Representation

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination

I gave my inaugural lecture at Brighton University in December 2015. It draws on a few of the blog posts I’ve written in this blog* and sums up my current thinking about the idea of  Design.

Here is the blurb:

Design, the ‘D’ in TED*, has well and truly broken out of the Design School. In fact it made its escape some decades ago but still retains its potential to develop our collective imagination and enrich inter-disciplinary dialogue.

In this lecture Professor Lloyd will draw on over 20 years of research and teaching to trace a journey from the cognitive activity of the brain to the architecture and politics of democracy, and from Bitcoin to football to education. The linking thread is design thinking and he will argue that understanding design as a process of dialogue is not only fundamental to an ethical engagement with the world, but vital to securing an equitable future for all.

*Technology Entertainment Design: Ideas Worth Spreading When one considers the sheer range of talks that fit under these three words, you realise how important the idea of design has become.

Here is the Video (42 minutes):

Here is the Transcript (opens in a new window):

A Dialogue with the Future: Design Thinking and the 21st Century Imagination (pdf)

*And here are some references:

1. The story of Aaron Swartz is a compelling one. You can see the documentary about his life here: How to Kill a Designer

2. The mystery surrounding the inventer/designer of Bitcoin has been going for some years. I talk about it in Nakamoto’s Last Theorem. However, in the past six months the story has developed considerably. The Australian computer scientist and cryptographer Craig Wright has claimed convincingly to be the originator of Bitcoin and his ‘coming out’ tale is excellently told in an extended piece in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagen.

3. I talk about how Design relates to football here: Dolphin or Shark? Designing the Beautiful Game

4. Design Education in the Wired Weird World starts with architectural education but moves on to talk about the possibilities of Design Education more generally, it also discusses The India Report by Charles and Ray Eames which I touch on briefly in the lecture.

 

Studio Practice: Nostalgia Revisited

I was recently on a panel at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum exploring the idea of studio-based practice as part of Guy Julier’s excellent Design Culture Salon series. The discussion followed from a newly-launched book called Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements by Ignacio Farias and Alex Wilkie [1].

Theorising studio practice is always going to be a complicated read, but there are some real moments of lucidity and insight. One quote that appears in the book, from William James (the psychologist brother of novelist Henry James) summed up the book nicely for me:
“what really exists is not things made”, James says, “but things in the making” [2].

Process is where it’s at, in other words.

Working out what exactly happens in a studio is evidently a difficult business. It’s easy to revert to William James era psychology and look for those ‘ah ha’ moments delivered from on high, but really the whole time in the studio is one long, extended, playful, social, accidental, ah ha. More of an aaaaahhhhhh than an ah ha. What we think of as creativity – if that’s what we think happens in a studio – seems to slip through our fingers when we try and point to it. Where is the creativity exactly? Is it cognitive or social or spatial or temporal? The book argues that it is the process that matters, not the atoms that make up the process. It is the materials and practices of the studio – human and non-human – that help to construct that process, however wide we might care to define what a studio is.

David Bowie, talking on one of the many recent radio programmes following his death, sums up this idea well. Working in Berlin in the late 1970s he reflects that:

“I was starting to use the studio itself as an instrument, little accidents would happen with the notes and things would go wrong and the notes sounded so good wrong that I’d make four instruments play the same wrong note and then it sounds like an arrangement, and it becomes an integral part of the composition.” [3] (48:20)

For my introduction as member of the discussion panel, and to link the idea of process, outcome, and how to describe them, I gave two examples.

The first was Artangel’s 2015 installation Recording in Progress [4] at Somerset House in London, featuring the musician PJ Harvey working in her studio with other musicians in full public view. People could book a slot to watch and hear whatever was happening through sound-proofed, one-way glass. A transparent version of the creative black box.

Work in Progress

Recording in Progress by Artangel featuring the musician PJ Harvey recording in public.

For visitors, a lot of the time there was a lot of nothing happening. One reviewer noted:
“Thursday evening they were having trouble with a chorus, “Near all the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”. It sounded turgid. “Could you all sing like you’re somebody else?” PJ suggests.” [5]

Let’s leave aside that ‘turgid’ remark – the aesthetics comes later – and try and summarise the experience of the studio as incremental: adding and combining – sometimes subtracting – elements; trying stuff out to see what happens and what might be the next thing to happen. Building stuff up bit by bit. Looking back It’s easy to romanticise and mythologise the activity; identify the ‘key’ points, narrate the process as logical, inevitable, even mystical, if a little haphazard.

George Shaw's etching

Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks, Etching by George Shaw, V&A Collection [6].

My second example was from the painter George Shaw, whose work records everyday scenes of housing estates – underpasses, dead ends, untended scrubland, paths next to fences, edgelands. The mundane brought to attention through art. One of Shaw’s etchings, Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks (above), appears in a current exhibition called Recording Britain at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex. It was the description on the caption accompanying the work that attracted my attention:
“Since 1996 Shaw has focused on the unremarkable landscapes of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry, where he grew up. He imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia which encompasses the place itself, and the spirit of post-war idealism and ideas of community which shaped it.”

With the idea of studio practice in the back of my mind It was that phrase ‘he imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia’ that got me. It is essentially a process-based description but one, when you think about it, that is wholly inaccurate. The implication is that George Shaw has something like an imbuing machine in his studio, Something that he can programme with ‘melancholy nostalgia’ (or perhaps ’rueful wistfulness’ or ‘sorrowful yearning’) and apply it or inject it into his image. Of course George is that machine, the person who is able to take paint and canvas and produce melancholy nostalgia. But if we imagine for a second that George has made his studio transparent, like PJ Harvey, then when would we be able to point to the bits where the ‘imbuing with melancholy nostalgia’ was taking place? Quick, don’t blink, he’s just about to start imbuing! Ah, there he goes, you can see that nostalgia imbuing itself there now…

There is a problem of aesthetics here; of getting from the practices that take place in the studio – putting sound onto hard disk, paint onto a canvas, sitting around, talking about what else is needed or something else entirely, instructing people about what to do – to the qualities of the outcome. Aesthetic value results from the process, but the process doesn’t seem to be about aesthetic value in any nuanced way; beyond the ’that’s good’ or ’that works’ comments, anyway.

The Studio Studies book refers to this problem as ‘the elephant in the studio’ (p.152), the problem for social science disciplines like sociology or ethnography or ethnomethodology to ascribe aesthetic value to empirical processes and outcomes and to account for something like ‘style’ originating from particular studios.

That’s not quite the case with the PJ Harvey example. Presented as an artwork, the process of working in a recording studio is itself given aesthetic value, independent of the outcome arising. The black box as transparent box turns out to be a bit murkier than we expected though. The boredom or excitement or interest that is felt when watching and listening to the process reveals to us the aesthetic nature of our experience; the process of production thus becomes our object:

“what really exists is not things made, but things in the making” to repeat the William James quote with a dash of melancholy nostalgia.

[1] Farias, I. and Wilkie, A. (Eds.) (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements, Routledge.

[2] p.68, ibid.

[3] BBC Radio 4 (2016) Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, Broadcast on Saturday 30th January, 2016 (accessed February 21st).

[4] Artangel (2015) Recording in Progress.

[5] Searle, A. (2015) PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress Review, The Guardian, Friday 16th January.

[6] Shaw, G. (2005) Untitled 07, 12 Short Walks, V&A Collections.

Plato, the first User-Centred Design Theorist

Last week I was an external opponent for the PhD thesis defence of Sigrun Lurås at Oslo’s increasingly impressive School of Architecture and Design. Sigrun’s thesis was part of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, Ulstein being one of the more innovative ship makers and based in Norway, the Bridge being that bit of the ship where the captain and others guide operations, and the Vision being a rethinking of the way that the interior and interactions of the bridge take place. The project, now finished, has proved a great success for Ulstein in a conservative industry, triggering a new organizational ‘design-driven approach’ to ship design.

Have a look and see for yourself what a 21st Century Ship’s Bridge looks like – more the celestial ocean around Alpha Centuri than the North Sea off the coast of Norway:

Sigrun’s research consisted of days of fieldwork spent on board offshore vessels documenting the behavior on the bridge and studying the ‘users’ of the ship’s bridge. The knowledge gleaned there formed the basis for the new design of the ship’s bridge and as an Opponent in the PhD exam, I was interested in exploring how ‘what is’ – the existing practices on board the old ship’s bridge – turned into ‘what is to come’ – the future design of the ship’s bridge.

It’s not a new question, of course. As designers have increasingly turned to the methods of ethnography to elicit the needs of users, the question of just how that translation is made has become more pressing. Is the new design about supporting the practices of existing users or getting rid of existing users and practices? Is it about saving or selling?

While ethnographers might reveal the subtle use and structures of artefacts, communication, ritual, and power – leaving the reader to work out their own meanings – the design researcher looks for those things that might form the meaningful basis of a new solution – observations as the seeds of future form. One might argue that this is method maligned; theory bent out of shape in order to neaten and change. The context for a pretext to impose a political sub-text. The designers, with the financial muscle, have the upper hand; the knowledge that wins. The users are the losers. The beast that is a design ethnographer, some might say, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It was not always this way.

In 360BC – 2376 years ago – Plato was writing the dialogues that would form The Republic [1], a book featuring Socrates and a cast of other characters, to discuss the ideal state. The Republic covers education, justice, the position of women, philosophy, the immortality of the soul, and… art.

Plato, in the voice of Socrates, was suspicious of artists (and we might include the modern day designer as a kind of artist in the Platonic sense). He thought they were people that could represent the truth without knowing the truth, and that made them dangerous.

He also wrote about the design of vehicle guidance systems and just who one should turn to to know what the suitable form and function should be. In the following excerpt Socrates discusses with Glaucon the bridle and bit of a horse’s harness. Think of the painter in the discussion that follows as a designer.

Socrates: The painter may paint a picture of bridle and bit
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: But aren’t they made by the harness-maker and smith?
Glaucon: Yes
Socrates: Then does the painter know what the bridle and bit ought to be like? Isn’t this something that even the makers – the harness-maker and the smith – don’t know, but only the horseman who knows how to use them?
Glaucon: True.
Socrates: Isn’t the same thing always true?
Glaucon: Your meaning?
Socrates: You always have the three techniques – use, manufacture, and representation.
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?
Glaucon: Yes.
Socrates: It must follow, then, that the user of a thing has the widest experience of it and must tell the maker how well it has performed its function in the use to which he puts it.

It is use that determines quality, beauty, and fitness for purpose, and only users are properly positioned to judge and communicate those things, Socrates argues.

If Plato were to watch the film of the Ulstein Bridge Vision, as well as other design visualisations I have written about previously [2], he would be sceptical. The high production values, filmic details, and the surging music are all techniques the artist uses to represent, manipulate, and persuade, but not to really know. That knowledge is left out at sea on all the existing Ship’s bridges.

Plato’s account of user-centred design suggests creativity in a tight coupling of maker and user – the maker proposing, the user assessing. Innovation happens organically, incrementally, as a tree slowly bows in a constant wind or a cliff is shaped by an angry sea; as a careful dialogue between what is and what might be. But what if we consider designers as users too? What is it that designers use?

Designers use tools and methods of course, and computers and cardboard, pens and PVA; prototypes, negotiotypes, and just plain old type as they steer the process of design from idea to thing. They know what designing is, so it is the design methodologist that becomes the villain of this piece; the person who represents but doesn’t know. The person that takes something like the slow digestive process of ethnography and packages it up like fast food.

Perhaps in this context it is the designers who are the real losers though, the real pretext for a political or organisational sub-text. Plato mistrusted the artists because he knew that they could foment opinion and upset the balance his ideal State. The aim of design, he might have said, is always political, whether designers know it or not. As Plato’s philosopher successor Aristotle aphoristically puts it: “man is, by nature, a political animal” [3].

References

[1] Plato, The Republic, Penguin Classics (1987)

[2] HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

[3] Aristotle, The Politics, Penguin Classics (1981)

Unreal Realism #2: More Stories from Postcards (and some from Google Street View too)

Here are the results of combining a couple of imaging and imagination techniques I’ve developed in two blog posts. The first are my continuing close-up studies of ‘normal’ behavior taking place in the background of postcards. The second is the use of Google street view to capture distinct moments in time. Here are two examples. The first is of Tintagel in Cornwall (sent in 1959). This is the original postcard:

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

Postcard of Tintagel, Cornwall, with Fore Street shown in the bottom left frame (sent 1959).

In the bottom left frame of the postcard is a picture of Fore Street and within it, two men walking side by side – click on the image to see a close up. Here are the two men taken with a macro lens attached to an iPhone 5:

IMG_4995

Close up of Fore Street, Tintagel, showing two men walking together. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

The rendering of the image with the shallow depth of field captures beautifully the historic ‘feel’ of the scene. It could easily be a carefully composed photo taken by a local photographer. At first sight I thought the two men were wearing overalls – perhaps walking home from working at a local tin mine, deep in conversation. Closer inspection reveals both in suits, however, so the interpretation of the conversation shifts to one of business being discussed (perhaps about the local tin mine?). They look like they are walking home, to lunch or dinner, relaxed in each other’s company.

It’s an interesting experiment comparing these images with modern day ones made from Google street view. In some ways the two processes – of making postcards and of producing street view images – are similar. The people that figure in the background are equally unaware that they are being captured, and each image is a public one – sent through the post or digitally referenced.

Here is the 2011 Street View image that most closely follows the frame of the original Fore Street image:

Google Street View screenshot of Fore Street Tintagel, 2011.

Google Street View screenshot showing Fore Street, Tintagel, Cornwall 2011.

The town appears to have changed very little over the intervening years. The Hotels, both to the left and to the right in the original postcard image, are no longer hotels; pavements have been added, telegraph poles removed, and of course the cars are modern. But the rhythm of the built form; the mullioned windows, bay fronts, and roof angles – the essential structure of the place – remains.

Here is a close up of the people in that image:

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing people in Fore Street, Tintagel.

Close up of the Google Street View screenshot showing the people bottom left in the image above.

The people, pixelated by the digital zoom and anonymised algorithmically by Google, are distinct only in their forward movement; some look like holiday-makers though there is a man in a dark jacket who looks purposeful and businesslike, a distant echo of the two side-by-side men in suits.  He appears as a leader, the others following him either to be saved or led to their doom.

The second example is of Rye, in East Sussex (circa 1970). Here is the original postcard:

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex.  The bottom right frame shows East Street.

Postcard of Rye, East Sussex. The bottom right frame shows East Street (circa 1970).

In the bottom right frame is a photo of East Street, the Union Inn prominent and with three people in the scene. Here is the close up of them:

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

Close up of Postcard photo showing three people on East Street, Rye. Taken with a macro lens and iPhone.

In contrast to the Tintagel scene the shallow depth of field in the macro-shot doesn’t reveal a ‘photo-within-a-photo-within-a-postcard’ but a scene made impressionistic by revealing the pattern of colour making up a half-tone print. Outside of the area of focus the photo looks normal, but it takes on a painterly quality as the focus sharpens, abstracting the two figures in almost pointillist fashion, patterning the women’s skirt in the foreground.

The scene shows a couple walking towards the camera, while a younger man with teddy-boy hair and turned up trousers exits a door behind them. The couple have baggage with them. The woman holds a red handbag in her left hand while dragging a suitcase. The man, seemingly dressed in military fatigues, holds a bag in his left had while gesturing with his right. Perhaps they are on their way to the station after a weekend away – did it go well? It’s difficult to tell, though there is a feeling of slight disconnection or unfamiliarity between them – the man and the woman don’t quite fit as a couple.

Here is the 2009 Google Street View version of East Street in Rye:

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

Google Street View screenshot showing East Street in Rye, East Sussex, in 2009.

As with Tintagel the built form is largely unchanged. The Union Inn (sign just out of view) is still functioning and really the only difference is that an (ironic) ‘historic’ streetlamp and a few bollards have been added. The photo, with dynamic digital artefacts bottom left, also reveals a striking similarity in the people that are captured; a couple walk up the street while a person exits from the same doorway as before (the building now revealed as a dental surgery). The close up is shown here:

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

Close up of people in East Street, Rye, East Sussex from Google Street View screenshot.

This time the man of the couple looks up at the camera (the Google car is a strange beast to behold) while arm-in-arm with his partner who carries a handbag. The woman exiting the dentist does so carefully, waiting on the top step before venturing further, perhaps slightly in pain from the dentist’s poking around; recalling where to go next.

There is a stability revealed in these various fragments and stories, of slow-changing environments with familiar rhythms and uses, and of age-old behaviours, interactions, and movements. The public facing camera that ostensibly documents and replicates place reveals all kinds of other things about the daily lives of people who populate those places. One only has to look with a magnifying glass (or digital zoom) to find that, in many English towns, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unpractical Londoners: Memory, Memorialisation, and Design Thinking

After something of an extended blog break, stuck on a long (and not-yet-finished) blog post, my attention was captured and diverted by a second-hand book purchase last weekend. Two Short Accounts of Psycho-Analysis by Sigmund Freud cost me 99 pence, although the original cost only 30 pence. Published in 1910, the elegant, Marber-grid-designed Pelican 1962 version I found had (so a blurred stamp on the first page told me) previously been part of the Maria Assumpta College Library in Kensington, London.

Book Cover

The book consists of five lectures that Freud gave at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909, summarising his work into the theory of the unconscious and the practice of psycho-analysis. One particular passage, drawing an analogy between how people and how cities experience and remember trauma, stood out:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, if I may be allowed to generalize I should like to formulate what we have learned so far as follows: our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic [1] symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences.”

The markers of traumatic events, in other words, remain prominent in the memory of ‘hysterical’ people. Freud continues:

“We may perhaps obtain a deeper understanding of this kind of symbolism if we compare them with other mnemic symbols in other fields. The monuments and memorials with which large cities are adorned are also mnemic symbols. If you take a walk through the streets of London, you will find, in front of one of the great railway termini, a richly carved Gothic column – Charing Cross. One of the old Plantagenet kings of the thirteenth century ordered the body of his beloved Queen Eleanor to be carried to Westminster; and at every stage at which the coffin rested he erected a Gothic cross. Charing Cross is the last of the monuments that commemorate the funeral cortege.”

Freud gives a further example:

“At another point in the same town, not far from London Bridge, you will find a towering, and more modern, column, which is simply known as ‘The Monument’. It was designed as a memorial of the Great Fire, which broke out in that neighbourhood in 1666 and destroyed a large part of the city.”

These designed artefacts – the Gothic cross and the modern column – deliberately stand to mark particular traumatic events; moments in history that were upsetting or destructive [2]. Freud focuses us on our thoughts being symbols of prior experience; related things, but different things, where the representation and cause are only conceptually linked. The problems of hysteria come when we can’t let go of a particular symbol in our memory as Freud goes on to explain:

“These monuments, then, resemble hysterical symptoms in being mnemic symbols; up to that point the comparison seems justifiable. But what should we think of a Londoner who paused today in deep melancholy before the memorial of Queen Eleanor’s funeral instead of going about his business in the hurry that modern working conditions demand or instead of feeling joy over the youthful queen of his own heart? Or again what should we think of a Londoner who shed tears before the Monument that commemorates the reduction of his beloved metropolis to ashes although it has long since risen again in far greater brilliance? Yet every single hysteric and neurotic behaves like these two unpractical Londoners. Not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate.”

The reason I was drawn to this passage was that it reveals the complexity of even the simplest of our thoughts.  A thought can be thing, but it can also represent another thing, and the meanings can be very particular, not necessarily ‘rational’, sometimes uncomfortable, potentially debilitating.

My own design research started in the area of design thinking when design thinking meant design cognition and not the general-purpose creative tool it has now become. Central to design cognition, as indeed to all cognition, as indeed is all cognition, is thought. I spent a lot of time thinking about what goes on in the mind of a designer – what thoughts flick through their brain when they’re designing something – where do the memories come from? How does remembered experience feed into the pencil, sketching the new solution?

At the time I took a simple-minded approach to thought. If a person said they’d thought of a ship, I noted it down, and didn’t question why they’d thought of a ship. A ship is a ship is a ship, I thought (and that sketch does look like a ship, I thought). But over the years I’ve noticed that good designers share certain traits; an emotional connection with material and things; a fixation with small details. Getting it just right matters, and that ‘just right’ involves not just aesthetics, but an emotional connection, a feeling that can’t be reasoned away, sometimes a mild hysteria.

Freud touches on thinking at the deepest level, where the sources and the structures and the mechanisms are incalculable and often illusory; logical dead ends. Where symbols erupt seemingly from nowhere; standing for things long gone from conscious memory; an emotional residue [3].

So perhaps to be a designer you have to be just a little bit hysterical. Unable to walk away from a memorial cross without a feeling of melancholy, unable not to shed tears at the destruction of a fondly remembered building – the Macintosh library to fire at the Glasgow School of Art, for example, or the Tricorn Centre to demolition in Portsmouth.

“Memory”, the Enlightenment Philosopher John Locke wrote, “is the key to identity”, but it’s a difficult thing to nail, especially when you’re interested in design thinking.

[1] mnemic – relating to the capacity for retaining the after-effects of a particular experience or stimulation.

[2] Compare this to the ‘speaking countenances’ of Thomas Hardy in another post, where a point on a bridge develops a character formed by many troubled person’s contact with it, and thus where the environment intrinsically ‘remembers’ and represents what has happened there.

[3] One of the best portrayals of how the unconscious mind draws from prior experience, going back to childhood, is shown in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when a memory erasing device attempts to track down the source of every last memory relating to the traumatic experience of a relationship breakup.

Unreal Realism: The Stories in Postcards

Two interests collided the other day: continuing photographic experimentation and postcard collecting. I recently bought a mini-magnetic-macro lens for my iPhone (nowadays the only camera I carry with me) and have been rediscovering the worlds revealed by extreme close up. Buying the postcard shown below, of Selfridges department store in Oxford Street, London circa 1970, and taking close up photos with the macro lens, revealed some nice aesthetic effects along with reflections on suddenly examined life.

Oxford Street

The postcard is of Oxford Street I’m guessing circa 1970 and shows a classic red bus / black cab shot of London outside the famous Selfridges department store.

IMG_4301

The first macro photo is from the bottom left of the Postcard.

IMG_4300

The second macro photo is from the bottom right of the Postcard.

The image samples remind me of a sophisticated computer-generated model for a new piece of urban design (see past posts on representation); not quite real, not quite not-real; unreal realism you might call it.

The narrow depth of field of the lens introduces a realistic motion that isn’t there in the postcard, while the people caught in focus move centre-stage. What is that old man thinking as he crosses the road? He looks so… sad, reflective and calm amongst the bustle of traffic and people. Perhaps he has just lost his job, or wife? or maybe he is just walking to work. Perhaps he knows the women in the second image, just about to cross the road, with her bags?  Perhaps she is his wife, or daughter, or the women next door that he often catches himself thinking about.

Meat-themed Advent Calendars: The Butcher at Christmas

Just around the corner from my flat in Hove is Canham & Sons, a butcher of the highest order, with queues snaking out of the front door at weekends. If you’re in Hove and you need raw flesh, Canham & Sons is the place to go.

Christmas time is especially busy for butchers and I came across an interesting piece of systems design when I called in for a scotch egg today.  The photo below shows the inside of the shop and it’s worth clicking on the image to see the large version and full detail.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove.

Canham & Sons, a popular butcher at Christmas time in Hove, with their ‘wall of orders’.

It shows a bustling butchers, full of people waiting to be served, sausages and game hung in the window, joints of beef on show, and eggs piled high on the counter. But take a look at the back wall, which normally consists of a tiled and mirrored surface. Virtually all of it is covered in leaves of paper from a simple notepad. Each one represents a Christmas order: a small turkey for Jeremy, a large goose for Rosemary, a whole smoked ham for J. Reed, and a rib of beef for 8 people for Hartwell – just four of over five hundred orders.  All orders have a name and a number and are hung more-or-less alphabetically in a defined grid.

Instantly one sees what Christmas, or more precisely Christmas Eve, means for a butcher, and can understand the customer base that supports the business.  The ‘wall of orders’ fulfills a number of functions simultaneously and therein lies its design genius.

First, it’s a simple visual representation of how popular the butcher is – 500 people can’t be wrong! Second, it provides a sense of a well-managed and well-ordered butcher. Third, it values every single customer by giving them, equally, a small piece of real-estate on the wall (and providing a nice reminder should anyone want to check that they really did make that order). Fourth, as it builds up it provides a sense of the coming event, like a meat-themed advent calendar.

Most of all, however, it works on Christmas Eve, when a whole team need to match their customers to their meat. Rather than having an order book to rifle through, or a database to access – both ‘one-at-a-time’ processes – it provides a parallel but pretty much failsafe way for multiple people to work together. It also provides another visual reminder of how many orders there are to go, as they are taken off the wall, one by one. This time a reversed, meat-themed, advent calendar.

The simple understanding that such a system provides – to employees, to customers, to the passing photographer – represents a kind of joie de vivre that few commercial design systems produce, and all without a Post-It note in sight. Christmas orders could so easily be a drudge of queuing, checking, confirming, but at Canham & Sons they are turned into a performance of, if not democracy, then at least benign dictatorship, or something like community.

Men in Suits

Over the past few years I’ve criss-crossed through Somers Town, between Euston and St Pancras/Kings Cross stations in London quite a few times.  I’ve observed how a big empty plot of land has changed from community vegetable gardens, to the steel bones of a huge unknown building, to the almost complete Francis Crick building; a wood and glass corporate box with a wavy roof, for the pursuit of ‘multi-disciplinary’ biomedical research.  It’s not clear who is actually funding the building, or who will be in it, but it affects independence with its ‘Chief Operating Officer’.  The boiler plate is certainly impressive:

“The Francis Crick Institute will be an inter-disciplinary medical research institute. Its work will help understand why disease develops and find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.”

I can’t fault that aim.

What attracted my attention were the ‘artists impressions’, on the outer hoardings, of how the new building would look and be used.  These impressions, and the assumptions about how people will behave that underlie them, are things that I’m drawn to more and more as ways in which our futures our imagined for us.  The two images below show quite a range of characters, most in couples, and not many talking biomedicine by the looks of it.  Such diversity is a reassuring image for the man on the street, but I wonder if there should have been more men in suits carrying research papers?

Francis Crick 1

 

Francis Crick 2

Double-Barrelled Design (or How Designers and Engineers can Co-exist in Harmony)

Last week’s fire at the Glasgow School of Art brought to mind a lesser known Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, far from the Mackintosh theme park of Glasgow. 78 Derngate in Northampton was completed in 1917 and comprehensively restored with a museum added in 2003.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917. All images in this blog post are reproduced with kind permission from the 78 Derngate trust.

Rennie Mackintosh, on the shallow, downward curve of his career, remodelled the original Georgian town house for his client and patron Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, the owner of a local business manufacturing model trains. The house was for Bassett-Lowke and his new bride, Florence Jane Jones, and features top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, furniture-and-all, familiar Rennie Mackintosh tropes; super-sized chair backs, vertical extension in composition, repetitive patterning effects, and sharp symmetry throughout. A minor masterpiece well worth a visit in other words.

That model train connection turns out to be interesting. Bassett-Lowke’s business was essentially a manufacturing engineering business, turning out train sets and accessories for a growing market in the early 1900’s.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

The train paraphernalia needed ‘designing’, for sure, but it was Bassett-Lowke’s commitment to a larger idea of design that is striking. His investment in, and collaboration with, a world-leading designer and architect is unusual for a manufactuing engineer, to say the least, and reveals a mind open to the value that good design could bring, both to business and to life.

The battles between engineers and designers are well known to anyone who has worked or taught in one or other of the subjects. Engineers think design is some fluffy (and probably unnecessary) addition to the technical, manly, business of producing important things, while designers generally think of engineers as small minded, unnecessarily obstructive, and overly conservative. Though the cliché wears thin in places, the structure of it remains sound.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Why did Bassett-Lowke see a value in design? We might think that the model products of his business – railways, stations, figures, houses, hedges, and, of course, the trains themselves – led to thinking of the subsequent construction of the model as a creation of a small world (every consumer an omniscient narrator of infrastructural development!). Bassett-Lowke, a successful businessman, probably viewed the actual world a bit like that; a manipulable, work-in-progress for a better future. And this view of the world helped him to realise that good design could help achieve and communicate concrete, ‘real-world’ progress. He also clearly saw it as something that could have a qualitative effect on his life.

The collaboration with Rennie Mackintosh – and it does seem a genuine collaboration with Bassett-Lowke asking pointed questions of Rennie-Mackintosh’s evolving design – would have provided great insight into the process of design. Subsequently, perhaps through ideas of design that he was introduced to by Rennie-Mackintosh, the output of Bassett-Lowke’s factory was more consciously designed. Not the trains themselves, which remained simulacra of the real thing, but the packaging, which was more graphic and composed, as was the lettering and graphics for the company.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business. © 78 Derngate Trust, reproduced with kind permission.

Each year, starting with Rennie Mackintosh, Bassett-Lowke would commission a designer to design a Christmas card for him, something that would have seemed something of an indulgence to most engineers (and probably most in his own company), but something that illustrates a growing aesthetic sensibility and its importance in achieving longevity. Over time the collection of Christmas cards has formed a significant legacy of Bassett-Lowke’s company.

When it came time to move house from the Derngate, Bassett-Lowke turned to another discipline-spanning designer, Peter Behrens, who worked at many scales, from products to graphics, to architecture, famously with AEG in Germany. In another whole-hearted collaboration, though this time led by an increasingly confident and design-literate Bassett-Lowke, an entirely new Northampton house was designed and realised in 1926, appropriately called ‘New Ways’; one of the first houses of the modern movement to exist in the UK.

'New Ways' designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

‘New Ways’ designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

As demand for train sets began to dwindle, during the Second World War, Bassett-Lowke turned his model-making skills to help in rebuilding a battered and occasionally ruined country. He worked with local council architects and planners to produce scale-models of new urban environments, helping to envision a new designed and ordered world. This way of visualising the urban future through physically modeling would have been relatively scarce in 1943, though model-makers are often part of large architectural and urban-design practices now.

Bassett-Lowke's model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads:

Bassett-Lowke’s model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads: “Model of the New Coventry, showing the Central Market and Commercial Buildings”.

Bassett-Lowke’s is a story both of appreciating the value of design – and importantly acting on that appreciation through investment – as well as one of collaborating across traditionally antagonistic disciplines. It is a little-known story we would do well to learn from.

HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

Another day and another newspaper article on HS2, the idea of which is fast becoming a text for all kinds of things to be projected on to. Here are a few recent headlines:

HS2 alternatives could require 14 years of weekend rail closures (28th October, 2014)
Soil from HS2 ‘will trash’ Chilterns beauty spot (1st December, 2013)
China: We’ll help to build HS2 rail line (3rd December, 2013)
Boris Johnson’s father calls for ‘popular uprising’ against HS2 (25th January, 2014)
HS2 may increase risk of homes being flooded, senior Conservatives fear (23rd February, 2013)
HS2 will increase fertility, but may cause cancer, chief medic warns (13th March, 2013)

Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the picture. HS2 is drawn very easily, and probably unnoticed by newspaper readers, into feeding other national discourses (the preservation of nature, the rise of China, the threat of floods). It has become a sort of cipher to pour other things into to make some kind of value judgement possible. In Newspaper world the consequences of HS2 can only be dire or euphoric; the end of the world as we know it, or a new utopia.

But the textual nutmegs are sophisticated compared to the visual representations of HS2. The problem for the newspapers is that we are dealing with something that only exists – and then only tenuously – on paper; though admittedly by now, quite a bit of paper. No track has been laid, no stations built, and no trains speed through the landscape. Not much to take a photo of in other words. Apart from the paper.

So what kind of a picture fits an article on HS2? The answer is, this one:

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Image of High Speed Rail 2: The Berkswell Viaduct

The computer-generated image above, paid for (we can assume) by HS2 Ltd, and which you can see here, here, here, here, and here – oh, and here – has become the most familiar image of HS2, shown over and over again. It is an image that shows the future in a past-infused version of the now. A stonking great HS2 railway makes only a minor difference to the quiet, rural landscape, the image suggests, you might not even notice it as it blurs by. You can barely make out the hi-tension power lines that run alongside the railway against the strategically placed grey clouds. The clean, elegant lines of the viaduct complement the linearity of the canal, which appears much larger than the HS2 line; much more of an intrusion into quiet country ways. The weather is good too; there are the aforementioned clouds on the horizon but blue sky above, reflected on the surface of the water, as is the viaduct (though curiously not the train).

There are no people in the image prompting the question: if nobody sees an HS2 train cross a viaduct, does it make a sound? The answer turns out to be interesting because the image, in fact, is a frame from a well-worked, computer-animated film of HS2 that you can see below – watch it on fullscreen for the complete HD effect.

It’s very quiet isn’t it? Snaking through the landscape, barely even observable at some points in the film. When it gets to the viaduct segment at 28 seconds see how the surface of the canal gently laps and how the trees gently sway in a soft breeze. Perhaps a modern version of the question above could be formulated. If everybody sees the train silently passing over the viaduct on YouTube, does it make a sound?

The other day it struck me what else the HS2 image reminded me of. It was thinking about the reflection on the canal that did it. The image that was brought to mind was The View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer, painted in 1661 and shown below.

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Perhaps there is more of a relationship between the imagery of future infrastructure and Dutch landscape painting in the Golden Age than one might think? The painting has a similar sky to the HS2 image, though there are more clouds. A feeling of space in the painting is created, as it is in the HS2 image, by the reflection on the canal, where both Oude and Niewe Kerken (old and new churches) are both visible.

Some years ago I regularly walked past the point where the View of Delft is painted from and often wondered about the painting and the reflection. Can one really see the townscape in the canal? (yes, kind of) Would the people really appear so small? (no) The perspective does indeed float a little, giving a feeling of, if not omniscience, then slight queasyness in the viewer (quite like a computer-generated model might in fact, though the HS2 image perspective is based firmly on the toe path). But the picturing in both cases – the frame, the sky, the water; the space – is similar, and strikingly so.

Ten years ago, if there had been enough computing power to create and run it, the HS2 animation would have won awards for the subtle rendering of surface, the realism of the movement, and the quality of the direction. Today I just wonder how it is that our visions of the future are based so much on our picturing of our past? It’s almost like we’ve run out of ideas.