I have said before that interior designers must be able to think inwardly and outwardly at the same time. While some professions specialize in getting it done, and others specialize in coming up with big ideas, interior designers must find a way to do both. We must focus on the smallest element of a space while understanding how it fits in to the context of a room or building. We must be able to understand when it is appropriate to dream and brainstorm, and when it is time to work out the details and execute the plan. In most cases, the mindsets used to complete these tasks require the use of different parts of our brain and certain types of thinking.
The trouble is, these mindsets are often at odds with one another. The idea of thinking big and small at the same time is paradoxical. In the design process, this tension between modes of thought can make or break the flow of a project, and send well meaning designers into a spiral of inefficiency and wasted time. Out of all the conflicting ideas that can plague the design process, I believe that there is one that, despite being absolutely crucial, trips more designers up than the rest combined.
Big Picture Thinking vs Detailed Thinking
Viewing the big picture means to step back from Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" to see the image of people enjoying a lovely afternoon by the river instead of the thousands and thousands of tiny little dots that compose the image.
That being said, part of the magic comes from the pointillism itself. The image is outstanding on it's own, but the artist's precision at such a small scale and the method used to create the masterpiece is what makes this painting truly exceptional. The viewer's experience of the piece is completely different when viewed from near and far distances. Both experiences are equally astounding.
This is all to say that details matter, just as the big picture matters. Charles Eames famously once said "Details are not the details. They make the design" and he's right. Details are important, but there is a time and place for them. When considered too early, they can really get in the way of concept work. Focusing on small things before the big thing has been nailed down is like trying to put sprinkles on a cake before the batter has been baked. It just doesn't work. Likewise, worrying about a specific piece of furniture frankly doesn't matter until the entire design concept has been approved. You don't want to become the person who can't see the forest for the trees. Or in other words, you don't want to spend your days wasting hours on details that aren't getting you any closer to the goal, or ultimately don't matter.
So where is the happy medium between the the two? Originally, I set out write this blog post and identify the balance between these conflicting modes of thought. I was hoping that if I explored and dug deep enough I would find a magic pill that could point me in the right direction when I lose focus. In hindsight, this was a ridiculous expectation as magic pills do not exist, something I learned quite quickly while working through this post. As I wrestled with these ideas throughout the week I realized that there cannot be a perfect blend of each idea because they are inherently opposite. You can not live in both extremes at the same time.
All you can do is address each design solution individually and make decisions based on the information you have and resources available. That's it. In times where you find yourself going around in circles, the only remedy is to pull yourself out of the hamster wheel and identify your priorities. From there you can reorient yourself and make a plan.
So instead of giving you a quick fix, or guide to one of design's most challenging tensions, I wanted to share two principles that have helped me greatly when setting priorities and determining what is important. Each produces a similar conclusion, but illustrates two different ways of getting there.
Big Picture Thinking with the 80/20 Rule:
I have heard this idea before, but the source I associate it most with is Tim Ferris' "4 Hour Workweek." While most of the book did not apply to me, it had some good time management tips, including this principle. The basic idea is that 20% of the input generates 80% of the output. This can be applied in a lot of different ways, for example:
- 80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people
- 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the issues
In design, I believe that 80% of the visual impact is caused by 20% of the elements. For me, the fastest way to focus my work is to identify that 20%. What are the elements that are going to make the biggest statement when you enter a space? What are visitors going to remember? For example, if a design proposal for a lobby includes a gigantic, custom lighting fixture in the center of the atrium, it's probably a better idea to focus on that instead of worrying about what specific office chair should go behind the reception desk. Yes, it will have to be done at some point, but it is not the highest priority.
It's so easy to get lost in the sea of endless detail and options, and lose sight of what's really important. Likewise, it is hard to stay focused on the big picture when you keep getting sidetracked on things that 99% of people won't notice. Prioritize your 20% and the rest will fall into place.
As an anecdote, our wedding planning experience was a great example of this. My husband and I married young, had a tight budget, and therefore had to put a lot of thought into our 20%. After careful research and consideration (lol not really, we knew what we wanted going in) we decided to splurge on the venue and pinch pennies everywhere else. It was a beautiful, historic ballroom downtown and came with the nice chairs (you know the ones), which mattered to me. Because the location was so ornate and elegant, no one noticed that the vases that held our flowers were from the Dollar Store, or the stationary was designed by me, printed at Fed Ex (still cute though), and cut by one of those scrapbooking paper cutters you can get at Micheal's. Sometimes you just do what you gotta do.
This method is helpful because it separates what is important from what isn't and serves as a clear reminder that not all aspects of a project require equal and immediate attention.
Managing Details with the Rock Method:
Have you ever heard the story about the rocks in the jar? The gist is that a professor is sitting in front of his class with a bunch of items: rocks, pebbles, sand, and water. He fills up the jar with the big rocks and asks if the jar is full. The student's say yes. Then he pours in the pebbles. The students say the jar is full again. Then he pours in the sand. Same thing. Finally, he pours in the water. Now the jar is really full and he gives them an inspirational speech about priorities.
The point of the story is illustrate how the order in which you fill the jar matters. If you pour in the sand first, followed by the water and pebbles, and try to fit the rocks in afterward, it won't fit. It must go in specific order of biggest to smallest. Do you see where I am going with this?
While the 80/20 rule determines what is important, the Rock Method determines not only what is important, but in what order to tackle things. To use my wedding anecdote again, this principle saved my husband and I a lot of stress on the front end of the planning process. After binge reading an entire stack of wedding magazines, I became completely overwhelmed with the sheer amount of details and decisions that will need to be made. After my husband calmed me down we applied this type of thinking and were able to identify our "rocks." Before we could get into favors, place card holders, and programs we had to figure out the basics: where the wedding was going to be, who would be coming, what we would wear, and what we would eat. Everything else fell into place after that.
I now use this principle in all aspects of design work, from time management to actual creation. For example, after client meetings, it is easy to get overwhelmed as you start to sort through pages of notes and markups. In the event that plans need to be tweaked, Sketchup models need to be modified, renderings need to be redone, and the presentation needs to be updated, it can be hard to know where to start first. I find the the best thing to do is to sift through everything you have written and pull out the big ideas first. After those are sorted, start organizing the rest of the details into smaller and smaller levels of importance.
I also use this method with space planning. There is something about floor plates over 5,000sf that really intimidate me. Because my brain likes to think in smaller, more manageable vignettes I find myself stuck in the paradox of choice. When there are endless options, where you do begin? The only way I can sort myself out is to use the Rock Method. Place the most important (and non-negotiable) areas first and go from there. Giving yourself parameters will help mitigate the challenge of an open blank space, and help you move forward.
While those tips are practical for personal use, no project is completed in isolation. If the other stakeholders or team members are not focused on the same big picture, things will fall apart. In a conversation about tricky aspects of the design process it would be remiss to not address the importance of being on the same page with other decision makers. In any project there are two things you absolutely must do:
Communicate with Your Team
Never assume that your team members are thinking the same thing you are. They probably aren't. Everyone processes information in their own way, picks up on details that someone else might not have noticed, and has a different idea about the best way to move forward. And the truth is, most of these ideas are good and will get the job done. Though they may be different, there are a lot of functional ways to do things. There is rarely only one right way to tackle a problem. However, challenges arise when these differing ideas conflict. This is where communication among team members is key. In a group where detail oriented people and dreamers are working alongside one another, there needs to be a clear agreement on direction and process, and a common understanding of what the final product will be. It doesn't really matter how you do it, just as long as everyone is crystal clear on project goals before you get started.
Manage Client Expectations
Just as it is important to make sure everyone on the project team is on the same page, it is also important to make sure that your deliverable will match the client's expectations. If they are expecting a full blown, fully detailed specification and all there is time for is a basic outline, it isn't good for anyone. Likewise, there is nothing worse than burning hours to put together a specification when all that was needed are photo references and basic dimensions. Once again, communication is key. As someone who prefers to not leave things up to chance, and hates making decisions based on assumptions, I much prefer to ask questions. Even at the risk of looking a little uninformed. If I am not sure what specific information the client needs from me, I would so much rather take the risk and ask them.
That being said, this level of communication must go both ways. Part of the design professional's job is to educate their client on what is possible in an allotted amount of time, and what is to be expected at this point in the design process.
While there may not be a prescriptive happy medium to relieve the tension between big picture and detailed thinking, perhaps this is for the best. The truth is, both are necessary to complete a successful project. Just as Seurat's masterpiece teaches us, truly exceptional work includes a deep consideration of the two. Perhaps the trick is understanding what is appropriate and when, while not losing sight of either points of view. You cannot tackle details without first knowing what direction the project is headed in, yet you cannot get there without working through all aspects of the design. Even the small ones.
It is my hope that this post will give you a few tricks to pull out the big ideas and start making a plan, but more importantly I hope to get you thinking about the different ways designers solve problems and appreciate their complexity.
I'd love to hear your thoughts!