The Importance of Orchids and Onions to Human-Centered Design

DesignMind | President's Blog

One of my favorite San Diego events is Orchids and Onions. It is a fun event that raises funds for the San Diego Architecture Foundation, but it is also a real-world lesson in the importance of a human-centered approach to design.

This year, in addition to NewSchool being the title sponsor, I had the opportunity to be a juror. This gave me an in-depth look at the projects that earned an Orchid for making a positive contribution to the DesignMind in San Diego and those that deserved an Onion for not addressing the effect it will have on our community.

For example, one of the Onions in architecture went to a Starbucks. This building is placed so close to a prominent corner that it squeezes pedestrians on the sidewalk between traffic in its drive-through and six lanes of busy El Cajon Boulevard. What is the human experience of walking along the street with this kind of building?

Awarding an Onion isn’t just for venting about poor design choices. One Orchid winner admitted that the last time they were recognized at the event it was with an Onion. Sometimes getting an Onion inspires you to do better next time!

Of course, I much prefer to celebrate the Orchids. One that stood out for me is the preservation of the historic Hotel Churchill. It was built for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 but had fallen into terrible disrepair. It is a beautiful old building that easily could have been developed into luxury condos or a boutique hotel. Instead it was redeveloped into affordable housing for the homeless. There are dedicated units for veterans who were literally taken off the streets to live in this building. Providing that kind of dignity for people who served our country is a marvelous example of what makes our city even better.

Civic and social responsibility is important to us. At NewSchool, we inspire and nurture design-minded learners to become citizen architects and designers, and that means being out in the public forum with your work. It is no accident that NewSchool and Orchids and Onions do that so well. One of the founders of Orchids and Onions is Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, the acting chair of our architecture program. Our graduates are leaders in the San Diego Architecture Foundation, helped organize the event, and volunteered their time to make it a success. Our alumni also attended as part of teams receiving Orchids. Our students were there too, learning valuable lessons about the impact of human-centered design that they will use to improve communities in the future.