Oblivious: Designers must see the trees for the forest

I really like maple trees, but the tree that I’m the most familiar with is actually the most common tree in Canada, the Populus tremuloides, more commonly and (apparently) more properly known as the quaking aspen.
Paul Epp

We just called it the poplar. Why not? It was the most common tree, and why give it a fancy name?

Poplar is the most common deciduous tree in North America, although it’s most commonly found in the colder areas, which, of course, is most of Canada, especially the boreal regions. There weren’t so many species of trees in Northern Alberta, so we didn’t need a guide book or Latin nomenclature.

We had the common and even ubiquitous poplar and where it was wetter, we had the other poplar, the Populus balsamifera, popularly known as the black, or water, or balsam poplar, with balsam being the most correct, but who cared? It was the tree that grew near the creek. If you were from Europe, you might call it the black poplar, which is a European tree that it resembles.

I liked the sound of balsam, and the occasionally heard Balm-of- Gilead, which may not have been 100 percent correct for the tree, but it sounded good. I also liked its smell and the white, cotton-like fluff that filled the air in early summer. I liked the other poplar for how the leaves rattled, especially just before it rained, showing their pale undersides.

Apart from those two deciduous trees, we had the spruce. That was it: the spruce. No fancy distinctions for this tree, either. It gives a wonderful green backdrop to the bright yellow poplars in the fall. And it was a much more valuable tree, in that it made good building lumber, or at least it was the best option from among very few, up there in the bush.

Somewhere along the trajectory of my education, I learned that Canada had two kinds of spruce trees in the boreal region. (There are other types in other areas.) The white and the black. Huh? I thought all spruces were just green. But no, there are two versions of this common tree where I lived, in the north. The Picea glauca, the white spruce, is the most common and is the one I thought of when I thought spruce. The other, Picea mariana, the black spruce, was around, but what distinguished it? I couldn’t tell. Until I could.

Last spring, I drove across Canada, east to west, with my most eastern point of departure being Burnstown, in the Ottawa Valley. From there, it doesn’t take long to get into serious northern terrain. I soon saw a lot of spruce trees. Rocks and lakes, too. Early spring is a good time to look at spruce trees because the poplar leaves haven’t gotten in the way yet. And here was the distinction: White spruce are more pyramid shaped in outline and their branches are straighter.

In contrast, the black spruce is closer to being parallel sided in its outline, with shorter branches that remain more uniform in length as the tree grows upwards. And these branches are often a more sinuous form, dipping down before turning back up. And another difference is that the black spruce are usually found were the soil is wetter, so along the edges of water, or in swamps. Bingo. It was obvious.

So what does this have to do with design?

Well, quite a bit, I think. It reveals to me how easy it is to be oblivious. We typically take things as they are brought to us. We call the trees what our parents called them, and usually without inquiring why. And I don’t think that designers can afford to do that. We need a much sharper and knowledgeable perception and also a deeper database. We’re doing a serious job, and lots of people are depending on us, in one way or another. What I’ve just described about the trees I know best probably doesn’t matter at all. But what it reveals about how easy it is to be complacent does matter. Designers can’t know too much. Everything is related to everything and the more we know, the better we are able to fit things together.

So, there you have it and here’s the lesson: pay attention!

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.
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