ROBERTS: Indianapolis pushing boundaries with improved design

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eva robertsFiltered light casting shadows, the feel of a doorknob, amazement at a soaring ceiling’s detail, beautiful views from a bench too uncomfortable for sitting. When we experience an environment or an object, we engage in a dialogue with design.

To many, design seems to consist of selecting colors, materials, shapes and all the outward qualities that define objects and spaces. Individually, we respond to such characteristics and form an opinion, but these tangible elements are not why you should care about design.

The design process is not creative people making aesthetic decisions. Designing is a deeply human activity that is most effective when we’re all involved.

Designers do care deeply about details that shape the execution of ideas and concepts; Typically working within constraints and for clients, designers strive to alter circumstances to improve things, and this practice has gone on for centuries with varying success. When we’re comfortably satisfied—perhaps even delighted—by our experience of an automobile or a parking garage, a chair or a building, we’re likely to judge this encounter as an example of “good design,” but our evaluations need to become more informed.

The reason each of us needs to know more is that the design processes hold potential to make our world a better place, from the mundane to the monumental. Fully used, design offers capacity to develop spaces, products, services and organizations that are easier to use, more thoughtfully realized, and more responsive to people.

If together we value this potential, we can realize better and more considered outcomes from design.

Design does not stop at the edges of a building or with a corporate identity or the latest cell phone. Though a design outcome is simply a solution to a problem, the most effective solutions provide a meaningful experience for the people who will use them or be affected by them.

Good design considers systems; it extends into our community and asks what impact a solution will have on resources and sustainability. When designers collaborate directly with people, design processes are most effective. Designers of all disciplines have long been concerned with end users and the impact of design.

However, contemporary design professions have come to realize the importance of directly including, within the design process, those who will use or be affected by a design outcome. This approach has more than one name but often-used terms include generative design thinking, co-design and human-centered design. This mode of designing—with people—acknowledges that we are each creative and insightful, not generic “end users” but unique individuals.

Indianapolis appreciates good design. This is demonstrated by the selection of renowned architectural firms such as Michael Graves Design (NCAA Hall of Champions), HOK (Indianapolis International Airport) or Sasaki Associates (Central Canal at White River State Park), among others, for public spaces. Obviously, such structures represent impressive efforts, but to this newcomer, one of the more exemplary examples of outstanding design is the Cultural Trail.

The Cultural Trail is nicely paved and safe for walking or biking; it provides a route that connects such diverse cultural and educational sites as the zoo, museums, shopping and parks.

Most compelling is the extent to which the Cultural Trail is a systems-level design solution. A public/private partnership, substantial economic gains are predicted. Not only does it connect cultural and arts venues, it’s also a gallery for public art and provides additional green space. Planters add beauty, but more important, these planters are designed to reduce runoff and help to clean the water that flows through a storm sewer and into rivers and streams.

Design processes, techniques and methods can be applied to any problem. And when these processes include local participation of local people, more workable and sustainable possibilities can be found. Implementation requires citizens who value design thinking, are engaged and expect co-design approaches.

Like all cities, Indianapolis faces challenges, and the future will bring more. Famous designer Charles Eames was asked in an interview, “What are the boundaries of design?” He answered, “What are the boundaries of problems?”

Indianapolis will continue to push boundaries and hopefully pursue problems and opportunities from a systems approach that incorporates design thinking techniques. The Cultural Trail points to the possibilities Indianapolis can offer future generations with “good designing.” Let’s accept nothing less.•


Roberts, who relocated from North Carolina a year ago, chairs the Department of Visual Communication Design at Herron School of Art & Design. Views expressed here are the writer’s.


  • Design: Local
    I agree with Joe that Rundell Ernstberger, and local designer Kevin Osburn should be mentioned. While the projects and firms listed in the article are significant, they are grand projects and don't contribute to the fabric of the city or the experience of good design when walking the cultural trail or the streets of Indianapolis. There are many talented local designers who are truly pushing the boundaries of good design one small project at a time. This is where our city gets really interesting - at the intimate scale of the human experience. These designers are challenging conventions, taking risks, and worthy of their own article in the IBJ.
  • Visual pollution?
    A nice project overall, but there is too much signage and too many lights! Plus, iit has hosed up traffic flow due to the traffic light timing. And then there is a big lack of successful design in front of the Conrad!
  • The Cultural Trail Designer?
    I'm curious why you didn't name the designer of the Cultural Trail? You named 4 other designers but not the designers you compliment so well in the article. The lead designer was Rundell Ernstberger Associates.

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