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Dignifying Design

October 8, 2012

A paragraph in Sunday’s New York Times caught my eye. An architect returning to the U.S. after building a hospital in Rwanda was struck by “how over-designed most hospitals are here—yet there’s little natural airflow, a lack of color and craftsmanship, and few outdoor spaces to take a deep breath and gain some perspective.”

This is not about our new local hospital, which I’ve only entered quickly for a blood test and to see some excellent art displays, but about design. The headline in the Times read, “Dignifying Design.” The article mostly discussed architectural design, but it also mused upon the importance of good design in other aspects of our lives.

Some details cost money, others merely foresight—from curb cuts for wheelchairs and strollers to doors that invite you to push when you need to push instead of a vice versa.

The need for good design is much the same whether first-, second-, or third-world. And this applies not just to physical things but also virtual things on the Internet and to processes in our society, such as registering to vote.

In the paragraph that caught my eye, one phrase in particular stood out: “yet there’s little natural airflow.” This has become a pet peeve of mine since living in Salida because if there’s anyplace where natural airflow is our friend, it’s here.

Yet so many new or revised structures are oddly stuffy and dead. Sunlight and fresh air are underused in a place where they are abundant. Oh, well.

Design is also important in rules and regulations. The urge grows to create a system that attends to every contingency, and the result is often a complicated mess that removes human agency. We’ve all run into situations in which the rules seem to preclude a decision by any human being without actually providing a decision otherwise.

Yet there already exist systems well-adapted to greeting any contingency: They are called human beings. But I digress.

In two modest projects at the library, I’ve found myself scratching my head about building codes and modern design. They seem to spiral together in ways that seem ever more complicated but not necessarily better. The modern building code has produced a new need for experts to interpret it.

But we still love old buildings, which happen to be functioning after many years, even centuries. So we need codes for them, too. And we end up with good new ways we can’t use on old buildings and good old ways we can’t use on new.

This mood I’m in really has much less to do with buildings. That’s just what the New York Times article was about. It’s more about how we change, which is as much about evolution as design.

Consider the current circumstances in publishing, which are unsettled, at best. Last month, most of the top ten bestselling books were not available to public libraries as ebooks. Those big publishers will not sell ebooks to libraries.

That any bestsellers were available to libraries as ebooks is because of the success of the “Fifty Shades of Gray” series, big hits that came out of non-traditional publishing and were made available to libraries.

This circumstance was not designed. It evolved out of change and uncertainty, but with some careful design, it can be fixed. The library community is working on it. Meanwhile, the library does have ebooks to lend, and the collection is growing. Check it out.

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