How rolling blackouts reminded me to democratize design

The value of group design hit home during the California Energy Crisis.

There’s an ongoing, though rarely spoken about, tug of war in the design world over the role of the group dynamic in the design process. For some, the design process is regarded as a herculean individual effort requiring singular design heroes to champion an idea through a maze of challenges. And the emergence of the computer as design’s primary tool has played into this paradigm almost too perfectly—in general, creating on the computer is a solitary affair.

There are many of us, on the other hand, who find that a collaborative, democratic design process has distinct advantages. Okay, that’s an understatement; I really think it’s the only way to go. And with VOA, I find myself in good company. {Keep an eye on this blog for more on VOA’s design process, why we still love the charrette and the importance of “visioning” in our design process.} Underpinning this attitude is the conviction that good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere. The group opens up the process to more ideas, to more intellectual rigor, and brings more talent to bear on each project.

The value of this group format hit home in the year 2001 during the California Energy Crisis. I had just opened my own architecture firm and was fortunate enough to have several design projects in the office. My firm employed roughly nine staff members at that time. In June, PG&E (the power company) started mandating rolling blackouts for the San Francisco Bay Area, where my office was located. The city was carved up in 100 grids and the power would be shut off in each, one after the other, for an hour to two-and-half hours. The PG&E website (or a call-in number) indicated when each grid would be shut down and for how long. That summer, we were scheduled for rolling blackouts two or three times a week. In an effort to remain productive while the computers were down, I instituted group design meetings, eventually dubbed “Table Talks.”


We rearranged the office, moving two drafting tables under the main window for natural light and positioning drawing supplies nearby. An hour before the scheduled shut-down, every team member printed out what they were working on and all of us convened at the large table with the print-outs, rolls of trace paper, pens, snacks and coffee. If the blackout was at the end of the day, the coffee might be subbed with wine and beer. While we were at the table, each designer presented their particular challenge that needed to be worked out, as well as the solutions that they were pursuing. The design conversation was purposely limited as designers had just three sentences to set up the challenge, and only three sentences to set up a solution for each challenge proposed, with a max of three solutions presented for each challenge. This forced us to boil the issues and responses down to the basics and gave us a succinct foundation for discussion. That limited set-up gave us more time to talk ideas.

To make this routine work, the designers needed to focus. Phones were set aside in a basket during the talks. And away from their (unpowered) computers, the team engaged in the conversation with full attention. Every team member present discussed the project and challenges on the table, even if they had no other connection to it.


What’s obvious to me now became obvious then; these group gatherings were beneficial.

Out of these talks came the best ideas for projects, as well as the best solutions–many used later for seemingly unrelated projects. Bringing an informed outsider–someone knowledgeable about design but new to the project—proved to be of tremendous value. The additional perspective provided a fresh look at the process and problem. Often, the team itself was too close to the work to notice larger issues looming. The failings of problematic designs were immediately obvious to the outsider.

Put a group of very smart people together who have rich experience and interests outside the office and let them collaborate. That makes for unmatched innovation. Each individual brought their own interests, passions and experience to each project, widening the perspective. Seeing challenges from different angles and filters of experience, we got a fuller picture of the problem at hand, and often a wider selection of possible solutions.


More importantly, these meetings produced better ideas. The best ideas do not come fully formed, typically. They get better over many manipulations, tests, redirections, redefinitions, and rigorous prodding. An idea that begins jagged and rough can be tumbled around in discussion and drawing until it is honed and refined. Most ideas don’t survive until this stage, but all worthwhile ideas have to run the gauntlet of ideation, testing, refining, testing, reimagining, testing, and further refinement before being suitable for presentation. And likewise, an essentially good idea can survive a good buffeting intact.

The process itself is an iterative one, and the cycles of discovery, identifying and testing challenges, and developing solutions can be repeated individually. The internal testing loop should also be applied to the problems themselves to be sure that we are answering the right question.

One thing I learned about ideas, no one owns them if they are any good. Like kids growing up on farms learning not to name the animals, my designers were not allowed to “name” their project. Design ideas aren’t pets. You need to love the idea enough to fight for its merits, but not so much that you are blind to its faults or can’t let go when it (necessarily) evolves. If an idea were great, but not a great fit for that particular project, it was saved on the idea board for reference and future development.

Ideas are the foundation of what we do, they’re important, but ownership freezes the idea in time. When ideas are broken, tested, discussed, and allowed to change, they’re allowed flourish and grow. No idea is too good to test or tinker with. Design is intellectual play, and we should approach it with the same openness that we did group play as kids.

How does this play out at VOA? Look for my next post on Visioning for tech client to find out.

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