At HemingwayDesign we have a philosophy that ‘design is about improving things that matter in life’. This is pretty obviously the case when it comes to designing a housing development but we try and take this philosophy through to less obviously profound projects such as designing wallpaper. The fact that our wallpaper is manufactured in Blackburn (a town that needs all the employment opportunities it can get), with a manufacturer, Graham & Brown, who supports great causes in the town and understand the value of investment in sustainable practices is all part of the design process. Then we add the layers of working on colour and pattern that lift the spirit and have longevity in appeal. We take a forensic approach to many of our projects and don’t consider design any differently to science in terms of be painstaking in turning over every stone to achieve a result. More time is spent on design thinking than the actual drawing or artwork.
In 2005 Dr Hilary Cottom of the Design Council won the Designer of The Year Award and boy did it because a stir culminating in ‘shock horror’ here was a ‘public sector design reformer’ who didn’t sit all day drawing but rather sat thinking?
Dezeen reported “There is no Designer of the Year in its previous format”, said a Design Museum spokesperson. “The format is being rethought and developed at the moment, and we will relaunch later in 2007, but there will be no accompanying exhibition.”
Controversy dogged the award in 2005, when it was won by ‘public sector design reformer’ Hilary Cottam who developed innovative procurement methods for schools and prisons but who, by her own admission, was not a designer. The ensuing row is thought to have contributed to Rawsthorn’s departure from the museum in early 2006.
Just prior to this James Dyson had resigned from the board at The Design Museum telling the press that the museum was ‘no longer true to its original vision’.
What Dr Cottam and the Design Council were pioneering was ‘transformational design’. They were looking to address complicated problems in the health service and schools to determine how design thinking and design techniques could help government and public bodies. The belief was that you can design shorter waiting lists. I would argue that this is every bit as important as innovation in vacuum cleaner technology.
In interviews and when I do talks I often get asked what do I consider to be Gerardine and I’s greatest design. I always go back to a meeting in 2000 when we demonstrated how our philosophy to put the landscape thinking before the design of the housing on our first housing development. The Staiths, South Bank in Gateshead paid such dividends to the liveability of the project.
We drew on our own experience of an active outdoors childhood and the joy that we were having with our children through being fortunate enough to be able to afford a large garden to make the bold statement of designing the play and recreation spaces before designing the houses. This nearly got us kicked off the project; Wimpey hadn’t heard anything like it. One of the first things at The Staiths we wanted to do was to build play areas that were challenging, creative and far more exciting than a few chickens on springs and a ‘health and safety’ approved climbing frame. We showed the council play officer an example of an exciting play area that we had come across in a wonderful development in Freiberg, Germany made simply from old trees that were left in their natural state for kids to balance on and a generous helping of sand. We wanted play areas to encourage ‘free range kids’. I remember the council saying that they loved our concept of ‘free range kids’ but couldn’t countenance a play area with sand all over the ground. This wasn’t about the danger of dogs and cats soiling the sand but another very strange reason was given. The council play officer proceeded to say that, “babies will crawl around the sand and eat it”. To which I replied, “but that isn’t a problem as we can replace it, sand is only £1.99 a bag at the local DIY store”. I then proceeded to search on the web for ‘Child eats sand and dies’. Try it, it’s not something that throws up any obvious returns, but common sense had already told me that and it was this use of common sense that allowed us to proceed with our vision of a housing estate led by ‘place’ and not architecture.
So it was heartening to read this weekend a couple of pieces discussing design maturely and delving into the science of design. The ‘Saving of Good Design’ piece in the International Edition of The New York Times (*1) included the following observations.
“A thoughtfully designed building, a well-engineered car or a beautifully decorated home can all stimulate the pleasure centres in our brains. We’re also drawn to certain colours and shapes, though for a long time we weren’t sure why.
German researchers found last year that the colour green can motivate us and make us more creative. We associate verdant colours with food-bearing vegetation – hues that promise nourishment Windows that look out on landscapes facilitate patient recovery in hospitals, student learning in classrooms and worker productivity in offices. Another revelation scientists discovered is based on simple geometry, in the shape of a “golden rectangle.” Subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on. Some of the most beloved designs in history follow the golden rectangle’s 5-by-8 proportions: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the Mona Lisa, the Stradivarius violin and the original iPod.
Now we are closer to understanding why: a scientist at Duke University in North Carolina found that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its proportions mimic the golden rectangle.
There is also growing evidence that smart design can reduce aberrant behaviour. Psychiatric hospitals try to identify patients who may be aggressive and train staff to reduce violent incidents. But these approaches are not enough, as the number of aggressive events in care facilities appears to be increasing, Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture in Sweden, reported in The Times. Research suggests that hospitals can be designed to reduce violence and these adaptations do not cost significantly more money.
A psychiatric hospital in Gothenburg that opened in 2006 incorporated spaces that minimize noise and crowding, shared rooms with movable seating to give patients control over their space, and offered more natural light. It reported significantly fewer aggressive incidents, Professor Ulrich reported.
Evidence from myriad studies and design research strongly supports the notion that architectural design can reduce violence.”
He wrote an article in The Independent on the 24th March, ‘Shopping? It’s all in the gender’ (*2) which contained some real scientific and analytical design thinking.
“A ray of hope has broken through the pall hanging over the country’s high streets; with a leading retail academic believing she has the formula for success: the problem is men and the solution is women.
Gloria Moss, reader in management and marketing at Buckinghamshire New University, says that the answer is simple: women are responsible for 83 per cent of all shopping purchases, and high streets simply have to acknowledge this. Dr Moss, who has been researching gender habits for more than 18 years, says her work shows that many shops are designed by men who don’t give enough thought to women and ignore the fact that they hold the lion’s share of buying power. According to her research, women buy 93 per cent of all groceries, 92 per cent of the holidays and 96 per cent of beauty products. Perhaps surprisingly, she has found that women buy 60 per cent of all new cars and 55 per cent of home computers.
Mary Portas was brought in a little over a year ago to recommend solutions and she produced a longlist of 28,” Dr Moss said. “Not one of these refers to one of the most obvious facts about town shopping: the bulk of it is done by women.” Dr Moss adds that women’s shopping preferences are often poles apart from those of men, who tend to dictate retail and local and national government policy. Based on her data, she conducted experiments on how high-street shops could use this information to their advantage. “In experiment after experiment, my studies have shown that women prefer graphic online and retail interiors designed by women, with distinguishing features being the use of circular lines, colour, decorative surfaces and informality, while men prefer the spare, dark, straight-sided and modernist look.
Dr Moss believes many shops are designed by men and the interiors reflect male aesthetics. “In terms of the shops themselves, many retailers could benefit from an understanding of male and female design aesthetics. A new science uncovering major differences in male and female perception, hardwired since hunter-gatherer days, shows ‘he’ likes straight lines, few colours and little detail; and ‘she’ likes rounded shapes, lots of details and colours. If high-street shops can crack this one, they would have an enormous edge over anonymous out-of-town shops.”
Quite clearly this is not going to solve the problems that are dogging many British high streets; the problems go much deeper than that. In many ways Dr Moss’s arguments are about aesthetics and could possibly go further and investigate whether the differences between female and male sociability are being fully addressed in our high streets. But it does point to a forensic and analytical approach that designers can use to starting to address big issues and again, almost a decade on from Dr Hilary Cottom and The Design Councils approach to Healthcare and Schools design, in the case of Dr Moss, it’s not coming from a designer.