Credit: William Stewart


What do parking lots, a library, and a Mississippi federal judge have in common? Design thinking, in three parts:

Reimagine. Consider the unloved surface parking lot. Could this blight on the landscape be reimagined in a way that meets the need for parking, yet at the same time be tamed as a catalyst for transit-oriented development? The Rauch Foundation, a nonprofit based in Garden City, N.Y., thinks so. Rauch launched a design competition last year that focused on structured parking at four Long Island Rail Road suburban train stations.

Recognizing that the automobile is destined to be a fixture of suburban commuting for some time to come, Rauch asked several architectural firms to apply design thinking to come up with parking structures that would not only accommodate cars but could also—improbably enough—be places for people. Parking garages as an engine for reimagining what suburbia might be in the 21st century? Ideas blossomed! That’s design thinking, opening windows to previously unimagined possibilities.

Renew. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., holds pride of place near the National Portrait Gallery. More admired than loved, the building has in recent years been the subject of a fierce debate between preservationists and library patrons who advocated its demolition, arguing that it is outdated and inflexible, with a steel, brick, and glass envelope that is architecturally undistinguished.

How do we square this circle in a way that would please preservationists and patrons alike? Design thinking.

As part of Washington’s ongoing investment in upgrading its library system, which has to date produced stunning results, the city shortlisted 10 architecture firms to bring new life to its main library—and to respond to the latest ideas about how libraries function as knowledge and community centers while respecting (if not enhancing) Mies’s love of light and spaciousness.

Chosen from among the 10 proposals, the Dutch firm Mecanoo will partner with Washington’s Martinez + Johnson Architecture to design what Mecanoo principal Francine Houben promises will be a place that people will love so much they “even bring their books from home to read in the library.” That’s also design thinking—to redefine a library to be a communal crossroads as well as a book repository.

Remarkable. In January, the Honorable Debra M. Brown became the first African-American female U.S. District Judge in Mississippi, garnering a 90–0 vote in her Senate confirmation. Brown received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Mississippi State University, and her judgeship positions her to affect lives in a very special way.

“The pedagogy of architectural design education emphasizes and teaches organizational principles and hierarchical skills, enabling a student to rationally and logically analyze and solve complex problems … both socially and technically,” said Michael Berk, AIA, director of the College of Architecture + Design at Mississippi State, as quoted in the school’s student paper The Reflector. For Berk—and certainly for me—design education “also balances this rationalism with intuition and compassion.”

And if that’s not the true mandate for a judge interpreting the law—to balance rational thought with intuition and compassion—then I’m not sure I know what their charge should be.

Design thinking is a powerful tool that only a handful of people are fortunate enough to wield. Inside or outside of the profession, those people change lives for the better.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President