In one way or another, visual acceptance is what makes our world go around.
Think about the clothes we wear, the cars we admire, the foods we eat – not to mention interior design, home and office furnishings, landscapes and watershapes. So much of our response to these and other features of our environment is based on the visual. It may sometimes be a shallow response, but human beings tend to like things that look good, even if they don’t completely understand why some things are visually appealing and others are not.
Design education teaches us that visual acceptance is based on a variety of factors, including setting, context, scale, balance, color, texture, line, shadow, proportion and more. You can’t take a pill to learn how to use these factors to your advantage: You need to get educated to do so.
The landscape architects among you have embraced academic design education, but that’s something the pool industry has never seen as being particularly necessary or worthwhile. As I’ve mentioned before, I think this “education gap” has had a profoundly negative effect on the watershaping trades that starts with the products we use and reaches all the way through to how those products are applied in the field as part of watershape designs.
What we see are clunky products, hideous color combinations, mismatched textures and much worse – all of them wrapped up in ugly designs. And until quite recently, it seemed that just about everyone in the pool industry was fine with that.
About four years ago, Skip Phillips and I visited Vance Gillette in Novato, Calif., which was then home to the company of which he is vice president – Teledyne Laars/Jandy, which is now known as Laars & Jandy Pool Products and has since moved to Petaluma, Calif. Vance had always struck us as one of the most forward-thinking people in our industry, and we wanted to talk to him about Genesis 3, which was in its infancy at that time.
We presented our mission statement and explained why we wanted to initiate design education within the pool industry while teaching proper construction and promoting the more effective use of products and materials. Vance immediately offered his support and sponsorship.
We could have left well enough alone at that point, but I have a big mouth and began asking Vance some questions about the design (or lack of it) of the control pad for the company’s Aqualink RS remote-control system to prove my general point about the industry’s dreadful design sensibility. “I think this sucks,” I said, “and my clients think so, too.”
As I told him, most of my clients who wanted a remote-control system did not want to see the unit sticking out like a sore thumb in their homes. As a result, most wanted me to put Aqualink’s indoor pad behind a curtain, in a closet – someplace it would never be seen.
I glanced at my fried and partner Skip and watched the eyes roll back in his head as though he was thinking about all the damage control he and my other partner, Brian Van Bower, would have to do to make our first sponsor happy again. But Vance listened (unlike some other manufacturers I’d approached in the past with similar concerns), and we talked about the complaints my clients and I had about the product.
It’s too big, I told him, and it has too many blinking lights, a hideous finish color and other aesthetic defects. Why couldn’t it be smaller and look more like a light switch? Why not give it a paintable finish so it could blend in with clients’ interior décor? Why not give it a sleek, modern appearance?
At that point Vance said, “So fix it.” With pencil and paper, I drew the touch pad the way I thought it should be – something that would fit in a two-gang box, that had three simple, square buttons and a simple LED display rather than all those multicolored flashing lights. I handed him the sketch – and the redesign of the Aqualink RS One-Touch was under way.
A DESIGN-DRIVEN PROCESS
Following that meeting, Vance put me in touch with a variety of technical people including Robyn Gabel, product manager for Jandy’s electronics division, about developing a new touch pad. I referred her to a couple dozen of my clients who were using the Aqualink system – and she did her part, interviewing a good number of them about their likes and dislikes concerning Aqualink and the other home-automation devices they had at their fingertips.
Based on this input, Laars/Jandy fully redesigned the unit and moved product prototypes through focus groups and then through beta testing with dozens of builders and their clients. The process took more than two years. When the redesigned product was launched in 2000, I’m proud to say that the touch pad looked a lot like my original sketch, except with oval buttons rather than the square ones I’d drawn.
In June 2001, the editors of Home Automation magazine included the Aqualink RS Touch Pad among the top 50 home-automation Products of the Year 2000 along with devices from such innovative firms as Intel, Dell, Sony and Yamaha. More important, my clients these days don’t mind have the touch pad visible inside their homes – and all it took was a little bit of design knowledge to push things in a positive direction.
My point in relating this story is to highlight how valuable real design can be – and how valuable it would be if more of our manufacturers drew on the skills and knowledge of designers familiar with our clients and our needs in developing the looks of their products. The Aqualink RS’s touch pad is just one example of a product that worked in functional terms but failed miserably in visual terms. This one product has now been salvaged, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Many of our manufacturers have told me that they seek grass-roots input from contractors and consumers in developing their product designs, but it’s painfully apparent that in most cases this process moves forward without the benefit of a true designer anywhere in the mix.
For whatever reason, the pool industry has focused on functionality to the detriment of design to an extent that exceeds anything I’ve observed in other industries. There are some exceptions, of course, but as a whole our suppliers have moved forward without paying much (if any) attention to the aesthetics and visual qualities of their products.
It’s time for the industry to step up – and more and more people in the watershaping trades are ready to demand a change, including trained designers from the ranks of landscape architects and others in the pool industry who are getting design educations that put them in a position to help find solutions. In other words, a process has started – and it’s gaining momentum each day.
A GRASS-ROOTS ASSIST
Personally, I’ve never been patient enough to wait for change to happen incrementally. I want to reshape the world overnight, and it’s difficult for me to accept a slower pace.
That’s why I keep writing about design education and my idea that making it more readily available will be a benefit to our industry: Beyond increased consumer satisfaction and greater profitability for our businesses, I see an elevated image for watershapers as an even greater up-side potential.
That’s why it pains me so much to run into people who see no value in design, who think it’s foolish to think outside the box and who believe we’d all be better off building low-profile, unimaginative, risk-free, cookie-cutter pools.
Genesis 3 is the antidote to that bottom-feeding philosophy and springs from the thought shared by its founders and sponsors that there are a great many watershapers out there who are more than willing to get educated and find out what it takes to operate at an advanced level of design competency.
What many people don’t seem to understand is that our courses are meant for everyone from the novice to the expert and offer professional-grade instruction to students from both sides of the design/construction equation: builders who want an introduction to good design, and designers who want an introduction to good construction. We’ve always seen lots of pool builders on our registration lists – and we’re seeing increasing numbers of landscape designers and architects who want to know more about how functioning watershapes come together in the right way.
Another key to our programs that’s often overlooked is that what we offer is a step in a process of education, not an end in itself. Our role is to get participants started on a lifelong pursuit of additional design education, whether it comes through additional Genesis 3 schools or through college extension courses or through reading about the lives and works of great designers and architects.
And as much as I believe in my own skill and ability to teach people how to draw and present their work on a higher level, even an intensive course such as the Genesis 3 Drawing School I recently taught at Arizona State University in Tempe was just another step – albeit a significant one – for the 20 professionals who chose to take it.
Unlike other Genesis 3 programs, the drawing school wasn’t a lifestyle experience: It didn’t feature great dinners, tours and wine tastings. Instead, it provided students with five days of intensive instruction in drawing and presentation skills.
This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, ever since my days as chairman of the National Spa & Pool Institute’s Builders Council. I found through my life on the council that most of its members were businesspeople rather than builders. They had no design training, no interest in getting any, no ability to read plans and no capacity whatsoever to draw in three dimensions. As we at Genesis 3 saw it, the drawing school was to be yet another step beyond the limitations our industry had accepted for far too long.
SETTING A STAGE
I won’t go into detail about the drawing school itself, because it was something that had to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Briefly, however, it was yet another confirmation of lessons we’ve learned in four years of staging Genesis 3 events, each of which has showed us that there are people out there who want to excel.
Of course, we had no certain idea of what they’d put up with to advance their skills: For five days in March, participants spent their days locked in study, demonstrations, practice and discussions about drawing and presentations. We met from 9 am until 3 pm or 4 pm each day, and the bulk of the evenings were taken up by mandatory homework assignments. (Actually, I started teaching at 9 am, but about two-thirds of the students were up, out of the hotel and into the classroom by 7 or 7:30 each morning.)
Those in attendance received professional drawing tools, including sets of more than 50 markers, lead pencils of various hardnesses, wax pencils, drawing pads and other essential art supplies, such as ellipse guides, adjustable triangles and circle templates – all carried in a hard-shell artist’s portfolio. They were given tools used in the architectural world along with everything they needed to create mats for their presentations.
The class was held in one of the university’s studios and took on the atmosphere of an upper-division college seminar. It was a huge amount of work for everyone and as it started, I wasn’t really certain how well the information and long schedule would be received.
What occurred, however, exceeded my fondest hopes for the school. Participants checked their egos and preconceptions at the door and showed up ready to work. From start to finish, questions were heaped atop other questions. As I mentioned, students arrived early to get in extra drawing time; they also worked through lunches and did their homework. And the thing that pleased me most as the instructor is that none of them was ever satisfied with his or her performance.
I started the course by evaluating work students had brought with them; by the end of the week, it was clear that improvement had come at every drawing desk.
The one distraction from the course of study was a brief field trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. As they stood in that amazing facility where so many legendary designers had taken their training, it was clear that every one of the students was inspired: They’d gotten a taste, an inkling of the kind of dedication it takes to get better.
Just listening to them talk, it was clear that they were looking at their surroundings through different eyes – eyes that had begun, even if tentatively, to evaluate the environment the way a real designer looks at it. And when it was all over, they understood why they hadn’t gotten diplomas or certificates at the end of the course: They knew they hadn’t finished anything; instead, they’d only opened a door to their ongoing education.
ON THE WAY
I’ve taken a roundabout way to making my point in this column: The time is coming when the watershaping world at all levels will be driven by design.
Whether it’s a manufacturer deciding how a pump relates to a filter and a heater in visual terms as well as in functional terms or a builder starting to look for new ways of assembling the components of a project or a new generation of clients who’ve grown up thinking that good design is as essential for their watershapes as it is for their automobiles or home furnishings, a time is coming when our success will be determined as much by visual acceptance as it is now by functional performance.
As we parted ways at the end of the drawing school, a couple gluttons for punishment expressed the wish that they could take another course right away to make sure that what they’d learned in the first week had really taken hold.
To be sure, these people aren’t designers yet in the academic sense of the term, but their exposure to principles of good design and their determination to improve their skills has enabled them to begin a voyage of discovery in which they’re see the world and its colors and textures and materials with different eyes. Just as important, they now have a sense of what being a designer is all about, and I’m certain some of them will be inspired to take their studies to the next level.
Learning how to take an altered perception and apply it to the work of laying out and building pools is something that will take each of them years to accomplish, but these students and others who’ve stepped up to the design-education plate have an edge that will become even more important in the years ahead, as more and more professionals who can truly claim the title of “designer” discover how much there is to be accomplished with watershapes.
From the time I was a kid, my mother and father reinforced the value and importance of giving back to the trade that provides you with your livelihood. This is the source of my passion for what I’ve done in the classroom, giving back a measure of the design education I’ve received to those willing to learn and take up their pencils and markers to do the best they can.
My hope is that some Genesis 3 participants will continue their educations and move along to college-level courses in drawing, architecture, design theory and art history. As I’ve found in my own career, being able to combine an educated design sensibility with real-world construction expertise creates a specialist who can aspire to art. And if we’re lucky enough to reach a time when there’s a whole cadre of learned watershapers, the results will be something to behold.
That’s an ambitious and optimistic vision coming from someone who has been so vocal about the almost total lack of design expertise in the pool industry, but I’m also someone who has seen first hand what can happen when just a little light is shed on the industry’s dark corners.
I have seen how powerful it is to share expertise with people who care and truly want to learn. I’ve watched students grow in the course of five days and learn to ask questions by the end that they never would have conceived of asking when they started. To my mind, as long as there are open-minded manufacturers and watershapers who are willing to invest in developing their skills and take a step up to the next level, there really is hope for a better future.
Next time: Back to the renovation project we’ve been covering through the past few issues.
David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.