This essay was originally published by Michael DiTullo on LinkedIn
During the summer I drove from San Diego, CA to Portland, OR with my wife and dog. We stopped off in Redding, California, specifically to experience the Calatrava designed pedestrian bridge that crosses the Sacramento River and connects two portions of the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. All thanks to my wife and partner, Kristina, who plans all of our travel. Not only is the bridge stunning, like all Calatravas, it is also the world's largest functioning sundial. Did the town of Redding need to hire an internationally renown architect to build this bridge? No they didn't. Could it have cost less? I'm sure it could have cost much less. Would Kristina and I have stopped with our dog Enzo to have lunch and enjoy the town if it was just a regular old bridge connecting two parts of a park? No we wouldn't have. The Turtle Bay Exploration Park was packed on a 90+ degree day. Much of this foot traffic seemed to be for that bridge.
It isn't likely that making a functional sundial was part of the brief sent to Santiago Calatrava. We don't even know if the sundial function was part of his original intent. It is possible that during the iterative process Calatrava realized it started to look like a sundial and he perhaps ran with it. This is the benefit of hiring a well trained, experienced, and high skilled professional for a project and giving them a little room to run. This bridge is not the MVP (Minimum Viable Product). If it was, no one would be there. This is the Maximum Viable Product. This is the most he could get through the system, not the least.
As designers we need to not only know how to get things made (#realdesignersship), and not only solve problems for real users (#usercentereddesign) we also have to convince those that hold the final decision making power in the process that they should help us to build things that people love. The goal is to make something of value not only for its immediate utility, but also something that engages that aspirational side of the human psyche. As designers we can do that a bit more than anyone else in the product development process.
We can never forget to advocate not only for industry. Our products have to be profitable and made within the context of commerce. We have to of course design products for users. If we are not solving real problems for real people, what are we actually doing? To those two things I'd like to add a third defining principle, we have to design for culture. We should at least strive to create things that are embraced by the culture as a whole and encourage people to look up toward the horizon. It is a difficult thing to test for and hard to predict, but we can try. By naming and defining it as a goal we at least have a higher chance of achieving that. I talk about some of these thoughts on the about page of michaelditullo.com but seeing the Sundial Bridge in person really drove it home again. On the flip side, the glass and metal floor of the bridge gets so hot there is a sign warning about dog paws, so I had to carry Enzo across, but we didn't mind :-).
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@Zach Wheeler I believe that Michael was remarking on the impact that design can have as part of a whole. He acknowledged the shortcomings of the design. He chose to come away inspired. It was not an article singularly measuring the success of the bridge design. Ask yourself what is more important... 7 hours ago
Nailed it, Earth man. The bridge inspired the thoughts. Perhaps I could have researched other examples that didn't have scalding deck plates, but I think anecdotally it still works.
I think it's odd that you make such a big deal about the fact that it's also a sun dial but breeze over the fact that the floor is made of glass and the entire bridge gets hot enough to melt shoes in the summer. Last time I was there multiple people had to carry their dogs across the bridge and the walkway itself was blazing hot. Seems like poor design planning, even if it does tell the time.
great article Michael!
This maximal viable product sounds like an interesting concept, but I've gotta say if I were a resident of Redding, I think I'd be a lot less likely to give a designer a long leash after this experience. If you're aiming to expand the conversation about what design can and should be, I think it might be better to find examples that nail their objectives with core users, and maybe scoop up an extra usecase or two without breaking the bank. In this case, I'm thinking that both local dogs and taxpayers are a lot closer to the core users than sightseers who'll likely never visit again. But hey even a design critique doesn't have to be a masterpiece on the first iteration - why not come back to us with an exploration of the important and real tension between making this park (and the city and region more generally) into a tourist destination, vs the need to have simple, functional infrastructure, and how that reflects and refracts thinking and designing like an engineer vs. like a starchitecht (e.g. see Frank Lloyd Wright's leaky and expensive to maintain buildings).
@Zach Wheeler I applaud your fervor for what you think is right. Sometimes being right is not the most important position. I enjoyed the article. I credit Michael as illustrating a personality that can evaluate both sides of a coin and choose to stay inspired. A quality of a good leader. In this instance one individual sees a failed bridge design the other sees inspiration, to each his own. From one stranger to another "attitude is everything".
I think that the first step for the designers should be to learn what the MVP actually is.