Update: After a great comment, I changed my opinion about this.
I rarely use the word requirement – it’s a weenie word. But I know if you royally screw up requirements, regardless of what you call them, no designer’s power can save you. Case in point: this story about the design of the 9/11 Memorial in NYC.
The specific problem in question was how to organize the names of all those who died:
In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg… suggested that people be loosely grouped according to their location that day. And so Arad [the architect] created nine categories. Around the south pool, he’d list everyone who died in the South Tower and at the Pentagon, along with the first responders and the passengers on Flights 175, 77, and 93. Around the north pool would be those who died in the North Tower and on the plane that crashed into it, along with the six who died in the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993.
As is often the case, it’s an executive who issues the problematic requirement, unchallenged by more practical minds, that sends the project into a tailspin.
Chronological is what worked well for the Vietnam memorial (and many others). But they passed on that. So alphabetical perhaps? Noooooo. Too easy. Perhaps by specific incident (Tower 1, Tower 2, Pentagon, etc.)? That’s where they started, but that was too simple – here’s what they did instead:
Random, as a goal? Really? And getting everyone involved in creating requirements? Can you see where this is going?
By the end of that year, the foundation had received twelve hundred requests for adjacencies (and these didn’t include the self-contained adjacencies, such as, say, Ladder Company 7 or Cantor Fitzgerald, which, with six hundred and fifty-eight names, represented the biggest, and most challenging, adjacency block of them all) The reasons for these requests were varied. Sometimes the victims were cohorts, or best friends. In other cases, the families knew, from last phone calls, whom their loved ones had been with in the end—in an elevator, on a ledge—and wanted those people listed together. A same-sex couple and their three-year-old son all perished on Flight 175; their names, certainly, belonged together.
These are moving stories of course. And stories that should be shared. But why did these stories need to define the design of something as simple as a name list? On a project that’s been delayed for nearly a decade? Every other war memorial in the history, including the great ones, didn’t need to go this far.
At this point it was probably too late to simplify, as all the victims had already made their requests. How could they be turned away? But as any good designer knows, if it’s this hard to figure out or explain, odds are no one who visits the place will make sense of it either. But they pressed on:
At a certain point, the foundation recognized that this job could use the assistance of a computer. Even so, the first few computer scientists and statisticians the foundation got in touch with said that it couldn’t be done. “It really did seem insurmountable,” Daniels recalled. But then his chief of staff called Jake Barton, the principal at the media-design firm Local Projects, who took on the assignment, and, with a data artist named Jer Thorp, designed an algorithm that could sort the names in keeping with all the overlapping requests. Before long, they had a distribution designed to please everyone, including Arad.
I’m certain many families would be better honored by finishing the memorial sooner, and making it a welcoming and calming place for all visitors, rather than the micro details of how exactly names are grouped, or not.
I haven’t seen the latest plans for the complete memorial, and I admit the entire experience is unlikely to be ruined by this small set of issues. But I’m also confident the time spent overthinking the list of names earned much more effort than it was worth.
Requirements is a maligned word among designers, but for anyone who sees my point – pick up a copy of the wonderfully potent Exploring Requirements by Weinberg. It will forever improve how you think about problems, designs and working with clients through them both. Had Bloomberg or Arad read it, it would have saved all the victims and NYC much wasted time.