“Talk” to Me; Communication in Design

“Talk” to Me; Communication in Design

I’ll blog more later about tonight’s Speakers’ Series session with Rollin Stanley, Planning Director for the Maryland National Capitol Area Park and Planning Commission. It was a visionary session, with Rollin offering examples from across the country and across the world of good and “bad” public spaces. I appreciate Councilmembers Duchy Trachtenberg and Roger Berliner participating as well.

Rollin’s bottom line was that the best spaces are those which engage people, and he kept discussing the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. Good spaces (“mass in space”) engage all five senses. The best spaces have all the engagement in a small area, where human interactions reinforce each other, as well as opportunities for peace and quiet.

I am new to the urban design and planning area, never having done anything before I started on the White Flint Sector Plan process in 2006. So I’m feeling my way through all these concepts for the first time, and I’m trying to integrate them into some simpler, more understandable form. These days I attend many sessions on “best practices” and good design. I’m always looking for an “organizing device” to make the complex more understandable.

One idea that keeps leaping out at me is communication. It’s never mentioned in the overall context, but it seems to be central to modern design. Good design talks. To people. Whispering or yelling, design sends messages, sometimes good, sometimes not so much.

In modern transportation design, says Ian Lockwood of Glatting Jackson, the idea is to communicate with the driver so the driver takes responsibility for her own actions. He said that directly, and it explains how good “traffic calming” design differs from ineffective traffic blocking designs. Older physical barriers just shift the problem down the road, while effective modern design explains to drivers what behavior is appropriate.

In modern public space planning, says Rollin Stanley of Park & Planning, the idea is for the space to speak to the people near it and within it. He didn’t say that directly, but that’s how I heard his presentation tonight. “You want this to invite people in.” “Watch how the people here want to come out to play.” “See how the kids play in the fountain? We didn’t expect that, but they love it.”

And it is how I read his comments on activating peoples’ senses: “You want people to feel texture.” “You want people to hear the sound as they walk on wood instead of concrete.” “Taste comes from the restaurants or shops around the square.” “See the active wall, how it shows people that this is an interesting area and draws them in?” The best writing includes references to different senses, and so should design.

One of Rollins’ biggest points is that things can’t be too big. He points out that space becomes less inviting if people are too far apart. I think that you can’t communicate with people over too big a distance. The message a big environment sends is that the individual is insignificant and interaction is unimportant.

Designers talk about the “vocabulary” of design. Does this road use “urban” or “rural” vocabulary? I had always considered that technical jargon, shorthand for a set of signs and signals. But I am coming to understand that it’s more accurate than that.

The essence of communication is an attempt to approximate shared experiences. A road that is wide, straight, and boring reminds people — communicates to drivers — that it’s ok to drive fast. It’s like a highway, even if it’s not a highway. This is a problem if the road’s something like Tuckerman Lane, with houses on both sides. A winding neighborhood street, with trees on “bulb-outs” and “mini-roundabouts” at intersections instead of stop signs, communicates that the driver is somewhere special, where speed is not appropriate. If there’s something to see, a driver will slow down; when a driver slows down, people are safer. “You can’t make eye contact with pedestrians if you drive faster than 23 miles per hour,” Rollin said. Non-verbal communication, but messages are being sent and received, at 23 mph or less.

And in designing a public space, the designer must also review what message the environment sends. You can put all the benches in the world in an un-inviting space, and no one will sit for long. But you can put a fountain, with water for the kids to play in, the sounds of falling drops, and rainbows in the mist, and people will want to go there and stay, like at the fountain in Bethesda Row. It’s a tiny place, but it’s jam-packed, because it sends the message that people are wanted there.

As I continue this journey through the wonderland of urban planning, I’m going to listen more to messages, silent and loud.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall


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