How Imperfect Action Creates a Perfect Design

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How do you imperfectly design a city?

Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Imperfectly designing a city sounds like a pretty terrible idea. It sounds like the formula for traffic jams and wasted space.

But it worked beautifully for one of the most populous cities in the country.

Toku and I recently watched The Human Scale, a fascinating documentary about the Danish architecture firm, Gehl Architects and their groundbreaking projects to make large cities throughout the globe more scaleable to people.

More people are living in cities now more than ever, and urban populations are only supposed to grow over the next generation. Gehl Architects is interested how to encourage enjoyment of public space and connection in urban communities.

In some cities, all people can really do is go from school or work directly home to their flats. There are few spaces that encourage pedestrian traffic and even fewer public spaces for them to congregate and commune outside their living rooms. The work of Gehl Architects is to make space work for people above cars and buildings.

New York City was one of my favorite examples. In NYC cars ruled the streets for a long, long time. Despite it’s heavy pedestrian traffic, the streets around Times Square was largely designed for vehicles. By permanently closing off some of the streets, Gehl Architects found a way to allow the pedestrian traffic to flow more freely, and the idea spread to other parts of the city.

But I was most impressed by how they did it.

They didn’t make these changes by creating a heroic, master plan or dramatic re-designs of the city.

They did it with imperfect action.

They started with small changes, closing off a street here and a street there, blocking it off with construction cones and fencing. They changed NYC one small pilot project at a time.

After they blocked off a street, they watched. They paid attention to how people used the space, adapting it based on public comments and feedback. They let it grow and watched as people filled up the spaces.

For a long time I was one of those people who had to have everything “just right” before I let it out into the world. When it came to submitting pieces for publication, that kind of thinking made sense. You don’t want anything to be less than your best before sending it to an editor.

But this thinking held me back when I started this blog. For a very long time I was afraid of a post not being “just right” before I posted it. I racked my brain with the fearful thought, “What if people don’t like it?”

It took me a while to realize that I was missing out on a valuable experience: screwing up royally and trying something new.

I learned that I couldn’t know how well something worked until I tried it. It was a lot different than submitting stories for publication, where you have an idea of what the standards are and an editor makes the decision.

When it came to blogging, I was the editor. I just didn’t know what my standards were yet. What worked for one blogger didn’t necessarily work for me, and I had to keep making mistakes until I found what did work.

It wasn’t until I returned to my roots that it started coming together.

I returned to what I know – hand-writing everything in a notebook first, scribbling it all down imperfectly, awkwardly, not really certain of how it will turn out. Only then did I find comfort with imperfect action.

At the end of The Human Scale one of the architects makes a comment that when city planners tried to apply a grand master plan to a city, sometimes it didn’t work out well. Plans made on a smaller, more human scale were much more successful.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, if you feel as if creating your website and building traffic is a Herculean effort, if you feel bogged down by the idea of a social media strategy, first: take a deep breath…And second, take one small risk or try one small experiment. Try it for a while and see how it pans out. Observe how people respond, and discover how it feels to you.

Try a few more experiments and take a few more risks. In due time, it will start to come together, and your online presence will become clear.

The “perfect” website doesn’t have to start with an elaborate plan. Things don’t have to go just right in order for you to learn something valuable. Sometimes the greatest lessons are learned from simple action.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Great concept and a great film to boot. I love what you did with it in this post. 🙂

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