Can you design "character"?

I was musing about this on my blog yesterday. I live in a suburb of Vancouver that I would argue “has character”. Is character something that only happens organically? Can it be designed?


I would say that every building has a character, and it’s our appreciation for that character which fluctuates. A home we may consider very standard now may be talked about in fifty years as having a lot of character, whether we feel that way about it now or not. I think that because so many people really associate the idea of a building having “character” with smaller buildings, good craftsmanship, and interesting custom details, much of what is build today has a character which we have not learned to appreciate.

OK, I buy that. That sounds more of an organic development of character. Its an…acquired taste (for lack of a better term).

But what about a town, or a community, or a company? Can a company have character? Can a product have character?

except you’re arguing different than presenting. Traditionally neighbourhoods grow organically, developing character accordingly. Now developers exclude character replacing it with affordable uniformity. Individual items, houses, can have designed character. Group entities develop character organically through time.

Hey, my first ID job was in the little industrial sector below Steveston and #5 Road. Looked in Steveston a bit for a place to live, back then it was rather drab. 1985. Fog over the pumpkin patches was rather picturesque.

Everything can have character…but character obviously has a lot of definitions for each different context. I think in the design sense it’s the same as emotional design. When you take a look at product icons like the Mini Cooper, VW Bettle, or original Apple Macintosh, you can definately say they have character.

I wouldn’t say it’s so much an intended feature of the design, it’s just a result of that products interaction with society.

Whatever it is, character is something that’s built, so while you can design something fantastic it’s how people recieve it that will give it it’s character. Architecturally a brand new building doesn’t have as much character as the old mom and pop shop that has a coat of fresh paint, but you can still see all the cracks in the wood underneath…same as when people say “Scars give you character”

I think this is really about authenticity.

It’s easy to dismiss the new “Disney-fied” Las Vegas casinos (NY NY, Paris, Bellagio etc.) but they have their own character, even though they lack authenticity on the whole.

I know. That’s what keeps me thinking about this. I can’t put a finger on what it is exactly. Cyberdemon…those are some great examples of products that, arguably, have character.

All of the examples you noted started off as products that focused on a niche. Beetle - inexpensive
Mac - easy to use
Mini - inexpensive city car

Sure, the latest incarnations of the above products are fueled by the character established by their predecessors. But I can’t believe that any of the above products were designed with the idea of creating a product with character…were they?

Authenticity is one word that seems to come with the idea. A single Vegas hotel, by itself doesn’t have character, IMO. But the collective…the group dynamic of the Vegas strip…that’s what gives Vegas its character. Its authentic in its excess.

I think its about age, even old vegas casinos have character for instance. When the ferrari daytona first came out people loved it, now 40 years later it has character as does the xke, pontiac gto and many others. I dont know about companies though the ones that come to mind are generational companies where the shop is handed down with in a family.

I think character can be designed, but it’s difficult. According to me, character only comes about as people interact with a design. For example, the Beetle didn’t have character until they were driving around on the streets. It’s character multiplied 10 fold when someone thought of painting a flower on the side.

As for architecture, your thread reminded me of a talk with Moshe Safdie. I think it is safe to say Habitat '67 has character despite the fact it is stuck off on a pier away from everything else in Montreal. However, the character came about because of the designer’s intentions. Safdie was inspired by the communities that he saw growing up in Israel, which look a lot like the traditional villages found in any hilly part of the world, like Italy, Greece, etc. He tried to re-create that in an apartment block, Habitat.

Something I’ve always found interesting about Habitat, is how the units feel personal. Despite the fact there are only three units, they are all arranged in different orientations. Plus, people hange things in the windows, or put things, like plants, on their balconies making them more personal. Just like the flower on the Beetle, I think it is that personalization that raised Habitat to the next level of character-fulness.

I think it comes down tot that. (Vegas aside, nothing is authentic there, except maybe an old rat pack hang out).

I would argue that Disney has a character, to the point where I’ve been known to refer to certain things as “the Disney version of” something else (i.e. the New Beetle feels like the Disney version of it’s predecessor to me). It has a very distinct character, it just happens to be a character that many/most designers find distasteful.

Everything has character- whether that character be slick, homey, tactile, kitsch, or even just cheap. But I think that buildings and products have a more clearly defined character when they are not trying to appeal to everybody, but to a certain market sector or a certain person. Then the item reflects the character of that person or group, becomes more clearly defined and often more successful. Whereas when you try to make something appeal to everyone it takes a little bit of its character from one place, a little bit from another, and eventually you wind up with something whose character might best be described as “boring.”

when i hear that something has character, it’s usually attatched to something unusual, out of the ordinary, ugly, or just outside of the observers narrative.
like you’re old dog that you’ve had forever… or like something in nature that’s not quite perfect. (nothing is)… A perceived flaw that works to the object’s advantage… like frankenstein… the sympathetic monster… character

maybe im way off…

basic element is age, with out age a thing has not achived character. Think of it as the masses voting on something over time and with use.

don’t flatter yourself zip

Oh common now you must admit I have character out the wazzzzzzzo. :laughing:

I dunno…BEING a character and HAVING character aren’t quite the same thing, methinks.

but of course they are, spelled the same way after all. :laughing:

just a thought - probably the best people at achieving this are movie set designers - these guys are in the business of creating believable homes, villages, city scenes etc… though I would guess the art is more about mimicking and combining existing elements from real houses than something unique (fantasy and sci-fi apart!)

im not getting anywhere near your wazoo to find out if it has character coming out of it, but i do challenge your point that age has anything do with it. a 40 year old design disaster is still a disaster, even while looking through the rose colored glasses of time.

i think that character can in fact be designed into a product, but that the very definition of character is what makes it so elusive. is character a quirk, differentiation, novelty? surely there are also social and cultural aspects that need to be taken into account.

as for vegas,- just got back from there last night, i can i surely say IMHO that i dont think anything there has much character. one theme casino is pretty much indistinguishable from the next as soon as you step inside. you can dress up a pig, but its still a pig.

flipped around- what would you say doesnt have character? is utility the opposite of character?


Lose a bit at vegas? stick to poker you go better odds. What i ment about age is its a leveling process what may have been consided trite or even gimicy when new over time if it survives gains some level of respect. That bigg asses steel tower in Paris was that way, now its not only iconc but has character out the wazooo.