Mainer’s are known for a Yankee frugality. This quality might be seen to be at odds with the idea of “good design.” One might think, incorrectly, that “good design” is just another way to say “costs a lot.”

Actually, “good design” is an idea that is about as Maine as one can find.

Good design fundamentally must be useful; it must serve a purpose and serve it well. The value of the “good” is measured not in dollars but in its benefit to our lives. As a design professional and an educator, I believe it’s our responsibility to make people understand that they deserve good design.

Certainly the tools we use, the publications we read, and the spaces we inhabit need to achieve basic functionality. They need to rake blueberries, or be clear and legible, or keep us warm and dry over the (long) winter. However, in doing their respective jobs well, each can achieve so much more.

A blueberry rake.

A blueberry rake.

Back in the 1980s, Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer aware that he was a significant contributor to his world, asked himself an important question: is my design good design? This led to his 10 Principles of Good Design, many of which can be tied to life in Maine. Ideals such as “good design makes a product useful;” or “good design is long-lasting;” or my personal favorite, “good design is as little design as possible.” These principles speak to living honestly; of thinking long-term and not just for today; and of finding beauty in the simple – all of which seem very “Maine” to me.

In support of good design, and to help Maine communities explore what good design can mean, in 2012 the UMA Architecture program created our annual Fall Design Charrette. This two-week intensive brings UMA design students together with a Maine community in need.

This past fall, 27 architecture students worked with the town of Randolph designing a firehouse for their volunteer fire department. The Randolph Town Council was very clear about their needs, and emphasized an honest Yankee frugality – and the students loved it. Town Council members emphasized that this was a town, like most in Maine, with a tight budget. These limits of budget and site and function are what designers yearn for; it is this challenge that leads to good design.

The students, working in small teams, presented eight designs. Each unique firehouse gave Randolph and its residents a vision of their firehouse’s possibilities. The design work elevated the project from a storage shed for trucks to something that could symbolize Randolph’s strong Maine community.

Virtual image of Randolph Fire House by Adam Wallace.

Virtual image of Randolph Fire House by Adam Wallace.

Certainly, a firehouse needs to house firetrucks, firemen and equipment. However, here the design students also brought a sense of strength, of place, and of community to the work; aspects that go beyond simple functional need to an expression of the men and women who put their lives on the line, as well as an expression of the town they serve.

This is what good design does – all at a thoughtful cost.

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