Reading notes

The Interstices

How do you approach a problem?

This is the crucial question in any design process, for countless different views of the problem are possible. The most fruitful aspects to consider, can we but identify them, are those most deeply related to the structure of the problem. The sense in which the structure given by the grouping of parts can help us solve a problem is illustrated beautifully in the words of Chuangtzu, who lived at the time of Plato, put into the mouth of a Taoist butcher:

“A good cook changes his chopper once a year—because he cuts. An ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. But I have had this chopper nineteen years, and although I have cut up many thousand bullocks, its edge is as if fresh from the whetstone. For at the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of a chopper being without thickness, it remains only to insert that which is without thickness into such an interstice. By this means the interstice will be enlarged, and the blade will find plenty of room.”

Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, page 159

I love this. Think about the problems you are trying to solve. Look closely—look at how all the pieces fit together, and then see where there is room for you to insert your blade.

Names for the familiar

On designing with words:

In view of the conceptual changes that are taking place it is hardly helpful to continue using in connection with housing problems words that are firmly anchored in the cultures of days gone by; they can only mislead us in our present search for better solutions. “Apartments,” “row houses,” “single-family houses,” “yard,” “garden,” “garbage,” “parking lot,” “living room,” “kitchen,” “dining room,” “bedroom,” “bathroom,” are all heavily loaded words that make ay number of irrelevant images spring to mind. Designer and user alike may imagine that these words stand for something immutable, though in fact they are just names for the familiar.

Until one stops using popular or generalized words to describe specific objects and events, one will continue to be deceived by the associations with them and will fail to arrive at the essential functional aspect of things and places that is the planner’s actual concern in problem-analysis and design.

Chermayeff & Alexander, Community and Privacy, page 149

I start nearly every design project with words. Words define the problem and its scope, and they pave the way towards a solution. Names are especially important, as what you call things will prescribe how you approach them. One trick I’ve found that often works is to look to vocabulary from another domain; so, if you’re designing a bedroom, use words from landscape architecture; or if you’re designing a book, use cooking words. The end result may or may not be useful, but the exploration itself is often illustrative.