Living by Design

As I celebrate my birthday today I am mindful of the tagline on my blog: “musings about the art of life.” And I recently came across the approximate French equivalent: l’art de vivre, or "the art of living." If anyone knows how to celebrate life it is arguably the French and with our twenty-fifth anniversary rapidly approaching my wife and I are planning to experience the French lifestyle firsthand by paying them a visit this summer.

What impresses us so much about the French style of life is the emphasis upon savoring each day as it comes and enjoying the simple pleasures of life, such as a leisurely meal, a stroll in the park or a visit with a loved one. Since I am self-employed I indulged myself today by spending time away from the home office, including a steak-and-egg breakfast at a new bistro and a lunch of soup with baguette at one of my favorite cafes.

Due to the inclement weather here in our area I wasn’t able to take a stroll in the park today but I am enjoying a nice supper at home with my beautiful, young wife and savoring the simple life. Whether we realize it or not, such days are more available to us than we think, if only we will strive to live by design rather than default. It only takes a little thought and planning to make a day memorable and special, birthday or not.

The Design of Stuff

I recently checked out the design documentary titled Objectified by Gary Hustwit, in which he interviewed famous designers about good design such as Apple’s Jonny Ive and Braun’s Dieter Rams, among several others. And of all the thought-provoking statements made by the designers it was one by award-winning Karim Rashid that stuck with me. He said that according to his research the typical person interacts with an average of 658 objects a day, which says to me that life is too short for bad design.

In the documentary’s liner notes, Hustwit noted about observing others’ interactions with their stuff: “Looking at their belongings, or how they interact with objects as part of their daily routine, can sometimes be a much richer, more honest representation of their life than what they might say about it. It’s more, well, objective.” And on the disc’s cover he queried: “What can we learn about who we are, and who we want to be, from the objects with which we surround ourselves?”

One thing I have learned this past year from the process of whittling my possessions down from several thousand to a couple of hundred is that I care much more about quality than quantity when it comes to material possessions. I’d rather have one well-designed pen, for example, than a drawer full of them. And I’ve learned that good design doesn’t have to be expensive, although I am willing to spend more for better design. When all is said and done, quality design more than pays for itself.

White Space

In design circles there is a term to describe the limited use of graphics on a page: white space. A similar term regarding the placement of text is called margin. Whatever you call it, the idea behind it is that specific elements stand out in relief. In other words, an uncluttered background allows the focal point of a design to come to the fore.

My wife is helping a friend of ours, who happens to be a fellow editor, organize her living and working space to better function at home, both personally and professionally. And the first move toward a more beautiful space is to remove the clutter from it. Nothing mars a homescape more than too much stuff and no system in place to corral it.

No matter how cramped one’s quarters might be, any space can be made more livable by weeding out the detritus of life gathered over the course of time. For example, I am one of the more organized people I know, but even I found myself with an odd surplus of electronic gadgetry accumulating in the storage closet of my office.

So I finally tackled the tangled web of cords and discovered that, among several outdated devices, my wife and I had collected one set of earbuds, two cell phone cases, three old cell phones, four cell phone chargers, and five corroded batteries. But the best part of the process was my discovery that a set of Aiwa speakers I had stored work wonderfully with our Apple laptop.

Never mind that I’ve had the laptop for 4 years and the speakers for 24 years and somehow they are only now being united in sonic bliss. The sole reason for their belated coupling can be attributed to the saying: “out of sight, out of mind.” As my wife and I often remind each other, “it helps to know what you own so you can use it.” If I’d only explored our spare electronics box earlier I could have been jamming long ago.

Designing Spaces

I am intrigued by other people’s work spaces, as they can be snapshots of insight into a person’s psyche or philosophy of design. As for me, I converted one of our cottage’s spare bedrooms into my work space. My office contains four filing cabinets, three desks, two bookshelves, and one supply closet. I am not sure what that says about me, other than that I am an infomaniac.

As the attached picture attests, I am also a neatnick who likes a relatively clean desk and black, white, and grey hues. For fellow technologists, I use an Apple iMac desktop computer and Airport Express wireless router, a Sprint DSL modem, a General Electric digital answering system, a Radio Shack cordless phone, and a Hewlett Packard scanner and printer.

Design Isn't Decoration

I recently read an intriguing book titled Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney. It is a peek inside the mind of Steve Jobs, the innovative co-founder and leader of Apple, the revolutionary maker of such state-of-the-art products as the iMac, iPod and iPhone.

Part of what stood out to me about Jobs’ thinking is how intentional he is about design. Not design for design’s sake, but the overall process of designing a satisfying customer experience out of the box, which Jobs is personally involved with from start to finish.

I can still remember the sensory pleasure I experienced while opening my first purchase of an Apple product, a G4 PowerBook laptop. The box itself was so cool that I hesitated to cut the proof-of-purchase from it to send for the rebate I had coming to me.

As Kahney states in his book, “Jobs’ pursuit of excellence is the secret of Apple’s great design. For Jobs, design isn’t decoration. It’s not the surface appearance of a product. It’s not about the color or the stylistic details. For Jobs, design is the way the product works. Design is function, not form.”

It is no surprise to me why Apple is making such a comeback in the marketplace. Its breakthrough products represent much more than a pretty interface. Stuff from Apple not only looks better, but much more importantly, it also works better.