Anticipating challenge and embracing new methods

A'17 Day 2 keynote panel

Celebrated designer Michael Bierut led an A'17 keynote panel with Dr. Eve Edelstein, David Delgado, and Dan Goods.

Michael Bierut, Eve Edelstein, Dan Goods, and David Delgado pushed A’17 deep into the messy process of design thinking

A Perkins+Will neuroscientist and two NASA design engineers presented compelling research work to a rapt audience of more than 5,000 architects and designers under AIA Conference on Architecture 2017's second-day theme of "Anticipate Challenge: Design That Overcomes."

Dr. Eve Edelstein, Assoc. AIA, discussed the advances made in measuring the influence of design on health and wellbeing. As research director at the Perkins+Will Human Experience Lab, she is an enthusiastic advocate for brain science in architecture, specifically how we mentally and emotionally process space.

"I have an audacious goal," she announced as her opening statement. "I want to change the way we think about design. I want to change the way we apply research-rich data in our process, because with this knowledge we can change our clients' lives."

She asked the crowd, and the profession at large, to take a deeper dive into the human mind, as a means of producing more efficient and healthier buildings. It wouldn't just be for the greater good of humanity, she said, but it would also lead to tangible benefits for profitability, too.

"Put simply," she said, "brains are good business."

As an example, she relayed a story about being seven months pregnant and going into labor unexpectedly. Standing in the neonatal intensive care unit with her newly born child, she recognized that her own fear was compounded by the lack of spaces in such a busy unit for rest or respite. It prompted her to think, "Somebody needs to design this differently."

And so Edelstein has. Over the last two decades, her fascination with doing things differently and saving lives through design has led to advances in how Perkins+Will factors in elements like light and color.

"I want to change the way we think about design. I want to change the way we apply research-rich data in our process, because with this knowledge we can change our clients' lives." - Dr. Eve Edelstein

"We know we can have real effects," she said, "but what we need to do is understand them before the building is built." As such, her lab has created a new system that renders cellular responses to receiving light, which helps them predict how different materials interact with each other to change the amount of circadian exposure.

Her work is not only about healthcare. Edelstein noted that while hospitals and other health-centric facilities offer distinct returns in terms of comparable data, these ideas are meant to be spread to office building design and other areas throughout architecture: "What we learn about people in a healthcare environment is applicable to all people, in all places, everywhere that people are in our built environment."

"I want to challenge your thinking," she added in closing. "All of us can benefit from brain-based decision. As we look deeply inward, we can then go rapidly forward and, in a matter of years, it would be unthinkable to plan a building or a city without what we learned from laboratories of human experience."

Seeing and hearing the skies

Edelstein was followed by David Delgado and Dan Goods, two design engineers and visual strategists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Both were art school students who were told to "go play" and ended up putting their skill-set to work answering big questions in fun ways.

"We [often] have no idea how to do the things we want to do," Goods said, "but we love big ideas, interesting ideas, and we love to collaborate."

Their laboratory at NASA is a creative think tank of designers who embark on captivating projects like visualizing the data coming or going from all spacecraft as a light sculpture that pulses and fades appropriately. "It really gives people a sense of the heartbeat of space exploration happening right at that moment," Goods noted.

They've also gathered the sounds from 19 different spacecraft and looped them in a carefully designed space equipped with "surround sound on steroids," giving the vessels what Delgado called "a voice, almost as if they're saying ‘hello’ when they pass overhead." They partnered with Jason Klimoski, AIA, of StudioKCA, to design that space as an "object of wonder"; it resembles a magic seashell that reverberates with the 'voices' and creates a truly unique setting.

Ultimately, the duo emphasized their desire to create what they called a "Museum of Awe," which to them is no more than everything around us. The experiences they produce—at JPL or in their off time—remind people that the world is exciting and unique, returning them to the state of a three-year-old who is enthused by whatever they come across.

"We're so busy all the time, with so many things required of us," Delgado said, "and it really pulls us from the presence of seeing the beauty that could be right in front of us."

Science and beauty

After their presentations, all three keynoters joined Pentagram’s celebrated designer and partner Michael Bierut on stage for a focused discussion about the creative process. Bierut opened the panel with a question stemming from the recent marches for science that took place across the globe: "Is design a science?"

"When we think about how these forms work with each other, there's a great deal of work that supports that," Edelstein replied. "And when we want to dig into why it works, then we start touching the science."

"Does it mean I understand everything about the ephemeral reasons why we all look at something and feel a certain way?" she added. "We don't understand all of that yet, but we do understand some of it."

"We [often] have no idea how to do the things we want to do, but we love big ideas, interesting ideas, and we love to collaborate." - Dan Goods

When asked if the awe that Delgado and Goods referred to can be measured, Edelstein answered that we can measure heart rates, watch breathing, and draw conclusions appropriately. However, she also reminded everyone that, when you ask someone why they love a building, "the answers are often insufficient to understand which elements of design created that feeling." So while observing reactions is valuable, it also leads to more questions and additional experiments to determine where these feelings came from and what they really mean.

Finally, when Bierut asked his panel how beauty factors into their work and if, perhaps, beauty is simply too "elusive, naïve, or controversial" for those immersed in the scientific side of design, Delgado defined it as “almost a gracefulness of science itself.”

"The engineers are probably a lot more direct with their version of beauty. For a lot of us, we deal with visual senses all the time. But when you're in direct science or engineering, you may not be as adverse to that word. I'm really interested in the idea of mathematical beauty and mathematical elegance,” said Delgado.

"Are we responding to the Fibonacci series? Are we responding to the golden ratio?" Edelstein wondered. "There have been some interesting studies that show preferences toward that, but is that the only thing that dictates how we feel beauty? I would, say even from neuroscience, the answer is no. Our brains are plastic. Our experience changes the way we perceive."

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits

A'17 Day 2 keynote panel

Todd Winters

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