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How design plays a role in navigating difficulties

Implementation

April 24, 2020

How design plays a role in navigating difficulties

How important is good design? For us, it means that our office works, even in the current conditions. Designers know that good design is a sound investment, we are taught it in design school – especially if you are an industrial designer where the outcomes of your design decisions can last for generations. Architects know it as well – same long term focus, even longer in some cases. But no-one teaches finance people about design, nor the economists!

But what is often not clear is why good design is an investment that pays off. The simplest way to make it obvious is to look at the automotive industry. It is chock full of examples of design that still make your heart beat a little faster even though the cars may be older than you/your grandparents. 

Some of the best of good design is almost invisible. It's not about styling which you see in the sweep of a… can't do it, I don’t know enough about cars to wax lyrical about something pretty with four wheels, but you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. 

Good design will be in the details of any thing you use that seems seamless or is enjoyable to use. It will be in the way the door opens, the sound a drawer makes when it clicks shut, in the feel of the object in your hand or the way you move through a space and observe the pattern of the light as it falls on the floor. Good design eases you through your day and adds delight and pleasure to your interactions with objects.

The investment pay off will be in the increased heart beat when a vintage E-type roars past, or the simple pleasure in using something that just works beautifully, or it will be in the things that don’t happen. In the same way that any risk mitigation works because bad stuff simply doesn’t happen, so good design pays off in the not happenings.

But good design is so much more and found in so many more places. Because everything feels so immediate right now, during this pandemic, and we are all focussed on our immediate environment, the good design we are benefitting from and noticing right now is our office design.

We are still able to work in our office during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason we can still work here is a result of design decisions made when we first moved in and briefed the interior designer. Good design relies on being clear about the outcomes that need to be achieved and finding the optimum method of achieving those outcomes.

The outcomes for the working spaces in our office were based on the ergonomic needs of designers working together in an open plan office. Our requirements were of two types: how we would work together and how we could work with our bodies rather than against them. 

Industrial design is one of our core disciplines of our studio – it is the original user interface discipline with a strong emphasis on ergonomics. Long before computers came along and UX became a thing, long before behavioural economics became a discipline, it was industrial designers who were designing the interface between humans and objects. 

It is in the combination of industrial design and manufacturing where we had seen the effects of both good and poorly designed work environments, and that experience provided a solid foundation from which to come up with a brief for our new office space.

The original brief for our office was:

  • to be able to gather around individual monitors for a discussion 
  • each designer needed to be far enough away from the next one to have a sense of their own space and some degree of privacy
  • the person who would be trouble shooting needed to be able to see all the monitors at once
  • people movement needed to not create physical blockages
  • everyone had to be forced to get up from their desks from time to time
  • everyone had to be able to see out a window from their seat without having to turn too far
  • the light level had to be able to be controlled and consistent but natural light had to be visible
  • long bench space was required along with plenty of clear wall space and plenty of long stretches of clear floor space not in the traffic areas – we wanted plenty of room to spread stuff out
  • desks had to have room for two monitors/screens and designers had to be able to swivel from one screen to the other (on swivel chairs).

And there were two things that were not to be in our space: working facing a wall, and working at a straight desk (like a table).

We wanted our studio to feel relaxed and comfortable so we would be happy to work there and so that visitors would feel comfortable and relaxed, not overawed.

It has been 18 years now and while it looks (very) tired, the office still works the way it was intended. And it works for us during the COVID-19 pandemic. We didn’t expect to be here until an pandemic came – that wasn’t behind our original design decisions on space. But we have plenty of space between us and a visible central open kitchen which we disinfect whenever it is used so everyone can see it being kept clean.

The only thing we have changed over time are the overhead lights. They have been changed from fluoro to LED to save energy. That was an investment that we knew would take a few years to recoup so it was made in line with the length of our remaining lease.

It is easy to see the value of an investment after the fact, but deciding when to invest in good design is not so easy. The decision is a bit like a risk analysis or any return on investment analysis but with humans added for extra complexity.