Debating design and value

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What is the value of design? The Real Estate Planning and Regeneration [REPR] Alumni of University of Glasgow opened their seminar series for 2012/13 with presentations by John Lord of Yellowbook Ltd on the future for towns as places, and Diarmaid Lawlor on the value of design. The key theme of both presentations related to change: transformational changes have occurred in the way we use space, and this has generated new patterns of behaviour which affect the purpose and meaning of town centres argued John Lord. Design, as the art of the possible, is a pragmatic vehicle to posit rational ways to address these changed, and changing contexts.

John Lord’s presentation started with a discussion about the geography of everyday life, what people do and where they do things. Using a combination of both an evaluation of historic data, and recent trends in car use, retail performance and the impact of the internet, the presentation showed how different and how challenging the contexts for towns and town centres are. Place still matters argued John Lord, but the data suggests that some places matter more than others at least in terms of the performance of markets. The future for many places will need to be different, more local, more differentiated, more mixed in terms of purpose and economy. The challenge is inhow to achieve this.

Diarmaid Lawlor set out a discussion about design in terms of its potential to posit possibilities for action, and test the plausibility of these possibilities. It is a tool to imagine, a tool to test, a tool to do. His discussion began by returning to some of thinking around design in the 1960’S, thinking of design as a rational activity, an activity to progress democracy and wealth distribution. This idea of design sees design as a deliberate thinking about purpose. This thinking is framed by consideration of the connection and consequences of three issues: resources, society and environment.

To illustrate the idea of design as a rational activity around these issues, and to show the breadth of the potential of design, three examples of design for social purpose were discussed. This included the idea of a purposeful community, the European Architecture Students Assembly [EASA]. It gathers every year in a different city, with different participants from students in architecture schools across Europe. It is a self organising community. In each city they take over an existing city space and adapt it for learning. Each member country takes on responsibility for tasks to deliver the learning, in specific spaces. The learning infrastructure, the service infrastructure is designed. It is rational. This design makes the most of the student resource, it works with the ambition of this community and it uses existing spaces. The point being made was that social organisations for purpose have a design element.

Developing these themes, the presentation looked at two ideas of value. The first is utility, use. This was illustrated using the bic biro, a designed object which is scaled and fabricated to be easy to use and easy to access. Its purpose is to enable the user to communicate. It is user oriented, and its flexible utility is its value. The idea of utility value was illustrated with reference to the briefing process for a third level institution. The institution wanted to achieve the best research outcomes on a world setting and felt that the physical estate was constraining this objective, particularly the catering and dining facilities. They were overcrowded and inefficient. A designer was asked to provide solutions. He suggested a ticketing arrangement for the users, to formalise how they used the space. His observation of the behaviour in the space suggested that the ticket arrangement could achieve much better use f the existing space, maximising its utility value. The client wanted a new building. This was about desire.

Desire is ambition based on want. This was illustrated with the example of a Faberge egg. The design here is about cultural expression, of making something special that is based on want, desire, power.

The impact of successfully thinking about utility value was illustrated with the idea of the first mechanical washing machine. This was an invention that shifted behaviours, enabled women to have a different relationship with work, ambition and society. It was designed to work, and designed to scale, at a cost that was affordable. This was design for citizenship, the value of which can be measured directly in terms of the profitability of the invention on the one hand, but also indirectly through the impacts on social life, whole economies, politics and mobility.

The challenges of designing only for desire were illustrated with reference to the Petronas tower, a massive and impressive global brand as much as a building. This form of development, which for some is a kind of global commodification of what competitive places look like are expensive, sometimes poorly integrated with the environment they sit in and have little direct engagement with the society around them, except visual impact. Their purpose is about positioning places and economies.

In reality, all design is a synthesis of utility and desire. The value of design therefore is about understanding who the design is useful to, and who desires what. Assessing this is about understanding behaviours and choices. This is about engagement with people. It is about unpacking problems so we can clearly target resources appropriately, and in a way that respects the environment hosting the design and the community who use it. This is about understanding the ‘architecture of problems’ as promoted by organisations like the Helsinki Design Lab.

In the 1960’s, there was a belief in design as a rational activity which could be organised to achieve a better place for everyone. People like Buckminster Fuller introduced different ideas about how to achieve possibilities. Re-engaging with the art of the possible is the necessary condition to address the challenges of town centres and other contexts in change as set out by John Lord. People who contributed to the 1960’s debate, like Juhani Pallasmaa in Finland still believe in the value of design to effect change in a democratic way. For him, the challenges to day as they always were: understanding the connection and consequences of design thinking on resources, society and environment. This is true he suggests for all aspects of design, from industrial and product design to services and architecture. It is in this set of contexts that discussions of value, what it is, for how and how you achieve it begin.

The last part of the presentation, includes three slides on place and design. The first two take the model of transforming places presented in ‘Delivering Better Places’ and cross references the stages to some of the possible design types at each stage. The final slide presents a framework for discussion the whole value of designed places, based on analysis by Rob de Wildt in The Netherlands. De Wildt argues that the path to achieving value is about starting with quality of life, from this developing a quality of services to support these lives and use both of these to drive the quality of the physical design.


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