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Connecting the Dots

By Robert Nieminen

“Design is a funny word.
Some people think design means how it looks.
But of course, if you dig deeper,
it’s really how it works.”
—Steve Jobs

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of the late Steve Jobs’ influence in our lives took on a new context for me upon reading his quote above.

It’s not that I didn’t understand his genius—clearly, anyone living in the industrialized world in the past couple of decades understands that the way in which we listen to music or read books (or do just about anything) has changed enduringly. It’s that I saw him as a brilliant techie with cooler products than his archrival from that other, far less trendy software company, rather than someone who fundamentally understands the nature of design, which he clearly did.

I know some of you are probably wondering what sort of rock I’ve been living under or how I am so late at arriving at this somewhat trivial observation. It’s not that I didn’t know it at some intuitive level, but rather, in reading his words and considering their impact now that he has passed, I’m seeing them in a different light. You know, sort of how your clients react when they have that “a-ha!” moment and finally understand that the designs you are creating go so much deeper than surface appearance, and cut to the core of what it is they want to do and the manner in which they want to do it.

Once your eyes have been opened, it’s impossible to imagine how you hadn’t made the correlation before. I wondered the same thing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while researching, interviewing and writing this issue’s cover story on their recent completion of Building 24, a new administrative office, designed by tvsdesign, located on their Roybal Campus in Atlanta. Given the critical nature of its work, I was surprised to learn that, until early 2000, the employees of the CDC were working in dilapidated buildings where corridors were packed with freezers containing pathogenic agents and bio-hazardous materials; in some cases, even the bathrooms were converted into labs.

How could an agency charged with such a critical mission not connect the dots between healthy, functional working conditions and improved outcomes in their research and work? It seems so clear from the outside looking in, but thankfully, the CDC has now completed its 2000-2009 Atlanta Master Plan to upgrade its campuses into facilities worthy of the vital work taking place within them. (To be fair, the master plan was conceived years prior to execution, and as with any bureaucracy, I assume funding wasn’t readily available.)

Speaking of disconnects, I was somewhat taken aback by the results of a study released recently by ASID and AIA in conjunction with IMRE, “showing just how skeptical we all are about the sustainable design movement,” as our often sardonic blogger, Debbie Designer, put it in her recent blog about the survey titled, “Occupy Sustainable Design.” According to the study, only 2 to 3 percent of architects and interior designers are “completely confident” that products they specify that claim to be sustainable actually are. Clearly, design professionals simply either aren’t buying manufacturers’ sustainability claims, they aren’t doing their research, or manufacturers are failing miserably at communicating their message clearly—or worse, outright lying.

Whatever the case, more transparency is needed, and we applaud Perkins+Will and Construction Specialties for launching the industry’s first on-product ingredient label at Greenbuild this year. Designed to make environmental and health disclosure easier for any manufacturer who chooses to adopt the template, the label offers a forthright declaration of the make-up of a product and its potential impacts in multiple formats. We hope it catches on.

Despite any trepidation you may have about green products, we know you have opinions about which products and furnishings are your favorites, as the results of our third annual Readers’ Choice Awards attest. While we can’t make any claims to their environmental impacts, we do know the winners that we featured in the magazine this year have resonated with you in one way or another—and that’s a connection we’re happy to make.