, usually, contribute) are the ones who will make those changes and look at those problems with intent to fix them. Even if they don’t know it, they are the designers there. Would even the best of designers be able to draft up the perfect, ultimate design for that sport? Never. But it’ll eventually get there through tons of iterations.

Sometimes the best design isn’t designed at all.

Trackmania 2: Canyon

I was excited when I found out there were releasing a new Trackmania and got a chance to play the beta a little bit here. Some thoughts:

It’s more Trackmania, for better or for worse. I’ve loved every game since the very first one and it’s been really cool to watch it grow from an indie game in the $15 rack of Radioshack to a fairly large racing platform with thousands of servers around the world. Canyon doesn’t stray far from the original formula which is both relieving (they didn’t ruin it) and somewhat disappointing (having played every TM before it, I’m sort of bored already).

Because there’s only one environment they’ve spent a lot more time perfecting it and the car’s balance with drifting and twitchy controls seems spot on perfect. Thankfully, the annoyingly top heavy Canyon cars of previous generations is no where to be found here. It’s more comparable to the Coast cars, but with a proper turning radius and lighter on the feet.

The track creation tools are quite a bit smarter in this generation and more contextual, so one part might fulfill a variety of roles depending on how it’s placed – this is awesome because the part list would go on forever if it wasn’t simplified like that. It takes some getting used to, but everything’s there somewhere. It seems a lot smarter at letting you know what you’re doing wrong, instead of TMU’s habit of just saying ‘no’ and leaving you to wonder how you need to change things to make it work.

Overall, I’m liking it so far. It’s pretty much like you’d expect, and once the real servers get up and populated I suspect some awesome, awesome tracks will start coming out of the wood works.

Hugh Ferriss – delineator

Hugh Ferriss wasn’t really an architect in the designer sense – he didn’t design the buildings himself – but although trained as an architect he found himself as a very successful freelance delineator, someone who draws the buildings for use in advertisement or to pitch to clients.

His style is iconic and inspired a lot of other styles including Batman’s highly stylized Gotham City.

Really cool work with a fascinating history.

Check out a huge repository of his work on Flickr (which is the credit for the photos above)

Media Consumption

My first foray into dataviz.

For a class assignment we meticulously tracked our media consumption in predefined categories for a week and then made some way to display the information. Mine turned out slightly more complicated than my classmates’ did, but I opted to do a full 24 hour breakdown of each day instead of a daily total for each category. There’s actually four axis of information on that 2 dimensional graph, a feat of which I’m slightly proud. 7 days x 24 hours x 6 categories x the quantity out of 60 minutes. It’s a lot to cram into such a small space!

Geekpreneur Article

I’m not sure if this’ll create some sort of blogception, but I’m posting about the post about this very blog.

Geekpreneur interviewed me with regards to my blogging and looking at what inspires me to keep writing. The final result reads well and I’m really glad to contribute when helping other people.

So, you can read their article here, and the full transcript of my answers are as follows:

How long have you been running your blog?

I’ve been running for seven or eight months now, which is still really young. It’s a new venture to take over the blog I had been writing for just under four years without direction; it was just a blog to write about whatever I wanted whereas Acrylo is more structured and planned. I wanted to take what I’d learned about writing and curating and go back to the drawing board to design something more cohesive and matured.

And how often do you update it?

It depends on how busy I am, and a bit to do with the seasons: typically, it’s averaging two posts a day, but four or five isn’t unusual if I’m particularly free on a holiday weekend or something. I try to post at least one thing a day to appease both my readers and myself – it’s a discipline to write sometimes, but I think it’s good for you in the end.

Why did you decide to write a blog?

Originally, the old blog started when I was in high school as a way to host my photography. Flickr had a limit unless you paid, but you could start a WordPress blog with like, 3GBs of free hosting. Over time I started adding photos from other people as an inspirational segment and it evolved from there into a curated publication.

Is your blog meeting its goals? If not, why not?

I’m content with the progress so far. My goal isn’t to be widespread or famous but to explore design and publish those thoughts. I look at the big, well known blogs and they’re fantastic for posting new things and cool things but they don’t go into much depth on the things they post – I make up the other end of that spectrum. It’s a journal of thoughts and there’s a small market for that, but I blog more for myself than anyone. Learn by teaching.

What’s been the biggest challenge of updating your blog?

Time, mostly. But as mentioned above, I feel like it’s an important discipline to have.

What must a blog do to reflect who you are to employers?

It’s a narrative. A resume can be written by anybody with any intention, but to consistently write down your thoughts and explore topics shows who you really are and where you’re really coming from. It’s an honesty, I guess. A transparency.

Finally, what advice would you have for other designers considering writing a blog to promote their services?

Write about what you love, not about what you think is going to be popular. The passion shows through and people will know if you’re just writing because someone told you to. It’s a lot of work, and in the beginning won’t gain much traffic but soldier on and enjoy writing instead of worrying about numbers. It’s not really about spam promoting your services as much as putting what you do out there and letting it spread naturally.

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