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Q & A: Rick Landesberg

Why should people care about design?  
There are certain things in our experience that in one way or another enhance living. Well designed things do more than we ask of them. For some people it might be an iPhone, for some a building, for others a dependable and expressive tool. A lot of people experience and appreciate good design but don't call it by that name.

When good design operates on a civic level it broadcasts a powerful signal about how a community thinks about itself. It's easy to pick up on this when we visit new places. It's a little harder to perceive in our own backyard.

Can you cite an example of good design in Pittsburgh that supports this?

The Hot Metal Bridge. It so easily could have been replaced by one more boring span. Instead, it provides a rich event while celebrating the city's heritage. Like all good design, it's an experience, not a thing.

What do you like about what you do?
I get to learn a little bit about a lot of things. I get to meet a lot of smart people who are doing smart things. Design is a great pursuit if you are curious by nature.

If you could  re-design one  thing in Pittsburgh, what would it be?

The Fred Rogers Memorial. Here's a man who was modest and thoughtful memorialized by something that is neither.

For years I've thought about an uncommon system of historical markers. Not the typical kind we see everywhere but cool signs that would honor small stories about how our neighborhoods were shaped. Say, the spot where a popular drug store had been in Beechview or what that weird concrete thing is that's sticks out of the riverbank. The kind of stuff you'd want a friend to tell you.

How do you like to solve big problems?

I try to understand what the problem is truly about, educate myself on the subject, and know who the user or audience will be. After internalizing all that I forget all that and imagine experiencing the result. Not what the solution looks like but what it feels like. Design is a messy process. You have to let your unconscious do its work.

What is your all-time favorite font?

My design colleagues won't be surprised that it's Bembo. It is elegant and energetic (like Troy Polamalu). It's based on a typeface dating from 1495 but still looks contemporary.

What's your favorite possession, big or small?

My open-back, 5-string banjo. It features a small pearl inlaid shooting star on the fifth fret. It embodies good design: it's functional, economical, and expressive. And it makes music, too.

Favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh?

The Calliope Concerts at the Carnegie Lecture Hall.

Do you have a motto?

There's a lot of days when I think of the motto of the Renaissance scholar-printer Aldus Manutius: "Make haste slowly" (Festina Lente) or more loosely put, "Slow down, you're in a hurry."

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I'll occasionally experience engaged, focused play. It's a wonderful feeling. Kids and dogs do it all the time.

What's the best advice you ever got?

I was in college and worried that my dad would frown on my majoring in painting. He quoted Lady Macbeth: "We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we'll not fail."

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
That by dint of pure enthusiasm and the help of wonderful colleagues and clients (and my family, of course), I've built a practice that's been in business nearly 30 years.

What recent book was your favorite?

At Home:  A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson. Now that guy is curious.

Last November, Rick was asked to present to a group at TEDx Pittsburgh about design. Don't miss his three-minute video here: "Design and Generosity", a fascinating glimpse at an object's ability to add depth and meaning to its use through the simplicity and thoughtfulness of its design.
Rick Landesberg is principal of Landesberg Design.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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