There’s TV, and then there’s reality.

There is no such thing as reality TV, despite what network executives would have you believe. We already have mediums for reality- they’re called documentary film making and journalism (assuming that the individuals involved are actually trying to closely portray events as they happen, not as they create them.)

Design television is neither of these things. It’s entertainment (if you can call it that) that is there to push products for advertisers. It’s not much different than when you were a kid and a cartoon came out based on a toy. (not a toy based on a cartoon.) But once again I will say clearly that a lot of what happens in these shows is they claim they’re all about “giving people ideas.” Maybe, but apparently you have to specify *good* ideas, cause they’re sure not doing it. But beyond that, it gives people (potential clients, even) unrealistic expectations of what they’re going to get.

Let’s back this train up, and give some simple bullet points that will hopefully clear some of this up. I’m sure I could come up with more than five of these, but goodness knows I have a ton of work to do today as it is. All of these are really in the realm of residential design, because that’s what design television tends to be about, and that’s what their audience is concerned with. Please add this to the list of reasons I limit my residential design projects, if you can find room on the paper.

1. Designers are just like decorators.

No. Really, I wish that I could just leave it at “no.” but apparently I can’t because of how many times I’ve seen people confuse the two. The differences between designers and decorators could overflow the empty space at the Grand Canyon. Just because you can decorate your room doesn’t make you a designer. The list of things wrong with this misconception are so incredibly endless, I just assign them all random numbers, because there are just *that many* to list.

2. Design is a weekend project.

No. Constructing a shed from a kit is a weekend project. Replacing your doorknobs is a weekend project. Putting together some flat-packed furniture is a weekend project. And maybe, painting your room is a weekend project if you know what you’re doing and you plan it well. Designing a room and implementing that design is not a weekend project. (I blame DIY shows for this. I loved Hometime too, but even they admit that they liberally take advantage of the magic of video editing.)

When someone redoes a room in 48 hours it’s not design. It’s a game show. There’s a difference, people. Learn it.

3. Oh, I could do that for (insert so much less money and so much less time here).

This particular one is also the bane of anyone who makes anything by hand, too. My answer from when I was an artist full time was “Really? Do you think you can get me six of them by Friday? Because I’m low on stock.” When applied to design, it’s *usually* applied to decorating being confused for design. But when it isn’t, I like to start asking questions about building codes. People shut up pretty quickly after that. Like I said yesterday- this is a technical job.

4. But they did it for $2000 on TV!

Sure. They did it for 2k on tv. 2k in materials costs. The designer, in case you hadn’t noticed, isn’t being paid out of that fund(I know, shock- they need to be paid). Neither, I might add are the actual professionals that they have around in order to provide (much) needed expertise for things like carpentry and construction. And even *with* that, how much of it is a) simply decorating and b) travels into the realm of “design as handicraft project.”(and often so very, very badly.) If we use a simple formula for residential design based on a straight budgetary percentage (not 30% over net, which I know is standard in residential, but I don’t do it because I think it rooks the client) that 2k for materials is part of a $7000 design job. And when you look at the results, it’s often a LOUSY $7000 design job, too. That’s not to disparage the designers on TV, either. It’s just because it’s not reality, it’s a game show. It’s a tv show and not a real project.

5. Those design competition shows… (actually, it doesn’t really matter what comes after the fourth word.)

What design competition tv shows do show you, is who was willing to jump through the hoops of the producers to get on the show. That’s more or less it. All it tells *ME* is that they were willing to run the (almost sure) risk of being wildly manipulated on camera and in post-production. I was courted very heavily by one of these shows in 2006 and in the end, I made it very clear that I was *not* going to be herded into a role typecast for me- that I was a design professional, not an actor, and not a circus clown. I didn’t wind up on the show (almost certainly because I put my foot down really hard on that one), and let me tell you how grateful I am to have dodged that particular bullet, knowing what a trainwreck played out on screen when the series finally aired.

One thing that TV isn’t lying about though is that sleep deprivation becomes a way of life. That much is true, but that’s about it.


It’s not about you.

I’m entirely open about the fact that residential design is not my idea of a good time. I don’t think I’ve ever made that a secret and I can’t imagine why I’d start now. I’ve done a lot of it though, and I still continue to do it despite the fact that it often makes me want to take a cheese grater to my eyeballs.

But this isn’t a post about my lack of enchantment with residential work. It’s a post (in what is I promise, an endless series, because I will never run out of reasons) of why I hate “design television”.

Almost all of the programs about design on television aren’t really about design, but that’s a topic for another day (see I told you I will never run out). But the vast bulk are about people’s houses, rather than about well… anywhere else. Now the reason for this is simple- the people watching these shows aren’t designers (unless they’re playing a drinking game.) They’re homeowners. Sometimes they’re do-it-yourselfers, or decorating junkies or design wannabes. There’s no reason for them to be interested in anything outisde the sphere of the home. And the advertisers (remember, that really is what generates what you’re seeing) are selling products *not* to the trade, but to homeowners at your average retail or big-box hardware store. As I said a while ago, most design is not a handicraft project, but you’d never know that by watching “design” tv.

But aside from that, one of the misconceptions that the average person could take away from watching these kinds of programs is that residential design is about the designer. Years ago, when I could still stomach watching programs like Trading Spaces (I promise, I can’t anymore. I just start screaming incoherently at the screen after a while) the buzz was always about which designer would be assigned to what space. The rooms that they decorated (cause seriously, let’s call this what it is, here) were WAY more about them (the designers) than the homeowners. Like all “reality” television though, it doesn’t wind up portraying the industry it shows in any kind of positive light.

Let’s make this perfectly clear. Residential design is NOT about the designer. Period . The end. Full stop. Do not pass go, do not collect 30% over net. Residential design is about the client. Because at the end of the day, and the end of the project, sure the designer’s name is on it, but we don’t have to LIVE in it. We get to walk away and move on to the next project. But the client is stuck with the results. And it damned well better be what it is *they* want and need, rather than some kind of ridiculous ego stroke for the person who drew up the plans.

My job is to give the clients what they want on time, on budget, and with enough good taste and sense to prevent them from sailing over the edge and doing something dangerous or stupid. What my job isn’t is to give them what *I* want. Because I have my own house for that. I don’t need to borrow someone else’s. Half the time I couldn’t tell you what I want in my own house anyway, besides cats that will clean up after themselves (it hasn’t happened yet) and a dishwasher (which hasn’t happened yet either.)

The other danger when residential design becomes designer rather than client driven is that all your projects tend to look alike. And sure, if left to your own devices as a designer, everyone develops a signature style. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that residential work is a lousy place to express it, unless your clients like living in a space that looks like the last ten you designed. But when you allow the work to be client driven you can design anything. Any style, on any given day. All you have to do is remember that you (the designer) don’t have to live in it- your clients do. But it gives you a wider range of things you know you’re capable of, rather than retreating to the same looks all the time. You never have to design the same look twice, which in the end is better for the designer anyway in terms of experience and a varied portfolio. But it’s also better for your clients who are going to have to live with the results, too.

What’s the difference? (I swear this isn’t a rant about HGTV.)

I’ve now started and deleted this post twice, because I keep meaning to talk about two different approaches in design, and it keeps turning into a rant about HGTV. Now, if I *start* ranting about that (and I will. Oh, I will.), I won’t stop until I’m about a dozen paragraphs down. My keyboard will have turned into molten slag, and I still won’t have talked about what I actually wanted to in the first place. Trust me- I have enough HGTV rant material to write an almost limitless number of posts. I suppose it’s good to know I won’t run out of material any time soon.

Anyway, refocusing on what I *DID* want to talk about, whilst muttering about HGTV under my breath…

This is about (generally) what television does, and does not teach you about design.

Okay, let’s start with this lamp:

Dog Collar Lamp

First of all, this is a lamp with a design flaw, but I’ll get to that in a minute. This lamp, once you take care of the minor flaw, will work just fine. You can make one your very own self, with a stop at any pet supply, and a stop to your local big box hardware store. Assuming you have a drill, that’s pretty much all you need here. If anyone really needs to desperately know how to make this lamp, let me know, but otherwise I will assume that how it’s made is reasonably self-evident. The flaw in the lamp as it appears in this picture btw, is that the light bulb (standard 60-watt A lamp) will melt the bowl because of the heat it generates. This gets solved by using a compact fluorescent bulb which won’t do that.

This is an example of an adaptive (re)design(or re-use, but I didn’t really reuse anything here). That is to say, I took a whole bunch of components that may or may not be normally used for making a lamp, and I created one. I adapted the original components and created something new. Like when someone takes one of those huge wire spools and makes it into a coffee table.

It’s sort of like a combination of design and an episode of McGuyver. “All you have is a bubble gum wrapper, a drinking straw, and a paper clip. You have to build a catapult that can breach the Great Wall of China. In an hour.”

Avoiding the rant that I swear, could fly forth from my fingers at any old moment now, this is largely the kind of thing you learn from watching design shows on television. First of all, like I said, it’s a combination of McGuyver and design- it’s already television. But secondly because it often tends to be a way to use junk that people either already have or can easily obtain, and utilize it inexpensively. There’s nothing wrong with that on its face. It’s just not really how the *industry* tends to work, and the problem I have is that shows like those which use real, actual designers (on occasion) never get to show what we do *most* of the time. Because *most* of the time, design isn’t a handicraft project. Sorry folks, but it isn’t.

To show the difference, let’s look at this chair:

A boingy inspiration.

The image on the left is a chair(well, obviously.) The image on the right is what inspired the design of the chair. If you don’t recognize it, it’s a Hippity-Hop toy. They were popular in the 70’s. But the chair isn’t made OUT OF a Hippity-Hop. It’s just inspired by one. It’s not like a toy has been carved up to make a chair (first of all, you couldn’t do that, as the toys were filled with air anyway.)

This is an abstractive design. The Hippity Hop has been abstracted. Sure, you can see how you hop(ha!) from point a to point b here. But there’s no question that the chair is not made out of a toy, any more than the toy is made out of a chair. And THIS is what they don’t teach you on television. But it is the *vast*, VAST bulk of what design really is. I think this is why clients who have watched WAY too much “design” programming on tv make actual designers crazy. Because sure, once in a while you turn a spool into a coffee table, or a few dog collars and a bowl into a lamp. But that’s not really how we do our jobs, and I think that misunderstanding causes both confusion and resentment on both sides of the client/designer line.