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A Noble, Logical Diagram: Lessons From the 1909 Plan of Chicago

About the Talk

March 23, 2018 11:15 AM

Chicago, IL

Chicago, IL

"As a design and information architecture community, we're always looking for inspiring stories and methods, but our time horizon is short. Since we're working in an age of rapid technological change, we usually look at projects that are in the recent past, and our living memory as a community of practice goes back 10, 20, or perhaps 30 years. What if we went back even further than that? In keeping with the conference theme of convergence, I propose that the designers of digital landscapes can learn a lot from the physical environment design challenges of the past.

In this session, I want to show how a design team created a deliverable and a vision that are still influential after 100 years. Chicago in 1909 was just like your last website redesign project: impetuous growth, tacked-on acquisitions, and inadequate infrastructure. Chicago's business leaders needed a grand plan to tame the chaos and inspire the community, so they hired veteran architect and city planner Daniel Burnham and his talented team to create a master plan for the city.

Chances are, you've probably heard Daniel Burnham's famous quotation that begins, ""Make no little plans"". It's been a rallying cry for architects, urban planners and anyone urging us to think big. It's actually part of a longer passage that reads: ""Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.""

When I read this passage, I see a desire to use that order and beauty to create a lasting impact on people and the landscape--a desire for impact that is echoed in the way the user experience design community is currently thinking about its role in the world. The 1909 Plan of Chicago was controversial, innovative, and continues to be hugely influential--even though parts of the plan still remain a dream on paper!

In this session, I'll tell the story of the people and processes that created the work, through primary and secondary sources including archival research. Along the way, I'll identify what techniques we can apply to our own work, especially complex systems with disparate stakeholders. Whether they're Chicago residents or visitors from other cities, attendees will walk away with a better appreciation for the designers who shaped the city we enjoy today."

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