Friday, 10 September 2010

Free Schools, Unnecessary Design and Aesthetics

My eye was caught this morning by an article in Building Design which quoted renowned education expert, Toby Young, (I believe his “How to lose friends and alienate people” is a standard textbook for all PGCE students) as saying that “design is not necessary.”

While I appreciate that the piece is written in a pretty provocative way (and that the headline didn’t appear to be a direct quote), I found the general gist made me feel profoundly depressed, although initially I wasn’t really able to really articulate why.

Following a frenzied morning of tweeting (thank you, @NemesisRepublic), I think I’ve figured it out.

The last couple of years have been a very tough time for designers across the board, with fee’s being squeezed again and again. As an example my former boss, Don Munro, used to get us to put a time into fee proposals for ‘designing’. This would be the time when we sketched, thought of ideas and just considered the site and project. Increasingly clients started to challenge this. I think this was best summed up by client who said , “I don’t want you to design, I just wasn’t you to draw it up.” As far as I know, Don no longer puts time for ‘designing’ into his fee proposals (but he still designing).

I think this trend has been reflected in much of what has been designed and built recently. Landscape Architecture companies have won work with incredibly low fees, which are only possible by rehashing schemes that they’ve done before – same surfacing, same planting, same furniture, same details and often starling similar arrangements (I’m particularly thinking of some recent public realm schemes). The results are generally mind-numbingly bland and uninteresting. I’m afraid this type of approach is like kryptonite to me. Without wishing to sound like Prince Charles, it’s my fundamental belief that all site design should begin with consideration of context.

Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but I get the sneaking feeling that there are people in power who do see money spent on professional design advice as unnecessary (yes Michael Gove, I’m thinking of you), and that it can be eliminated. But I think it’s also fair to say that the public perception of designers, and architects in particular, isn’t that great.

I think the problem is that design has become confused with aesthetics in the public consciousness. Like fashion – expensive and frivolous.

But design is also about functionality (for most designers of the built environment I’d say much more so). Time thinking about design, is not just time given to making things look pretty. It’s thinking about how a design will be used – is that space big enough, is that material suitable for this location and how will it be used in the future?

I guess my concern will be that instead of employing architects and landscape architects, there are those who think you can just send some volunteers on a course about how to design stuff, meaning less work for the likes of me. Isn’t this what the Big Society is about?!?

Or maybe I’m being overly concerned. It could be that when the likes of Toby Young say that “design is unnecessary”, what he really means is that they don’t want designs that are too fancy, but that he lacks the understanding of the subject to properly articulate this. Perhaps he could do with some professional advice?


  1. You should talk to Malcom Fraser. I think you'd agree with each other... how a building works should be the primary aim of good design, and then the asethetics should follow that!

  2. Sorry, but I just had to add this genius comment posted on the BD website by Jonathan Fraser:

    "Why bother designing anything if there is no positive connection between the designed thing and the user of the designed thing; there is a clear connection between a well designed home and quality of life, a well designed office and the quality of working life, a well design factory and production line and the quality of the manufacturing industry/end product/workers life. Why is the prevailing message that comes out of government, (both this one and the last one) that inexperienced individuals know more than those who spend their working lives tackling problems as difficult as design and coordinating buildings, running and managing schools, teaching children to develop into well rounded creative, smart, independent beings (rather than just exam passers, but that's another argument)...when its clearly not true. Just because chinless politicians seem to be able get ahead with little or no understanding of complex issues doesn't mean the same philosophy will work when it comes to building buildings or managing schools. You actually need a brain to do these things, ideological fervour will not suffice."

  3. might not get paid to design JC, but we still spend a lot of time designing, DM

  4. Very glad to hear you're still busy designing, Mr M!