• Oppenheimer
    “Oppenheimer” explores the morally nebulous development of the atomic bomb. - film still from “Oppenheimer,” written and directed by Christopher Nolan, 2023, produced by Emma Thomas, Charles Roven, and Christopher Nolan

“I wish I could award the program.”

While brief, this passing comment made by one of the jurors during this year’s TxA Design Awards deliberation reflects many suppositions underpinning how design is conceptualized — and thus awarded — today. In contemporary architectural practice, design is typically conceived as a process separate from programming; rather, it is usually thought to be the physical product or environment that is created. Once a program is defined, that is when true “design” commences. And while some firms may also take on programming, even then, it usually falls under pre-design or pre-development phases that are separated from core design services.

But is this correct? Where does design really begin? When pen touches paper, or — more likely these days — at the first click of a mouse? At the identification of a need? Or is it during the first steps taken to solve a problem?

In his book “Designing Our Way to a Better World,” Thomas Fisher, professor of architecture, director of the Minnesota Design Center, and the Dayton Hudson Land Grant Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota, lays the groundwork for a more holistic approach to design. He writes:

We tend to think of design in terms of the visible world around us: the buildings we occupy and the products we use. But the ‘invisible’ systems that we depend on in our daily lives — the infrastructure buried beneath our feet or in our walls, the educational and health systems that we all experience as we age or become ill, and the economic and political systems that affect in us myriad ways over time — remain just as much designed as anything that we inhabit or use. Many of us may not think of them this way. Because we cannot ‘see’ or ‘touch’ them, our political, economic, health, education, and infrastructure systems may appear to lie beyond anyone’s ability to change them, even though they all arose from some sort of design process. Because of the scale of these systems, as seemingly vast as the invisible ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ that constitute 96 percent of the universe, they may appear too difficult to move. But we can shift them if we think of them as a whole and look for the levers that can lead to the greatest transformation.

Why do we generally conceive of design as the creation of physical objects or environments? Why do most of the design processes that pervade our daily lives remain so invisible? And what can designers contribute to these invisible processes, services, and systems?

Because most people responsible for “designing” these invisible systems have no training in design thinking or how to employ a design process, many of these systems that so radically impact our daily lives are implemented without critical examination of possible futures, including likely failures and unintended consequences.

To further illustrate the point, let’s look at an example inspired by this summer’s cinematic blockbuster, “Oppenheimer.” By today’s standards, would the atom bomb be worthy of a design award? It certainly was innovative, requiring a harnessing of the collective knowledge of the greatest scientists of the time, many of whom were Nobel Prize winners. It certainly was impactful, its development permanently altering life on earth as we know it and heralding in a new era known as the Atomic Age. It certainly was effective, too: Highly efficient in their lethality, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed around 200,000 people and effectively brought an end to World War II in just under a month. If we are to disregard “program” in this case, I believe it is likely that this technology, by most standards today, would be worthy of an award. But I know I, for one, have a very difficult time separating the human consequences from the artifact, or the program from the design.

This is, admittedly, an extreme example, but extremes can help us to gain clarity on the softer, hazier middles. If a program with the potential for negative consequences is difficult to separate from the credibility of its design, why shouldn’t we, conversely, give a project with a noble and noteworthy program greater attention?

Many architects and firms have already taken on much of this invisible work — like programming, community and engagement, research design, and post-occupancy evaluation — and I suspect the scope of architects will only continue to grow as the global challenges we face in this world become increasingly complex and more dire. Granted, this type of design work isn’t nearly as easy to assess as a beautiful object in a photograph. But as Fisher writes, “Like science at the beginning of the 20th century, design now faces its own unchallenged assumptions and unquestioned paradoxes, and it too has its own hidden universes to explore.”

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