Times Square, New York, 2009, photograph by Fallon Chan
Readers of Design Observer may be sick of the High Line by now. I know that I sort of am. The product of a design competition with over 700 entries, designed to within an inch of its minutely cultivated life, and surrounded by some of the chicest real estate in town, the half-mile southern stretch of this elevated New York City park has been so deliriously popular that crowd control has become a serious problem.
Nearly as popular, but much less celebrated by design cognescenti, is an urban intervention about two miles north. At the beginning of the summer, New York Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan closed two sections of Broadway to traffic, including five blocks at Times Square, creating new pedestrian malls overnight. Then, Tim Tompkins of the Times Square Alliance, realizing that people might want to sit somewhere, bought 376 rubber folding chairs for $10.74 apiece from Pintchik's Hardware in Park Slope. Done and done, and instantly — without the High Line's international design competition, logo, $170 million budget, and five years of painstaking deliberation — millions of people have a new way of enjoying the city.
This raises a question: when it comes to fulfilling simple human desires, can design get in the way?
Consider the behavior of one of my big corporate clients, a client with, God bless them, a seemingly healthy respect for design and the design process. This client would convene an internal task force to consider ways that they might, say, improve their customer service. The task force would come up with a decent idea: for instance, let's make a rule that from now on we'll pick up the phone on our customer help line after no more than three rings. So far so good.
Then I would get a call. This proposal, now designated an "initiative," needed a name. The team has been brainstorming, I'd be told, but none of the names so far had generated enough enthusiasm. Quik Pik Help Line. Rapid Ring Response. Customer First. And so forth. Could I help?
Usually, at this point, I would ask if they might consider, you know, just answering the phone in less than three rings and not making such a fuss out of it. No, I'd be told. "We need to build buy-in around this initiative with the internal stakeholders," my client would tell me carefully. "The thinking is that we need a brand identity for this concept before we introduce it to a broader audience." Well, okay. Eventually, after a great deal of internal debate, and the presentation and rejection of several alternatives to the higher-ups, a name would be chosen: ServiceQuest 2010. And then would inevitably come another phone call: could I design a logo for ServiceQuest 2010? Sigh.
Meanwhile, presumably, the phone would just keep ringing and ringing.
Now, far be it from me to argue against any kind of full employment program for designers. But I do find it useful to start conversations with potential clients with a simple question: are you sure you want to do this design project? Why is it necessary? Is this the easiest way to do it? Is it the best? Why does a designer have to be involved?
I like to think about how Ms. Sadik-Khan and Mr. Tompkins would have dealt with the less-than-three-rings initiative. How about a one-paragraph (or even one-sentence) mass email? Just answer the goddamed phones, people! Likewise, if they had run the High Line project, I'm guessing their first priority would have been access — not high design, not ingenious little moments, not formal affectations that may end up looking very 2009 about ten years from now — but simply getting people up there. I applaud the ambition of Friends of the High Line and their design consultants, and the result is quite rightly acclaimed. However, I would love to see more design incrementalism, more Jane Jacobs-style fast prototyping to complement those slow-moving Burnhamesque Big Plans.
One last thing: a lot of people liked sitting in those $10.74 chairs, but a lot of people really hated the way they looked. So earlier this month they were replaced with more tasteful park chairs, the ones that Sadik-Khan and Tompkins evidently wanted all along, but couldn't get in time. And what about the old chairs? With the customary improvisatory panache I've come to associate with this effort, they commissioned artist Jason Peters to create a sculpture out of them. It lasted for a weekend.
Management consultants like to enthuse about the importance of Big Hairy Audacious Goals. BHAGS are good for white boards and Powerpoint presentations. But sometimes — and maybe more than ever, these days — the best kind of audacity comes in small packages.