“Those Pesky Little Generalizations Can Get In The Way Of Our Work”

Some terms are harder to grasp or explain than others. Some seem to be generally understood but are harder to actually assign a definition. Take the idea of aging in place or visitability. Most of us know what these terms mean and we could give a detailed explanation. What about the general population? Think they are informed?
When we start designing for a solution for an aging in place client, we may know what we want but we don’t convey it very well or connect with our clients. This is when being less technical and using other professionals to help us explain what the design is can help us make our point and get agreement from our clients.
For instance, we may notice that a certain space in the client’s home is a little small for maneuverability so we will request in our proposal, specifications, or discussions with the client that “ample” or “sufficient” space be set aside, created, or supplied. But what exactly is that, and does it mean the same thing to each person? Clearly, it does not. An ample portion of food at the buffet line to a person with a large appetite or one quite hungry is very different from an ample or sufficient portion to a much smaller eater. An ample portion may have to do with the food also – an ample portion of ice cream or apple pie may need to be larger than other foods in order to have that title applied to it.
There are many words that we use in our design work that have a general form but are not specific – they are subject to interpretation based on the hearer’s particular frame of reference. We all tend to filter information based on our life experiences and various terms and descriptions mean different things to us according to our frame of reference.
Unfortunately, communication is based on the transfer of information from one person to another in a way that makes sense to the listener so it is comprehended and understood. Even using a unit of measure – liquid, weight, time, or distance – can be interpreted or understood in many different ways.
What does “a few minutes” mean, or a “little while longer?” If something looks like it’s 5 feet long to us because we work with distances so much, how does the client perceive it – and is it enough for them or too much? Does something seem like it’s a mile away when it’s only about a quarter of that? Does the passage of time seem like a minute or more when it might be only a quarter or half of that?
A bathroom may seem very small, but then how big does it really need to be to be functional? Typically it has a 5 feet long bathtub (or walk-in shower or tub-shower combination) along one end, often extending from wall-to-wall. If someone is not familiar with this conventional unit of measure, they would likely guess an amount greater or smaller for the space the tub occupies – based on what they think an inch or a foot is in their mind.
In addition to a tub or shower – or a combination, a bathroom needs a toilet and a sink or wash basin. The entire bathroom space can be quite compact – say 20 square feet. Here again, 20 square feet may sound unduly tiny to someone who has no frame of reference for such space or whose mental image of that is toward the small size.
Other words that sound nice but convey no specific meaning when it comes to design are ones like significant, viable, substantial, and functional. How much space between or around objects is required for something to be functional? What constitutes a substantial amount of counter space or a significant amount of drawers in the kitchen? What is an adequate amount of outlets or windows (other than what may be specified by the building code)?
Because we may know what we mean or what we want for a client, and the terms we use to suggest or describe them may be so general as to be meaningless as to our intent, we have to use specifics. We have to talk about a window with specific dimensions, an exact number of windows, the actual space between the island and the perimeter cabinets and why we find that necessary or desirable, and so forth.
If we aren’t clear about our intentions, we either have a confused client or one that thinks they know what they are getting – because that is what they want – even though it may be far away from what we are considering. We can’t afford any misunderstandings if we are going to provide the most help for our clients and they are going to be satisfied with our work.
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