Names for the familiar

A Reading Note

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.

Related books

Community and Privacy

Serge Chermayeff & Christopher Alexander

A precursor to Alexander’s A Pattern Language, in which he and Chermayeff define what’s wrong with the design of the suburbs, and outline the principles behind a more human (and urban) environment.