Stifling our presupposition

Some call it our preconceived notions or assumptions. I’m calling it presupposition. Whichever phrase you prefer, I’m referring to the way that people make decisions based on past experiences. Our experiences influence our opinions. Experience is a good thing, but it can be a problem for us designers if we allow our experience to control us. We are not designing for ourselves or past clients, but for our current clients. Each client is new and different from the last, even if they have the exact same problems. We need to be designing spaces that address our current clients’ needs, and no one else’s.

At Harth Builders, we’ve seen the results of successful and unsuccessful attempts to follow this rule. A few years back, we were designing the remodel of a kitchen and dining room where we planned to remove the existing wall between the two spaces. The old kitchen was a bit tight and disconnected from the rest of the house. Sound familiar? At that point, it would have been easy for us designers to do what we were used to doing: figure out how to maximize storage, countertops and seating by using up every bit of wall space available to us. Thank goodness we didn’t! Instead, we made it our mission to figure out how the clients lived. 

The family was older, and although their extended family often visited, they did not host many large dinners anymore. Because clients mostly cooked for themselves, they didn’t need an abundance of countertop space. There were two large patio doors going out to a beautifully landscaped back yard, including a pool that they used almost every day. Maintaining the view and access to the back yard was very important to how the clients lived. There was no need to remove what we might have seen as an “unnecessary” second door for more usable kitchen space. Addressing these factors and others, the design resulted with a large island in the center of the kitchen. It was surrounded by open walls and passageways, allowing the space to better serve the clients’ way of life and maximize the view outside, resulting in a happy client. It would be wonderful if we were able to follow this same process in for all our projects, unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  

We are currently building a whole house remodel in which we revisited this valuable lesson during the design process. The aesthetics were very important to the clients, so they were open to unique ideas. For the master suite, we created a “cool” design for a double sided fireplace, viewable from both the master bedroom and master bathroom soaking tub, with TVs above.  The clients loved the idea! However, due to framing restrictions and minimum clearances, it created extra space in the bedroom. We proceeded to designate the extra space as a seating area. So, what was the problem you ask?  

As the weeks went by and we got closer to finalizing the design, it gradually occurred to both the clients and us that we were not solving the problems that they had originally come to us with. They needed a lot more storage, and a much larger bathroom than we planned for. Our design, now close to final, only marginally improved their problems and the space required by the “cool” fireplace that we were so proud of became quite valuable. Furthermore, the clients had no use for the seating area in their bedroom. As a result, our design team had to redesign the spatial layout of the master suite in a very short time. The new design was equally as “cool” and we even held the project schedule. However, these problems were avoidable had we not projected our presuppositions of how the space could be used by the clients.

Contrasting these two projects, the benefits of stifling our presuppositions become obvious. First, it saves time for the designer and the client because the designer doesn’t waste time exploring the details of ideas that are of no use to the client. Secondly, and most importantly, is that it builds trust. Responding to a client’s specific problems shows that the designer cares and is listening, through which results in a happy client, enabling each project to lead to the next.

On a conceptual level, this principal seems simple. However, it takes keen self-awareness. A few things that have helped us along the way included, talking about ourselves less and asking questions more; taking good notes and reviewing them often; and lastly, but perhaps most importantly, questioning every assumption that is made, including those that the client has told you. If the client had all the answers, they wouldn’t need a designer. The trick is to not let our presuppositions influence our effectiveness at finding the right solution to their design dilemmas.  

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