I grew up in the 80s in the working-class community of Watford, a tough, no-nonsense town only 30 kilometres from London, but a planetary leap away in outlook. ‘Yuppies’ were despised and the ability to muck in, to do a good day’s graft and all with a humble, self-effacing attitude, was respected. Little wonder few of my peers set their sights on a creative vocation.
My uncle, a truck driver, had a saying: ‘Never forget where you came from’. It wasn’t a ground-breaking thought – in fact it was a mantra for most families in the neighbourhood. But as a student at the Royal Berkshire College of Art and Design, and then as I tried to race up the career ladder, my family did have occasion to remind me of it. As it turns out, it was a cautionary and visionary idiom, the anchor that stopped me being swept up in the fast-pace of changing design ideas and an adage that pushed me forward, without compromising my values.
Photo credit: Patrick Reynolds.
Translated to design, this saying ensures we are open to change but not at the expense of the very fabric that makes us unique. That’s a no-win on a personal level, and neither does it serve businesses well. Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are poster boys in this regard, pulling Apple and Virgin to the pinnacle of their respective industries through a deep-rooted set of beliefs. These are individuals who would never compromise on design in a world dominated by profitability. Jobs was sacked by Apple in the mid-80s for remaining steadfast in his vision for the first Macintosh computer. He refused to release what he considered an inferior/unfinished product, but his insistence on refining the design meant that Apple was struggling to stay afloat financially. On his return to the fold in 1996, technology had moved along enough that Jobs’ vision could be realised. The colourful iMac G3 computer saved Apple from financial ruin and gave the brand back its mana. The dichotomy is that innovation came out of immoveable set of principles.
As designers, we are entrusted to find ways to improve quality of life through design. Simple as that. So our values should never be trend dependent. As Frank Lloyd Wright observed, “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” Even though it is difficult to remain steadfast in a time of instant gratification, our reference point must be quality and rational thinking.
Remember the Nokia 3310? For a moment there, it was the mobile phone - everybody had one! It had a simple reason for being: you could make phone calls, send text messages and play Snake. The battery lasted a week and if you dropped it, well, mainly it was a case of popping the battery back in and away you go. It sold 126 million units worldwide, but the company stopped making them in 2005. Nokia reacted to competitor activity – the Blackberry was on the rise and Apple was ramping up its mobile capability (iPhone 1 was released in 2007). In a classic case of forgetting your roots, Nokia was eventually sold to Microsoft, and the brand almost completely dissolved. Then the original founders woke up. They bought it back in 2016 and this March re-released an updated version of the 3310. The market is abuzz with excitement and consumers will buy it. Why? Because it remains true to its values – durability and simplicity. It appeals to a sector of the mobile phone market that wants less complicated lives.
Photo credit: Patrick Reynolds.
My primary expertise is in workplace strategy, a market which is not only impacted by technology but by underlying emotional drivers. Workplace design could very easily be persuaded by the vocal requirements of Millennials, the demands of an ever-escalating property market, even the necessity to “Keep up with the Joneses”. Instead, when consulting on a brief, we dive into the psyche of the client. It’s the best way to find that unique business trait that makes a company tick. The goal is to encapsulate their values into a design narrative. At TVNZ in 2013, we were looking at refurbishing the atrium, quite the innovation in 1989 when the building opened. Our challenge was to add value to this space, something that resonated with staff and could be like no other. The outcome has a dark layering of finishes, flashes of coloured light and giant neon signage. It contributes to the ‘theatre of entertainment’ which defines the workplace.
As the world of design evolves, so do our clients. They are smarter, better prepared and willing to spend the time to become educated about design – what it can do and what it can’t. They have a deeper understanding that a better work/life balance, partially made possible by design, means productive and happier people. They also appreciate that it is not a science. Numerical equations, spatial arrangement and evidence found in occupant and observational surveys can only get us so far. Good old-fashioned intuition takes us a step further. But it is collaboration, a co-creation of designs with our clients, that puts us on the winning podium.
Today’s real-time design methodology makes for a more engaged and empowering experience. It cuts through the bullshit. Design is no longer a dark art. It’s of the moment, expansive and social. 3D modelling, virtual reality and digitised documentation have brought the designer’s drawing board to life. Clients who may not have been able to ‘read’ plans now get the chance to ‘walk’ through a space. And once they do, they have informed opinions and ideas they are more than willing to share.
I was the last generation to attend college with drawing boards, tracing paper and marker pens, perhaps the odd cardboard maquette. We didn’t use mobile phones, PCs and CAD software. These days VR and computerised modelling informs my work, nothing more. It’s not technology, but our values which are our unique proposition. They are the true differentiator. Whenever I venture into a world of change, instead of thinking solely about where I am going, I remember what my uncle told me. When I think about where I am from, I discover the answers are already there.