Critical Thinking: Radical Design in Unexpected Places

Critical Thinking: Radical Design in Unexpected Places

Critical Thinking is an ongoing series highlighting the work of architecture and urbanism (and design) thinkers from around the internet.  In each entry I recommend a few of my favorite recent pieces.

(Header image: SmithGroupJJR's competition-winning proposal for San Francisco's public toilets.  Image by SmithGroupJJR, via SFGate.com)

This time I’m featuring two stories about design in unexpected contexts.  Both of these stories highlight the fact that design exists all around us, all the time.  But more importantly, these stories make clear that design shouldn’t be an afterthought—that it can turn even the most utilitarian functions into exciting objects, and that it can even play a role in changing the course of history.

First up is John King’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the shiny new proposed design for San Francisco’s public toilets and kiosks, by SmithGroupJJR (pictured above).  Although it is likely just an accident of timing, this would seem an unusual topic to mark King’s return as the Chronicle’s urban design critic, after a stint as the 2018 Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC.  And yet, the seemingly mundane nature of the project is what makes it all the more exciting. After an initial proposal was deemed to have “all the finesse of a utility box” the city held a new design competition, resulting in the winning design for the shiny new public facilities that integrate rooftop plantings.  The sparkling tubes may be eye-catching, but as King notes, “The most important gauges of a public toilet’s success, of course, is whether they are used by the public and whether they work from one day to the next.” But that’s a question for the future as SmithGroupJJR works to refine the design for the realities of implementation.  I look forward to following the progress of this small, but impactful design.

 Campaign posters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Image by Tandem NYC, via the Washington Post.

Campaign posters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Image by Tandem NYC, via the Washington Post.

The second story covers a topic that isn’t usually a feature of people[PLACES]spaces (mostly because I can’t pretend to know anything about it): graphic design.  This week the Washington Post featured an analysis of the campaign design for upset New York congressional primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  The article by Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, co-founders of creative studio Post Typography, provides an accessible analysis of all the ways in which the graphic design by Maria Arenas of Tandem NYC sets the branding apart from the typical staid campaign posters and buttons.  The details of the design elements combine with historical references to create a visual identity that provides a coherent and impactful demonstration of Ocasio-Cortez’s politics and her persona. It’s not unusual for campaign design to make headlines, though usually for much higher profile candidates, and usually for all the wrong reasons (as was the case for both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in the 2016 presidential election).  So it’s refreshing to see a candidate so skillfully breaking the tired old molds, both politically and visually.

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