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The Power of Scale

At every scale within the universe there's something interesting to observe.

In 1977 Charles and Ray Eames, a husband and wife team known for significant contributions to modern architecture and furniture design set out to create a short film, Powers of Ten, about the relative scale of the universe.

When I was an architecture student, a professor shared this film with my studio. Aside from it being a phenomenal work of art and mathematics there was something more important in her wanting us to see the film. At every scale within the universe as portrayed in the film there was something interesting to observe. Her point was that this rule is applicable to just about everything we do, and the most gifted designers intentionally manipulate this to achieve great results.

Particularly as an architect you must develop the skill set of considering your work at many scales. The context of a building in a neighborhood or urban environment, how it relates to the buildings around it, how it relates to the scale of a human being, how it impacts the natural environment, all the way down to how space, light and materials make a person feel when inside the building. The most successful buildings work at every single one of those levels.

While getting my degree, this way of viewing the world became second nature. It still is, and in fact has proven to be very useful in the work that we do here at Paragon. My default whether in brainstorming or critiquing is to toggle back and forth between as many different scales as possible. I can’t help myself. Particularly when it comes to reviewing our work this approach helps me spot opportunities for further development  and potential problem areas.

One example of how this default influences the way I work is in scanning. I pick a particular set of criteria and scan our work based on that scale of criteria. This enables me to see any project as comprising of a series of patterns and any outliers that break with the criteria tend to fall outside of the patterns. Once I’ve completed my scan, I switch criteria and start scanning again. A simple example of this might be in reviewing a book layout. My first scan will be for consistency in chapter markers, page titles and numbers, my second might be for font usage and margins, third for consistency in graphics and finally my last few will be focussed in on the actual details within the content  and visuals.

While this is not a ground-breaking concept I find that it’s less common than I’d expect. Often when reviewing work of younger designers I notice that they tend to obsess over one scale of their work but neglect others. Some are able to produce incredibly detailed elements yet ignore the surrounding context while others seem capable when it comes to creative direction overall but lack attention to detail in execution.

If this is something you struggle with, or perhaps you’re not aware that you do but find your work sometimes feels like it’s not really coming together cohesively, I suggest you consider training your brain to habitually jump between scales. Don’t rely on the old adage of taking a step back every “once in awhile”. Set yourself a timer when you work. Whether it’s every 10 minutes, half hour or hour, remind yourself to pause working at the scale you’re working in, then hone in or step back to give yourself some contrast. It’s very easy to become completely locked into something when you’re working on it, and at first the pauses may feel like distractions. Keep at it though. You don’t have to pause for long, but the practice of switching scales will ultimately improve your final product.

This works in life too by the way. When you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed by your personal problems, trying switching the scale of your perspective. Consider how your presence, choices or efforts impact your family, your coworkers, your community and even the world. Or if you’re overworking yourself on behalf others, try switching the scale of your focus to your own happiness, your body, your mind etc.

For those of you who have never seen the Eames’ remarkable film, here is Powers of Ten:

I think utilizing the concept scale is pretty powerful both as a design tool and in life.

What do you think?

Susan Isaacs

Susan’s a multitask-er who prides herself on the vast number of things (read: loose papers and coffee cups) on her desk at any one time, and yet she still manages to keep an eye on all the moving parts at Paragon.