Designing Solutions

From toilet brushes to saving lives, good design speaks to who we are.

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Consider three recent developments in Honolulu: a new design store complex; a trendy, modern Waikiki boutique hotel; a law regarding traditional Polynesian tattoo practices. They’d seem unrelated at first glance, but as associate editor Michael Keany explains in this month’s Design Issue cover story, the three have everything to do with who we are and how we want to live in Hawai‘i. Design, after all, isn’t just about making things pretty. It’s about making them work. It’s about offering people the objects and experiences that reinforce their identity.

Virginia Postrel’s book, The Substance of Style, led me to that last realization. To explain why, for example, there are hundreds of different toilet bowl brushes on the market, from cheap plastic to expensively gold-plated, when a single design for everyone would clean the toilet just as well, she observes that people choose one thing over another when they realize, “I like that, I’m like that.” What things look like, what they’re made of—people identify with these qualities. In our design shopping feature, Kathryn Drury Wagner and Lori Anne Tomonari have rounded up 25 locally designed items—I hope you find something in there that makes you say, “I like that, I’m like that.”

As we put this issue to bed, it occurred to me that some of the problems the city faces are really design problems, even if we don’t realize it. Our mounting pedestrian deaths, for example. Roads are designed in such a way that cars and people are brought together onto the same patch of asphalt. We turn to passive technology (crosswalk signals) and laws (the new, stiffer penalties for invading crosswalks or jaywalking) to keep the cars and pedestrians from running into each other.

But our technological and legal solutions can only go so far. After another spate of fatalities, the state Department of Transportation faxed out an urgent press release. It reminds drivers to stop at an intersection when other cars have already stopped to let a pedestrian pass. It also offers pedestrians helpful advice, such as, “Be sure to look left-right-left before crossing and continue to look both ways while crossing.”

Look both ways? Really? The fax struck me as a well-intentioned but ultimately futile gesture. No flashing red hand, no faxed piece of paper, no law in a book somewhere in the Legislative Library, can physically separate the cars from the pedestrians when the design of our roads makes it inevitable that they’ll meet. People are fallible—we forget to look, we get distracted, we misjudge distance and velocity, we can’t see through parked cars and blind spots. Shouldn’t we accept that’s the way we are, and design the roads so that these lapses can’t possibly matter?

Maybe the answer isn’t too far off. Wagner’s “Afterthoughts,” this month talks about how futuristic, science-fiction developments seem to now happen every day. The piece reminds me of articles I’ve seen lately on a Lexus that parks itself, and robotic SUVs that cross deserts on their own. Maybe the design solution is to have our cars and our traffic signals talk to each other, do all the driving for us, with undistracted microchip vigilance. We’ll hardly miss the driving, since we’d rather be yakking on our cell phones, watching movies and listening to music while we drive anyway. I’m looking forward to the day I climb into my atomic car and tell it, “To the office, please.”

On another note, April has traditionally been our month to showcase the best in local fiction. This year, we’re pleased to present “The Day the Trees Cried,” a new short story from Lois-Ann Yamanaka, author of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, among many others. “The Day the Trees Cried” comes from a novel she is working on, under the working title of The Mother Mary Stories. The story is typical Yamanaka—which is to say, it holds nothing back. It does what great fiction is designed to, appealing to the heart and mind to create an unforgettable experience.