We were encouraged to share a “This I Believe” essay about design in the last week of our Rapid Design for Slow Change course. This was the submission I shared with my cohort.
Each time we sat down to discuss the latest short story, our Advanced Writing professor would remind us; “a tree is never just a tree. It’s a tree laden with deep symbolic meaning.” I’ve found this phrase sum up my life as a designer well. What we see is the now, without any understanding of the past, the storms it’s weathered, the diseases it’s fought, the topsoil it’s saved from runoff. The amount of work put into any given design in the world is staggering. We forget this, sometimes.
But it’s apparent when it’s not the case. When it happens to be some potted tree plucked from a big box home improvement store and put on display.
One of the things I’ve find both frustrating and inspiring as a designer is how much meaning people will ascribe something they don’t understand. Sure, that tree took significant time and effort to grow. People can take that tree and imagine the treehouse that must have been housed there and the kids that climbed it, the hunter holding his breath waiting for just the right moment to loose the string of his bow, or the generations of birds raised under its broad leaves. But you know what, sometimes it is just a tree, uprooted from a tree farm somewhere and placed out in the world.
That tree, that design, can grow to be great. But it lacks the history, it lacks the knowledge of that place and time and that particular soil. It’s more likely to catch disease or not take root. I’ve found that designs pulled out of the mind without a history and without that contextual knowledge don’t thrive. They look pretty for a few months, maybe even a year, but they never do take root and are eventually replaced.
With design that transplant is obvious.
The great thing about designing, like being a gardener with a green thumb, is loving what I do. I get the chance to put things in the world that can make a real impact. Designs that enable those stories that people try to ascribe something that was tossed out there to look pretty, but in reality could never achieve. I get the chance to practice what I do in a huge variety of ways, all of which I enjoy. Ultimately, the best part is that all this practice, all this messy work, crafting some bonsai instead of tossing seeds in the off chance they’ll sprout requires hard work and dedication, but I love it nonetheless.
I don’t consider my work a chore and I don’t sympathize with those who do. To me, this practice isn’t work, it’s what I want to be do, it’s what I love doing, it’s why I spend all my time doing it, and it’s why I believe I’ll be passionate about it for a long time to come.