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Failure and risk are the hallmarks of good design

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: designers and architects are part of the same community

At last year’s World Architecture Festival I chaired a session at which two designers discussed how they worked. Neither was an architect; one was an industrial designer at Dyson, the other head of product design at Grohe (which has won a string of international awards for its range of water control products in the last year).

What struck me at the time was the similarity between their thinking process and what architects do when they are actually designing, as opposed to the myriad other activities which come under architecture’s banner. The same thought occurred again last week at the Design Council’s Design for Growth summit, the first event held in its new, or rather resumed, guise as a charity not a public body. Speakers included Jaguar’s head of design, Ian Callum, and Jonathan Ive, head of design at Apple.

Jim Eyre of Wilkinson Eyre, Kevin McCloud wearing his HAB housing developer hat, and Andy Altman, head of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, all spoke at a session on the built environment, Design Council CABE’s sphere of interest.

This event encompassed design at almost every scale, from the teaspoon to the city as they say. The contrast between thinking about a product and thinking about a huge regeneration programme is significant in many ways. Products don’t need planning permission and they are not public in the sense of being used by huge numbers in one place at one time. They are about objects, not objects that are also envelopes.

Nevertheless, I detected a strong sense of community between those present, who included digital, graphic and organisation designers as well as those concerned with industry and the built environment. This was most clear in a wide-ranging conversation between Jonathan Ive and the Design Council’s chief executive David Kester.

Asked to explain Apple’s recovery from near financial death to becoming one of the most powerful businesses in the world, Ive said the company lost its way when it started focusing on sales and marketing, with the products no longer at the core of the business. Refocusing on creating the best possible product through design had turned their fortunes around.

Refocusing meant accepting that innovation across each element of product creation, including manufacture, involves risk. He reminded us that innovation implies the possibility of failure, and that had to be understood and accepted as a fact of life, not an occasion for crisis.

What really struck a chord in relation to architecture was his observation that it is precisely these questions of design that are difficult to measure, unlike sales and marketing figures. At worst this means that the subject of meetings can become skewed: ‘Unimportant issues can take the oxygen… Time is spent on issues that are easy to spend time on.’

How do you measure what designers start with? The tentative idea that leads to the first conversation, the bigger conversation and eventually a prototype? ‘Ideas are very powerful, but in the development process they are fragile,’ Ive declared. He might have been talking about feasibility and concept, especially in his observation about how much ‘unseen invention’ can lie beneath a product, this latter point emphasised by a speaker who makes a living by backing new product ideas. Her view was that rather than thinking about innovations failing, it was smarter to regard them as hypotheses which had to be tested in order to avoid failures in the final product.

During a tea break, I heard about ‘service designers’. They provide context for what architects and other designers do and, for example, think about the entire experience of a hotel customer from the moment of booking their room, to the moment they leave.

We all experience design, including architecture, all the time. The only question is if it works as it should.

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