I had the opportunity to present a Pecha Kucha on the topic of being a designer in Los Angeles for the Society of Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) LA Conference on July 20, 2018. I began by thinking about what makes my journey unique or meaningful. I soon realized that as Angelenos, our day is made up of mini-journeys; a series of trips as we navigate the city on our daily, sometimes arduous commutes. We are part of a county of 10 million people and we find ourselves sitting in our cars or the Metro, biking or walking the city streets from home to work each day. Our relationship with the environment influences the way we attribute meaning and understanding with our city.
In the seminal book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch explores the urban notion that “nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences”. The context simultaneously reflects and creates meaning and memories. In essence, the city shapes our point of view, bringing us into a particular relationship with other people and activities.
When I moved from Texas to Los Angeles in 1996, I quickly realized that Los Angeles was huge; a series of mini-cities that covered almost 5,000 square miles. I knew I needed a way to decipher this new city and I needed a tool that would help me navigate this massive connection of highways, roads and neighborhoods. Along with fellow pre-GPS Angelinos, I bought my first Thomas guide. I quickly highlighted, Post-it noted and dog-eared my relevant maps to make that driving down the 405 and simultaneously flipping spiraled pages effortless. In reflecting back on those days of driving while balancing the Thomas Guide on my lap, I realized that our journeys were deliberate, self-created, and relatively predictable. As a result, our daily experiences were finite and the mental image of the landscape was fairly constant.
Flash forward to 2018 and the tools have changed that paradigm. Angelinos are obsessed with checking traffic reports to fervently assess the road conditions, as much as having a morning latte. Waze has become our standard, crowd-sourced navigation tool to help us shave a few minutes off the morning and evening commutes. This tool has each of us bisecting, short-cutting and alley-hopping our way through the streets of LA. Waze (and other navigational map apps) save us precious time, seducing us to follow the line into off-the-beaten path into unchartered streets, alleys and neighborhoods, just to save a few minutes. We face a road network that is often disconnected, under construction, or unsafe, all of which digital traffic apps cannot prepare us for.
This city is an urban grid, but Los Angeles has four basic ecologies that form our network of roads and highways. Reyner Banham, architectural writer of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, wrote in the 1960’s, “The distances and the reliance on mechanical transportation leave no room for accident – even for happy accidents. You plan the day in advance, program your activities, and forgo those random encounters with friends and strangers that are traditionally one of the rewards of city life.” As we consider the current state of Los Angeles, we see that this observation by Banham is a valuable insight.
Navigational tools have changed as the city has evolved, and as our jobs and relationships have been altered, we see ourselves using streets differently. Our experience has become a series of unpredictable journeys, moments and experiences that are shaped by waypoints, mile by mile. The urban fabric of Los Angeles continues to be shaped by development. We see evidence of this through examples of “Ghost Streets” (Geoff Manaugh, 2015) that document the lost streets and spaces of the city’s past. These streets and places were once vibrant roadways that connected viable residential and commercial destinations. As development areas took shape and commercial priorities evolved, road networks were altered for traffic efficiency or political/economic boundary shifts. The effect of these manipulations in the fabric of the city include unique architectural or public spaces that become deviations from the rhythm of networks. As we layer the unpredictability of our daily journeys due to the unpredictability of road improvements, congestion or accidents we see a change in how we each experience the city. We begin to see connections, meaning and influences in places we had not known before.
At RSM Design, a “Principle-Centered Approach” allows the designers to stand on four fundamental pillars: Connect, Inspire, Think, and Activate. We build our creative culture around the ideal that people are at the core of everything we do. We believe that the work has to engage people at every human level – the body, the mind, the heart, and the spirit. The pillar of CONNECT is intrinsic to our business practice, allowing us to purposefully set out to shape and curate moments within the spaces we design. As designers that live and work in Los Angeles and Southern California, we believe that we must build on the past, examining the roots of a community or a culture to find deeper relevance. Hyper-localism is an important research tool that builds a strong storytelling layer and helps us create a unique sense of place.
INSPIRATION comes in many forms within the RSM Design culture. We are constantly reflecting the cultures and communities in which we design. We use the stories, legacies and insights about a place to frame design cues. We do not believe in mimicry, but in creating and translating the familiar. These translations leave authentic touch points, moments of integrity and richness for the people who use them. We believe in the moments that are unused, unnoticed or left-over. We find beauty in utilizing surfaces and spaces left untouched that can serve as a catalyst for WOW.
We have found that moments which are designed with meaning in mind become landmarks over time. The work begins to have a life of its own, finding its way into the hearts and minds of its users. The way we THINK about the work we create starts by merging our understanding of place, story, and people. We have observed designed elements gaining symbolic importance for people and communities as a “symbology of place,” where meeting places become points of celebration or contemplation.
One of our core principals is to ACTIVATE our projects by connecting people to place. Whether you’re a LA local or an international visitor, the goal remains the same: we want guests to explore, be delighted and experience memorable moments. These impressions, especially in the context of a notoriously car-centric city like Los Angeles, build long-term connections with places that people identify with and crave to return again and again.
As I reflect on the city in which we design, I am reminded that we are building on a legacy, an evolution of place and culture. We are constantly evaluating and learning from our surroundings, finding inspiration from unlikely sources, and helping to tell untold stories in new ways.