The Design Impulse

If design is the process of making order out of chaos, community plays a vital role in shaping that order.

08/29/2013 By Felice Silverman, IIDA

“Design is important because chaos is so hard.”
— Jules Feiffer

Think about a public space that you know well. It might be an airport concourse, a library or a public square. Now think about what that space would be like if everything that gave it its order and functionality

was disordered or eliminated. That nightmare, full of disarray as well as directionless, angry people, not only provides a visual cue for designers’ motivations, but shows how important the community’s role is in helping to shape the spaces that are meant to serve it.

Reading the community at large and getting its feedback are essential parts of the design process where the public is concerned, and it’s exciting to see how much the impulse to order society—to design, really—is ingrained in the community itself.

Boston residents may remember the long battle Brighton residents waged to secure the Presentation School building for use as a community center following the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s sudden closure of the property in 2005. Working as a designer on this project, I had the opportunity to experience the strength of our community firsthand. Not only did residents protest the initial closing of the school and propose their own detailed plan on how the building might best be used, but they kept up the pressure for years, eventually raising the funds to put their own plan into action—all in the midst of the Great Recession.

That is the power of a community determined to see its needs and wishes met. Boston has proven to be especially resilient and resourceful since April’s bombing of the Boston Marathon. From the chaos of that day, a concerted effort has been made not only to restore order, but to improve it for the survivors most directly affected by the tragedy. Through the initiative of a number of organizations, design-centered and otherwise—including the Community Design Resource Center (more about them on page 50), the Boston Society of Architects and the Boston Survivors Accessibility Alliance—an entire force of volunteer labor has sprung up to help renovate the homes of those seriously injured in the bombings, redesigning them as necessary to accommodate whatever their new needs might be.

The response has been as consistent as it has been sympathetic. According to the Boston Globe, Boston Public Safety Commissioner Thomas G. Gatzunis maintains that all down the line, from electricians and plumbers to lumber retailers and elevator installers, everyone approached simply asked what they could do to assist the effort. People were eager to help victims returning from the hospital find a sense of normalcy in their homes—so eager, in fact, that project teams have taken it upon themselves to identify potential renovations that may not have occurred to the victims themselves.

In that commitment to bring about the best possible solution for victims of tragedy, we see the community’s impulse to organize and design. The Boston bombings are only one extreme example. I could point to any number of predicaments—an earthquake on the West Coast, a tornado in the Midwest, seasonal flooding in the east—in which you’ll find examples of people coming together and taking action to fight the intruding chaos. It’s apparently something in our nature—not just for us as designers, but for nearly anybody living in civilized society.

It’s what makes Jules Feiffer’s quote so brilliant. Most of us are born into a society that’s more or less ordered, structured, and has certain rhythms and flow, much in the way that a well-designed space does. But because we are born into this well-designed civilization, we tend to take the safety and functionality of our surroundings for granted. Fear galvanizes us, motivating us to work together as a community, whether it’s as simple as ensuring that a particular space is being used for the greatest public benefit or we’re reacting to life-changing events. We feel an urgent need to maintain the balance of order in life, and improve it as best we can to minimize the opportunity for chaos in the future. In those moments—whether they’re benign or profoundly tragic—community becomes design, and we all become that community that we so earnestly need there to be.


IIDA President Felice L. Silverman, IIDA is president and a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates Inc. in Boston. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at