Barbara Knecht's blog

Barbara Knecht is director of design at the Institute for Human Centered Design (formerly Adaptive Environments), a non-profit organization committed to enhancing the experiences of people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

Preservation, Planning and Process: Manhattan’s Little Syria

Digging (in) Detroit

Detroit is the darling of the media.

Look South!

A week ago I spent some time with Enrique Peñalosa, urban strategist and provocateur. North Americans don’t often look south for innovation, but Peñalosa made remarkable changes in the public environment as Mayor of the city of Bogotá, Colombia. Nearly impeached for his actions to push cars aside in favor of people, now he is invited to provoke and inspire others.  “We have Environmental Impact Statements; why don’t we have Human Impact statements,” is a sampling from last week.

Designing the way to Sustainability

Over the last few weeks, I have participated in two panels on Social and Environmental Sustainability. The first one was at the Ringling School of Art’s "Designing for Life" conference, the second was at BuildBoston where Adaptive Environments organized a day long symposium on Universal Design. In both cases, design took center stage. Design as a means towards change, and design as a business force. This is good news for advocates of Universal Design.

Design is Social Activism

“I have always thought that design can be a form of social activism,” says Don Meeker, environmental graphic designer and co-creator of “Clearview” typeface. This small but radical quotation was buried in an article from the 8.12.07 NY Times Sunday magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/12/magazine/12fonts-t.html) on the redesign of highway sign typeface. Meeker, James Montalbano, and a team of collaborators understood that it was the design of highway signage that was contributing to highway fatalities. They applied an understanding of human psychology and function to the solution of a “civic issue.”

Radical idea. It’s called Universal Design. Or social activism.

Segways, Sidewalks, and Scooters

Should Segways be allowed on sidewalks? Should all bicycles travel only in designated bike lanes? Should motorized scooters be treated as if they are wheelchairs? Where should rollerblades, skateboards, adult tricycles, bikes with trailers or kick scooters travel? The world of personal mobility is expanding. And so is the pressure in favor of alternatives to the grandaddy of personal mobility -- the automobile. In spite of its importance as image-maker and status-definer, a car is just a method for getting a person from Point A to Point B. Moving people -- that’s its basic purpose.

Simple is the Concept

“Getting” Universal Design creates an “Aha!” moment. Experiencing Universal Design creates a “Wow!” moment.

Underwriting Fun

“We underwrite fun,” says Naomi McCleary, Manager of arts for the Waitakere City Council, one of the municipalities that make up the Auckland (New Zealand) metropolitan region. She is referring to the practice of involving artists in the thinking and creation of public places, buildings, streets, bridges; they take an equal seat at the table from conception to completion. According to Ms. McCleary, the results are remarkable. Fun is a partner of beauty and happiness, it is a means toward the creation of objects and places that are beautifully usable. Around the world it is possible to find municipalities that are underwriting this kind of fun, but for every found opportunity, we have several more that are lost.

Beauty and Function? We Should Expect Both

On the Sunday that the April Nor’easter dumped the second highest rainfall ever recorded in Central Park, I waded to the New York Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center. I wasn’t there to see the mighty floor show of preening cars inside the convention center, I went to see the Taxi ’07 exhibition outside on the wind and rain swept lower roadway. For anyone who has tried to hail a taxi in a Manhattan rainstorm, visiting the exhibition on that Sunday raised a familiar feeling: nearly a dozen yellow taxis in sight, not one of which was going to pick me up and whisk me away to dry land.

An Outbreak Of Beauty and Happiness?

In spite of my sense that we are heading pell mell into the gloom of global warming, catastrophic conflict and hopeless mediocrity, I’ve noticed a hopeful trend. Beauty and happiness have been rehabilitated from irrelevant to necessary.  It may not be an avalanche, but proponents are showing up in unusual places: a book by an environmental conservationist, another by an historian philosopher, and a Mother Jones article about the economy.  Can this portend a trend?