Commentary: More on good design, and why you bought that iPad

By Eric Livingston

In my last essay, I ended with the question – Why did you buy that iPad? There are other tablets, some of which may be better technologically, offer more options and might better suit one’s particular needs, as well as being less expensive than the iPad. So, why did you buy the iPad?

Aesthetics, good design, a beautiful product can provide pleasure. It simultaneously communicates socially, and is an expression of personal style.

Starbucks spends oodles and oodles of money figuring out how to give customers the experience of sipping coffee in a well-designed space, sitting in comfortable overstuffed chairs, pleasant music, allowing a person a sense of privacy to socialize, conduct job interviews, work or study, read a book/newspaper or simply cruise the Internet while enjoying their beverage of choice. They don’t just sell a cup o’ overly roasted Joe. They sell an aesthetic experience.

For many companies, aesthetics is good business and stockholders enjoy the return on their investment.

So, while we don’t think about it, beautiful design — or aesthetics — is becoming expected in the day to day of our lives and whether or not we admit it, aesthetics adds value to whatever is purchased. Aesthetics is often the reason why we buy what we buy, like the iPad.

In real estate, the mantra is “Location, location, location.” Real estate agents also give roomfuls of advice about the how and whys of curb appeal and landscaping, kitchen and bathroom updates, staging and even suggesting leaving the oven on at very low temperature then a drop or two of vanilla extract next to the heating elements just before the open house begins so that “home” has a welcoming smell of freshly baked cookies. Yeah, location opens the sales process, but its aesthetics that frequently closes the deal.

Cities, in general, have a different relationship with aesthetics.

Historically, a city developed near a reliable source of water, land that was easy to plow, close to a trade route and, typically in the center, was a hill or high ground for a fortress. At the base of the high ground/hill was where the craftsmen and their families lived. Usually there was a wall surrounding them which also provided a place to where the farmers could go for protection whenever invaders appeared on the horizon. There was no city planning, except for military expediency. No aesthetics, no real thought was given to how anything looked, (except for churches), just military architecture. Whatever the king, duke, earl, lord or general wanted, it got built.

However, a lot of time and thought went into how to tax everybody and everything to buy the materials and pay the people that built the buildings. Lots of taxes.

During the Renaissance, artists and architects did begin to think about how cities could look. People like Leonardo, Alberti and Filarete began to sketch plans for utopian cities with a place for every job and rank of society. Oddly, many of their sketches are of circular cities with rings of protection like medieval cities, but with a rational or a grid street plan and zones that put every rank and job in its place.

The rise of industrialization, new technologies and the democratic capitalist system made the last two centuries possible and created how we live today. Now cities have responsibilities far beyond protecting farmers (the food supply) and craftsmen (military armaments), but at the base of how a city functions is how to tax its citizens. Lots of taxes.

All cities, including Edmonds, need money to operate and to provide the services that citizens require. Edmonds, like most other cities, for its tax base, taxes property owners.

What has all that to do with aesthetics? I’m getting to that.

Chief among the duties of Edmonds, (or any city), as far as possible, is to protect the value of the land that it taxes. Edmonds has tools that can be used to do just that. The biggest tool is zoning.

Zoning is how a city decides how its land is to be used. Sections of the city are declared residential; other sections are designated for industry, businesses, schools and government each gets its own bit of land – every purpose, job and social rank has a place. An oversimplification, true, but is more or less correct.
Most of the land of any city is residential; consequently laws are developed so that the parcels are approximately the same size. Like many cities, Edmonds has rules as to the development of those lots and rules that the homes (buildings) should kinda-sorta look similar in style.

It’s the “should kinda-sorta look similar in style” part where aesthetics begins to play a big part in determining a value on which there is a tax to be paid.

One of the biggest factors that can affect the value of a taxable property (location being the biggest factor) is pollution. For the purposes of this discussion, the word “pollution” connotes a negative aesthetic, or a style of ugliness. I use that word because Edmonds has ordinances and policies to control all kinds of pollution. Visual pollution, noise pollution, air pollution and environmental pollution are some pollutions that concern Edmonds.

Which aesthetic/pollution should the taxing authority be most concerned about? I don’t know.

But to give an example of what I mean; earlier I mentioned that a couple of drops vanilla extract in a warm oven can give a positive aesthetic experience by triggering childhood memories of home. Now imagine the value of your new home, which is downwind of the city’s sewage processing plant. Which odor has a greater aesthetic value? Which odor is possibly detrimental not only to the market value but to the taxation value?

Another example, in the Edmonds’ Comprehensive Plan, on page 87, is this statement “B.8. It is the policy of the city to minimize noise created by the railroad” ( The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) gives cities the possibility of having a “Railroad Quiet Zone” if the city meets their criteria. The process is rather convoluted and possibility expensive because the city has to pay for any required safety upgrades in order to meet the FRA’s criteria.

However, the cities that successfully made the investment of time and money to receive a Railroad Quiet Zone, the property values jumped anywhere from 4 percent to 54 percent. A 54-percent increase in real estate values is extremely unlikely for Edmonds. More likely is the typical 8- to 10-percent increase in property values. Such an increase would pleasantly improve the real estate agent’s commission but, and more importantly, Edmonds would greatly benefit from the increased tax revenues.

But of all the pollutants we try to prevent with our policies, ordinances and laws, the most difficult, (and the cheapest) is visual pollution. Difficult because it is the most controversial.

Why? One answer is there is no clearly defined style(s) in the Comp Plan. The Plan (required by the Growth Management Act –GMA) devotes nearly 100 pages, spread over several chapters, regarding various details that buildings have; signage, setbacks, parking, landscaping, curbs, driveways, massing, heights (the biggest controversy), and on and on etc…..

Not one word about style; over and over it states that “good design” is the goal. But there is not one sentence that defines what Edmonds considers “good design”.

However, on page 96 of the Comp Plan you’ll find this sentence: “However, unsightly development – of poor quality and design – does exist in the City and may occur in the future. Aging buildings in some parts of the City, primarily downtown, also create an aesthetic problem.”  What makes that sentence fascinating to me is there is no definition of what is “poor design.” Not one word.

In my last essay on Edmonds architecture, I spent a lot of time and effort to point out some poor architectural design in Edmonds. I didn’t include my list of good architectural design in Edmonds. Here is my list (in no particular order):

Beeson building - (wiki-media) -Mission style.
Beeson building – Mission style. (Wikipedia photo)
Reliable Flooring (wiki-media) – unsure of style, it’d be better if the awning were removed as it’s out of context and not of the original period.
Reliable Flooring – unsure of style, it’d be better if the awning were removed as it’s out of context and not of the original period. (Wikipedia photo)
The condos at 2nd and Bell St - streamlined Moderne style (Wikipedia)
The condos at 2nd and Bell St – streamlined Moderne style (Wikipedia photo)
Vets office – updated shingle style. (Photo by Eric Livingston)
Vets office – updated shingle style. (Photo by Eric Livingston)
Post office – an example of good government franchise architecture. (Photo by Eric Livingston)
Post office – an example of good government franchise architecture. (Photo by Eric Livingston)
WaFed Bank  – architectural hints of a Palladian style. (Photo by Eric Livingston)
WaFed Bank – architectural hints of a Palladian style. (Photo by Eric Livingston)

By now, I hope, I’ve made clear that there is real value in aesthetics. Not only in overpriced computers and coffee, but aesthetics can go a long way toward how Edmonds might want to be perceived. It can increase the desire to live there, tourists to spend time and money in pleasant downtown surroundings and – last but not least – the probability of increasing revenues; not only by protecting the property owner’s land value, but working on ways of increasing the value of their property. Such efforts can reward everyone.

I’d also like to suggest that people send their ideas on what “Good Design” might be, or what architectural styles might be incorporated in the Comp Plan to the Edmonds City Council. Or you can post those ideas here.

About the author: Eric B. Livingston has degrees in art (focusing on sculpture and a minor in music), culinary art, technical writing and has credits towards an MBA.  He has been awarded prizes for photography and portrait sculpture, has had a one man show, as well as having had work accepted in juried art exhibitions in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He has researched and written papers on “Aesthetic Universals in Art”, “Linguistics of Food/Cookery” (which was submitted to the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery), a white paper for a non-electric irrigation pump manufacturer and wrote several pieces for Seattle Home & Lifestyles magazine. Currently he is a freelance web designer and tech writer. He resides in Edmonds with wife, Eliza, and a dog, Pershing.

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