Monday, April 28, 2008

Responsible design 1

It was a fine April morning and my little one and I decided to go for a stroll, fulfilling her burning desire to go to a playground ("pingownd daddy, pingownd!). We stopped briefly to post a letter and I was left aghast at the state of British design. It's something I've noticed many times before and always tutted at, but this jarring image stopped me in my tracks today. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of a beautiful spring morning with the visual house of horrors I saw before me. What was this horror of horrors? None other than our great British pillar box.

WHAT? I hear you gasp. He's crazy. This is an iconic design! Almost as iconic as the red Gilbert Scott designed telephone box. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING LITTLEFAIR? Well, I shall explain. The beautiful Georgian pillar box is not that which is offending my sensibilities but rather the monstrosity welded to the side of it. Is this the height of well integrated British design? Don't get me wrong- I'm no pre-raphaelite revivalist who swans around in a smoking jacket bemoaning the good old days when a pint of beer cost 2d and everything was SO much better when things were made of wood. No. We need to embrace modernity and our ever evolving lives and find interesting and innovative ways of moving forward. And sticking a big red box on the side of a (probably) antique piece of (functional but attractive) street furniture is not the way forward!

I have sympathy for the posties. They do a good job and they're probably not paid a great deal. Our postie is a family man who does his job and later in the day I see him with his kids doing dad stuff. So I don't want to burden his round- of course he should have a secure place to leave some of his deliveries so as not to be weighed down. But can you imagine the design brief conversation before this was implemented?

Big wig: "We need some storage areas to integrate onto existing pillar boxes for posties. Let's have a look a the designs"

Designer (mechanical, no doubt): "Well. I've come up with this box. It has a lock and we simply weld it to the side of the post boxes."

BW: " Hmm, yes I like it. How much does it cost? What are your fees?"

D: " Oh a lot less than an industrial designer's. All that marketing bullshit - you don't need that"

BW: "Yes you're right but, somehow this box on the needs something else. What do you think?"

D: "Hmmm. How about if I add a radius along the top edge. Give it like an arched roof"

BW: "Will it add cost?"

D: "no, no."

BW "...... Yeah. I like. I like. Implement this and make 25,000 units. Well done. We also need some stand alone boxes to set up. Make them grey and ugly"


I guess these boxes need to look fairly industrial so as not to attract attention of thugs and vandals, but really........What have they done to our heritage. This is my (and yours) cultural inheritance that they are tampering with! (I know they probably own these boxes and can probably do what they like with them. But aren't they listed? Should they be? This link tells how they are protected by English heritage)

These people have a design responsibility. If you pay in the design stage for a bit of creative thinking rather, chances are you'll come up with a great looking integrated design which may not cost as much as the off the shelf monstrosity. Designers also have a responsibility to solve the problem fully. That's what designers do- they look at problems and try and find solutions. If they are working with an enlightened client then a full range of ideas can be explored and market tested to see if this is the real deal: the right design solution. But the designer also has to advise on this process. Often clients can't comprehend the long term (and sometimes strategic) value of design input at the beginning of the project and may need to be convinced. The designer has a responsibility too- it's not just the penny pinching client. I've been put under immense budgetary limits in the past and this only makes me more resolved to think about the problem fully in order to come up with a solution within the full design brief: aesthetic, functional and financial.

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