Editorial: A Better World by Design

By Robert Nieminen


Before I sat down to write this editorial, my original intention was to talk about what an exciting time of year this is for everyone who is anticipating the upcoming NeoCon® World's Trade Fair in Chicago. I have no doubt it will be a fantastic show, brimming with the coolest products and posh parties, as always.

But as news began to unfold about the tragic events at Virginia Tech, thoughts of celebrating design and products immediately fell by the wayside. And as this issue nears completion, I now wish we had the capacity and timely resources to address the weightier issue of how interior design can play a part in public safety and security; or perhaps simply to ask the question: can we really design spaces that ensure our safety?

According to a video report on CNN.com, the design of the classrooms in Norris Hall apparently did not provide safe egress to students during the ordeal. In fact, the classrooms only had one door for entry/exit which was made of solid wood and had no locking mechanism or glass to see what was happening in the hallway, according to the report. Some students were able to barricade one of the classroom doors to prevent entry, but clearly, the outdated design of the classrooms made an unthinkable situation even worse.

In future issues we plan to further address how design can improve safety and security because the obvious fact is that threats of terrorism and acts of violence are not limited to people abroad; they often touch very close to home. And the challenge to designers, it seems, is that designing a bank or a government office, where a certain level of heightened security is expected, is one thing, but what do you do when the project is a public space like a college or university where students and faculty expect to feel safe? How do you design a school with security in mind that doesn't look or function like a prison? These questions probably have been answered already, but in light of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, they beg to be asked again.

The focus of this month's issue is on education interiors, and while building security is not at the forefront of the design for our cover story on Penn State University's Outreach Building or the high-tech Kight Center for Emerging Technologies at Indian River Community College, the subject of this month's photo essay, they are both fine examples of the solutions that emerge and the possibilities that exist when design is employed to make learning environments effective and flexible while sometimes meeting competing programming requirements.

Trying to bring together a separate Web-based education group and a public radio and TV broadcasting organization at Penn State proved to be a challenge for the design team at Cubellis. "Although at first glance the education and broadcasting groups did not appear to be a match made in heaven," reports contributing writer Carol Tisch, "closer inspection revealed commonalities that Cubellis used as the foundation for its design. Both organizations embraced state-of-the-art technology, both sought an environment for welcoming outreach to the community, and both had strong creative and administrative sides to their businesses."

All this points to a basic principle that is key to executing a project successfully: effective communication. Without it, it is difficult to imagine how a project could be completed on time or within budget or to a client's satisfaction. That is why Catherine Wallack and Jennifer Webb, faculty members at the University of Arkansas, encourage designers in this month's IDEC forum article to use a multi-modal presentation when working with clients to ensure that their expectations are met. "There are a range of preferences in how people receive and process new information. Together, these ideas suggest that providing information in more than one format will improve understanding," they explain.

For this reason—that design wields so much influence on how we communicate and the way we feel while inhabiting a space—I am hopeful for a day when we can all live and work in places that foster creativity, learning, communication and understanding between people, and that those places will be even more capable of preventing tragedy and keeping occupants safe from harm.