On a beautiful day, just a few years ago my wife and I entered a hospital near our home in Oakland, California for the birth of our first daughter, Maya. We had responsibly toured the birthing center in advance and yet we were somehow still startled to find ourselves in the place where we would experience one of the most significant moments of our lives. We were stuck in a windowless room with no hint of the bright and sunny day that we had left. Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, the paint on the walls was beige and machines beeped inexplicably as a wall clock indicated day turning to night. That clock was placed above a door in direct line of sight to where my wife lay as her contractions increased hour after hour. Now, I've never given birth —
but she assured me that the last thing that a birthing woman would ever want is to watch the seconds tick by.
An architect by training, I've always been fascinated watching people experience design in the world around them. I believe design functions like the soundtrack that we're not even fully aware is playing. It sends us subconscious messages about how to feel and what to expect. That room that we were in seemed completely misaligned with the moment that we were experiencing — welcoming a human being, our daughter, into this world.
At one point a nurse, without any prompt, turned to us and said, "I always think to myself, 'I wish I had become an architect, because I could have designed rooms like this better.'"
I said to her, "An architect did design this room."
Despite the immense joy of our daughter's birth, the messages of that hospital room stick with she and I to this day. Those messages are, "You are not at home, you are in a foreign place." "You are not in control of anything. Not even the lighting." "Your comfort, simply, is secondary." At best, a hospital room like this might just be described or dismissed as uninspiring. At worst, it is undignifying. And I use it to point out that none of us, anywhere in the world, are immune from bad design.
I went into architecture because I believed it was about creating spaces for people to live their best lives. And yet what I found is a profession largely disconnected from the people most directly impacted by its work. I believe this is because architecture remains a white, male, elitist profession — seemingly unconcerned with some of the greatest needs in the world or even the relatively simple needs of an expectant mother. Students are trained in school using highly theoretical projects, rarely interacting with real people or actual communities. Graduates are funneled through a long, narrow unforgiving path to licensure.
Meanwhile, the profession holds up a select few through relentless award programs focused almost exclusively on the aesthetics of buildings, rather than the societal impact or contributions of them. It only goes to reinforce a warped view of professional responsibility and success and yet this isn't why so many young, hopeful people go into architecture. It's not why I did. I believed then, though I didn't have a language for it, and I know now, that design has a unique ability to dignify. It can make people feel valued, respected, honored and seen.
Now I'd like for you to just think about some of the spaces that you inhabit. And I'd like to have you think about how they make you feel. Now, there are places that make us feel unhappy, unhealthy or uninspiring. They may be the places that you work or where you heal or even where you live. And I ask, how might these places be better designed with you in mind? It's a really simple question and it can somehow, sometimes be very difficult to answer. Because we are conditioned to feel like we don't have much agency over the spaces and places that we live, work and play. And in many cases we don't. But we all should.
Now, here's a potentially dumb question for any women watching: Have you ever stood in a disproportionately long bathroom line?
Did you ever think to yourself, "What is wrong with this picture?" Well, what if the real question is, "What is wrong with the men that designed these bathrooms?"
It may seem like a small thing, but it's representative of a much more serious issue. The contemporary world was literally built by men who have rarely taken the time to understand how people unlike them experience their designs. A long bathroom line might seem like a minor indignity. But the opposite can also be true. Thoughtful design can make people feel respected and seen. I've come to believe that dignity is to design what justice is to law and health is to medicine. In the simplest of terms, it's about having the spaces you inhabit reflect back your value.
Over the past two years I had the opportunity to interview over 100 people from all walks of life about their experience of design. I wanted to test my hunch that dignity and design are uniquely related.
I listened to Gregory, a resident of this cottage community designed specifically for the 50 most chronically homeless people in Dallas. Gregory had been living on the streets, drifting from town to town for over 30 years. A broad coalition of social service agencies, funders and designers, created this place. Each 400 square foot cottage is designed beautifully as a permanent home. Gregory now has a key to a door to his own house. He describes the sense of security that it brings him. Something he had lived without for three decades. When he arrived with little more than the clothes on his back, he found everything: from a toaster, Crock-Pot and stove to a toothbrush and toothpaste awaiting for him. He describes it simply as heaven.
On the other side of the world, I listened to Antoinette, the director of this training and community center for women in rural Rwanda. Hundreds of women come to this place daily — to learn new skills, be in community, and continue rebuilding their lives following the country's civil war. These women literally pressed the 500,000 bricks that make up the 17 classroom pavilions like this one. Antoinette told me, "Everyone is so proud of it."
And then back here in the US I listened to Monika, the director of a free clinic primarily serving the uninsured in Arkansas. Monika loves telling me that the doctors, who volunteer at her free clinic routinely tell her that they've never worked in such a beautiful, light-filled place. Monika believes that even people experiencing poverty deserve quality health care. And what's more, she believes they deserve to receive that care in a dignified setting.
People like these are invaluable ambassadors for design and yet they are roundly absent from architectural discourse. Similarly, the people who can most benefit from good design often have the least access to it. Your cousin, a homeless veteran; your grandma or grandpa who live in a house with a kitchen that's no longer accessible to them; your wheelchair-bound sister in a suburban area planned without sidewalks.
If good design is only for a privileged few, what good is it? It's time designers change this by dedicating their practices to the public good in the model of firms like Orkidstudio, Studio Gang and MASS Design Group. Their clients are orphaned children in Kenya, foster children in Chicago and pregnant women in Malawi. Their practices are premised on the belief that everyone deserves good design. Dedicating more practices to the public good will not only create more design that is dignifying, but it will also dignify the practice of design. It will not only diversify the client base of design, but it will also create new, more diverse forms of design for the world.
Now, in order to do this, my architecture and design friends, especially my fellow white guys, we must simultaneously and significantly diversify our ranks. If we want the public to believe that design is for them and for everyone. Today, barely 15 percent of registered architects in the United States are women. And a far smaller percentage are persons of color. Other professions, like law and medicine had made far greater strides in these crucial areas. How might our shared built environment — our homes, our hospitals, our schools, our public spaces — be shaped differently if women and people of color were behind half of the proverbial blueprints? It is not a question of whether, but to what extent our buildings, our landscapes, our cities and our rural communities are less beautiful, less functional, less equitable and less dignifying because women and people of color are less likely to be creating them.
As Winston Churchill famously noted in 1943 when he called for the rebuilding of London's war-damaged parliamentary chambers, "We shape our buildings, and afterward, they shape us." The good news is that we can change how we build and who we build for. Be that a health worker in rural Rwanda, or a birthing mother and nervous new father in the United States. We can do this by recommitting architecture to the health, safety and welfare of the public. This will pay dividends. Because once you see what design can do, you can't unsee it. And once you experience dignity, you can't accept anything less. Both become part of your possible.
One of my favorite conversation partners is my 90-year-old grandmother, Audrey Gorwitz, from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After one of our conversations about design, she wrote me a letter. She said, "Dear Johnny, I thought the other day, as I sat in my doctor's office, how depressing it was, from the color on the wall, to the carpet on the floor.
Now I will have to call to see who is responsible for the drabness in that place."
In the same letter, mind you, she said, "I did call, and I got the man in charge, and he said he appreciated someone calling him. My doctor's office is now on the list for an upgrade."
She signed it by saying, "It is always good to express one's opinion if done in a proper manner."
I love my grandma.
Like my grandma Audrey, you deserve good design. Because well-designed spaces are not just a matter of taste or a questions of aesthetics. They literally shape our ideas about who we are in the world and what we deserve. That is the essence of dignity. And both the opportunity and the responsibility of design for good and for all.