Time for a meaningful discussion about design

Have you ever been somewhere and thought to yourself, “Wow, this place is cool; I want to spend more time here”? Conversely, maybe you have thought, “O-M-G, get me out of here now.”

We have all had these reactions at some point and somewhere in our lives. I mean, it’s inevitable, right? And it is a rather simple equation: Feel good equals stay; feel bad equals escape.

Does the place you live make you feel good or bad? Do you want to stay or bolt? How do any of these questions relate to your experiences in Johnstown, Gloversville, Amsterdam or any of the smaller villages and hamlets dotting the Mohawk Valley and Southern Adirondacks?

Okay, let’s come back to those questions in a minute. I want to focus on something we always seem to take for granted. (Not our spouses, parents, kids or Cousin Fred). We need to talk about Design. Yes, that’s right: Design. It is the essence of everything we, as card-carrying homo sapiens, do on this Earth.

So what is this word, design, and what does it mean? By definition, it is both noun and verb; simultaneously object and action. Its origins are rooted in Latin ,and its foundational meaning is to “mark out” or “devise.” So, by extension, to make a mark is to establish structure, organization and symbolic intent. And it is this last word, intent, that embodies the essence of design. Therefore, design is a mark, or the act of marking that communicates purpose and intent.

Soak that in for a minute. Think about the marks we make: letters, words, pictures, tools, buildings, streets and cities. All of it is design. Each is an act of bringing order to chaos, creating meaning, utility and, when done well, beauty. All of it is essential to what we are as people – language, art, product, architecture and community. Design, then, is nothing more than an expression of our intent. It is the language of purpose and symbolic meaning. It is the living manifestation of our culture. So what can we infer by the design of our communities?

There is a phrase I hear every so often: “You are what you eat.” Of course, it is a metaphorical statement, so it is factually incorrect, but it is deeply truthful.

I am not an actual pig if I eat a lot of bacon. Okay, bad example. But you get my meaning. I think the phrase draws a relationship between input and output. Garbage in, garbage out.

So what happens if we shift the metaphor from food to design? And let’s expand it from the singular to the plural: “We are what we design.”

Does the new phrase embody the same truth? I think it does. And I think it is an important truth, especially for Fulton and Montgomery counties.

How we design and what we design tell a story about us: about how we live, our values and our potential. What we make and use now will become tomorrow’s artifact, be it junk or treasure. And that extends from the smallest widget to the largest cities.

So let’s return to the original question above. Do you stay or go? Take it or leave it? Well, I suppose the answer depends on the value the place, this place, has to you. And by value I mean are you getting more out than you are investing? As I look around our community, I wonder what value we are getting from our personal and collective investments. More pointedly, I wonder if we are making the right investments, the right design decisions. I think you can gauge the health of a place by what you see literally around you. Do you like what you see?

Design is often dismissed as being too focused on aesthetic matters and is thus devalued as a superfluous luxury. But such an attitude ignores the underlying role of design, which is to bend the world to our purpose. Design is supposed to improve utility and build value. When done well, it adds beauty and richness to the world – life that did not exist before. Yeah, that may sound like a lot of hocus-pocus, pie-in-the-sky mumbo jumbo. But it’s really not, when you start to peel away the layers and look deeper at what afflicts us.

When I look around me, I see a community in desperate need of design. We are a culture yearning for beauty and richness. It is a place in need of rebuilding. As stewards of our community, we can and should do better. Better planning. Better investment. Better vision. More creativity. Better by design.

We need a better public discussion on the value and merit of design. To be better stewards, we need to understand the language of design. We need to learn how to see as we are looking. Because design matters.

David D’Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown (