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How Form, Function and Creative Inspiration Can Help Elevate Omaha


The concept of design carries different meanings in various fields, but it’s fundamentally about what brings together the elements of form and function. From the clothes on our back to the layout of our cities, from the smallest of logos to the most complex facilities, the work of designers in a multitude of disciplines is everywhere you look. The Reader surveyed five design professionals from different disciplines to get their insight—with respect to their particular fields—on how design touches, influences or even controls our lives individually and as a community:

What drew you to your particular field?

Leahy: In college, what I liked about it is that it was always changing, the multiple skill sets, and a complexity that would continue to challenge and stimulate me…Now it’s even more than that: I have the ability to improve people’s lives.

Davies: Even as a young child I was always fascinated by icons, symbols, logos, and the like. I’ve always been interested in art, but design was the way I found to bring my need for order and direction to that aesthetic world.

Day: Beyond the enjoyment of making things and drawing and designing, I think that architecture spans a huge range of social and culture issues and brings together everything from philosophy through very pragmatic concerns like keeping the rain out of the building.

Moulton: I’ve always been drawn to very large, messy, complicated problems. Because I’m ultimately an optimist, I feel that through applying yourself to any problem, we can come up with solutions.

Reynolds: It was something I always appreciated. I loved shopping, I loved looking at clothes and style and how things were worn. I remember seeing a fashion show in kindergarten, and I couldn’t look away from it; it was just the coolest thing.

What has changed most over the years in your particular field?

Davies: Really just the prevalence of the digital world. When I started Oxide Design Co. 13 years ago, probably 90 percent of our work was print—brochures, business cards, direct mail—and 10 percent was websites and other digital design. Now it’s probably the opposite of that ratio.

Day: At first (new) technology simply replaced an older technology…but now it’s actually changed in a much more fundamental way: the way we think about buildings, the way buildings are made, the way they’re managed in terms of facilities management has become very digital, and it’s opened up a tremendous amount of possibilities for architects to be able to have a much greater sense of control over their projects than they may have had in most of the 20th century.

Reynolds: The thing that has changed in the industry here locally (is) there’s an actual infrastructure building in Omaha. There are people who support it, there are other designers now, there’s this whole community that wants to see you thrive.

Leahy: We do so much more with computers, we have 3-D printers now. Environmental responsibility and sustainability has been a huge change. And even more in the last five or ten years, Lean planning in the family of Six Sigma. Rapid prototyping. EDAC, which stands for evidence-based design accreditation and certification, it’s mostly for healthcare and came out of healthcare treatment, but looking at evidence of what really works; we’re not doing things just that are beautiful but really improve the outcome for patients. Another one has been Charrette (collaborative process) planning.

Moulton: It’s called the Great Inversion; for 65 or 70 years or so we moved out to the suburbs and now it’s the opposite trend, everybody’s moving back in. It’s not going to be the same city: we do things differently, we have new technology, we have different understanding of how things function, we have new transportation ideas.

Where do you turn for design inspiration?

Reynolds: A lot my inspiration comes from just everyday life. Things that happened to me, experiences, memories, my surroundings.

Moulton: You start by look at older cities and older parts of our city. They were all originally designed and structured for pedestrians…You can’t have a great, livable city and have only vehicular transportation.

Davies: I tend to look outside of the traditional industry-based sources, and instead get my inspiration from stepping out of the design mind and doing other things in the world. I get inspiration from everyday activities, nature, streetscapes, interactions with close friends and family.

Leahy: There are great things in nature you can look at for innovative solutions to environmental challenges. And the other thing I do is learn from different buildings: what’s been done and what’s great and try to do it in an even better way and take it one step further.

Day: I look to contemporary art quite a lot and conceptual art—not in the way a lot of people would think, looking at art to look at different ways of making form—but more about how artists approach the world…I think architects are always looking at other architecture; it’s hard not to do that. My wife calls me the Terminator because when I walk into a building, I scan around and I instantly notice everything.

Why do aesthetic qualities matter as much as practical qualities in design?

Moulton: I think the choice between practicality and aesthetics is a false dichotomy…I think everything is aesthetic and we just have different personal aesthetics.

Davies: Information can be as clear as possible, but it still won’t do any good if no one wants to read it. I believe that in order for design to be truly effective, it must be a balance of clarity and aesthetics. The exact proportion depends on each situation.

Day: There’s no question that architecture has a pragmatic basis, it’s there to solve problems for people. But it also connects the culture and I think that’s through the aesthetic qualities of the building.

Leahy: We need to inspire people…If it doesn’t uplift the spirit, we really haven’t done anything out of the ordinary. Good architecture is all about creating that experience; the lighting, the feel, not just the value and return on investment.

Reynolds: From my perspective, they’re trying to evoke a feeling or they want to make somebody feel like they’re different or they set themselves apart, it’s sort of a costume for every day. They need to be able to live their life in the garments but they need to also make it so that they can be individual in those garments.

What are the benefits of good design?

Day: Whether we’re talking about a public space or a work space or a residence, architecture and design in general is really about improving lives…I think that’s why architects tend to be optimists, because we’re always thinking we can make things better.

Reynolds: You want to be able to have something you feel good in; you want to have something that is well-made and you want something that pleases your eye. It has to be appealing to all of your senses. It has to be able to last and carry over into the future; it should be transcendent and carry on through time.

Leahy: Good design does not cost more money. Often it can cost less, especially operationally and maintenance and cost-wise…It’s about brand, improving the bottom line and profits and happy more productive staff or guests, or students or patients, or whatever your building type has. People do better or come back often to great places.

Moulton: (With) good urban design, there’s physical health (walkability). There’s also economic benefits; if you actually design better, more compact, denser environments in existing parts of the city you grow the tax revenue pie and your infrastructure costs are much less.

Davies: Good design can literally increase the bottom line. It can get more people to hear an important message and take it to heart. It can drastically raise awareness.

What are the primary influences on design in Omaha?

Leahy: Omaha By Design. Design Alliance Omaha, and this sub-thing they do, Pecha Kucha Night, it’s from the Japanese word that means “chit-chat”. Another one is AIA (American Institute of Architects) Omaha Chapter. Design firms, enlightened clients. Metropolitan Community College; I was on that board and helped them get their first comprehensive strategic plan…There’s also these great preservation groups that keep the best of the old. And then the University of Nebraska College of Architecture; that’s where I got my education.

Moulton: It’s public, it’s political, it’s regulatory. Your public governance influences (urban design) significantly.  

Day: Omaha has a lot of influences from the outside. I’ve been here for about 15 years and I’ve found that the Midwest tends to be broad as a region and we tend to look at a lot of different things.

Davies: I think that Omaha’s best design firms are influenced by the same sources that influence designers nationally and even globally.  

Reynolds: You’re all over the scale in Omaha as far as fashion goes and there’s no one set style.

What are some classic examples of good design locally?

Day: The repurposing of that into what the Old Market is now, in a lot of cases it’s simply an updating of the pragmatism of the original building. The specific examples kind of deviate from that, they tend to be the monument buildings like the state capitol, NBC Bank that’s now Wells Fargo in Lincoln, the Sheldon Museum in Lincoln; these are really great buildings that are nationally and internationally known. In Omaha, the Joslyn and the addition to the Joslyn are important projects.

Moulton: (In) the older parts of the city, one interesting example are these little commercial nodes that are there because the streetcar lines used to run through them…all of them connected together and downtown was kind of the anchor.

Leahy: Union Station, I worked on restoration. Joslyn Art Museum, I worked on the addition and restoration there, too. The capitol/Central High School, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral and the Gold Coast neighborhood. The 1891 public library. The 1889 Omaha National Bank building and New York Building. The Burlington Station—not the one that’s there now, the 1898 original design by Thomas Kimball.

What are some contemporary examples of good design locally?

Leahy: Midtown Crossing…it created a destination where the community comes together. Village Pointe, a great little commercial development. The Holland Performing Arts Center. SAC Federal Credit Union headquarters. Mammel Hall. The Community Engagement Center, what goes on inside is just a really great space.

Davies: From a graphic design standpoint, one of the things I am proud of about being from Omaha is that there are a bunch of people doing great graphic design work here in town.

Reynolds: Fashion in Omaha doesn’t go back very far…It’s hard to draw the line between classic and contemporary because it’s all sort of contemporary at this point.

If Omaha had a design aesthetic, how would you define it?

Davies: From a visual design standpoint, I don’t really think that Omaha has a “design aesthetic”. What I’m seeing locally is a lot of good work inspired by all kinds of sources from across the country and around the world.

Reynolds: A lot of people’s knee-jerk reaction here is “Oh, yeah, Husker gear” or something like that, but I see so much more because the people I’m with every day, I see so much variation in style…How would I label it? Individual, varying.

Day: You don’t find a lot of speculation and crazy sort of experimentation like you might in Los Angeles. You find things are really rooted in a kind of pragmatism of solving the problem.

Moulton: If Omaha had an urban design aesthetic: grassroots. It starts from the ground up.

Where do you see Omaha’s design

aesthetic going?

Leahy: I think part of it is individual voices–designers, community leaders, property owners, the clients–and several complementary organizations working together to preserve and improve urban spaces.

Moulton: I think we’ll improve because everything ultimately comes to Omaha that starts somewhere else, but it takes 15 years. Do we want to continue that or actually show by example what we can do?

Reynolds: We have this growing infrastructure of people who are so supportive of current designers. It’s definitely changing and turning into something where people are beginning to realize we have something here.

Davies:  I believe that Omaha is right there in the national mix from a design aesthetic standpoint.

Day: I hope it evolves to a point where it’s not just about an aesthetic but thinking about how we want to live in the city…I think we also need renewed understanding of the value of public space and interface between private space and public space; that’s something that has not been considered very well here.  

How do the different design disciplines interact?

Leahy: To do any kind of major project well, you have to do comprehensive, strategic and facility planning. It’s the business as well as the buildings and the parking and the spaces in between them…It’s getting the right team put together, but it’s also that everybody on the team realizes how important everybody else is so we think of every aspect.  

Davies: Some of the best cultural experiences we can have are when architecture, interior design, branding and graphic design, wayfinding and information design, etc., all combine to make something truly special.

Day: (At UNL) we have architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, planning, and we’re going to start an industrial design program, and all those students take the same classes in the first year. Those classes are really about creative problem solving and teamwork. We’re teaching them to interact and collaborate from a very early age.

What do you wish non-designers knew about design?

Davies: That visual aesthetics are just a small part of great design. Really successful branding and design involve huge amounts of thought about clarity, accurately conveying information, tactical considerations, messaging, and the like.

Reynolds: From a fashion design perspective, having somebody local make something for you, don’t assume it’s going to be really cheap. Fast fashion has ruined that for designers. If you want something like that, talk to your grandma.  

Moulton: Cities are the way they are not because of randomness but because of very well-established sets of policies, regulations and practices.

Leahy: Good design takes longer than a 30-minute HGTV episode.

Day: Every manmade object that you touch is designed by somebody–that doesn’t mean they’re all good, but design decisions are being made every day that impact people and I think they should think more about that impact and interact with that production at some point and be intelligent about making choices. ,

For the full text of the interviews, please visit thereader.com.


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