Do people really matter when we design workplaces?

HumanSome may think this is a daft question. They’ll argue that of course people matter when we design workplaces. Granted, there are those for whom the human experience of the built environment is really important.  They demonstrate this it in their attitudes and actions. However, based on some of the attitudes and actions I have observed over the years, I would suggest that the belief that people really matter when some designers design workplaces for them is quite frankly all too often skin deep. How do we know this? And if we accept that it is true, it then begs the secondary question of why this should be the case. Is it entirely our fault? What might we do to address the issues? In part, we know that people haven’t really mattered enough in design because of mistakes of the past. Meanwhile, society is facing many pressing challenges, ranging from health to housing, work to economy and climate change to resource depletion.

Consequently, policy makers and professionals are poised to instigate major infrastructure investments and urban/settlement expansion in order to alleviate the challenges that we all face during coming years. However, there is a significant risk that these mistakes of the past and present will be repeated if a collaborative and robust people focused approach is not taken – even if apparently otherwise attractive sounding concepts are utilised. Could we avoid these mistakes?  I believe we could if people did really matter in our design and we ceased paying lip service to human factors.

Much of the problem has been caused by the way we were trained and how this then impacts the way we now practice our design professions. It is very difficult for example, with some exceptions, to find evidence of sociological and human factors being evident in how architecture, interior design and landscape students are taught.  Those with the knowledge are too often side-lined.  However, for product designers, human factors can be found to be a key element of their curriculum. Within information architecture and design one also sees much greater interest in human factors and attention such considerations as diverse user experience and “customer journeys.” Wouldn’t it be good to learn from other disciplines?

Nevertheless, it is all too often assumed that architecture, interior design and landscape students will pick up the knowledge along the way – after all we “are all human”  so why wouldn’t people matter to them? However, when one starts scratching beneath the surface we may find (if we are really honest with ourselves) shallowness in our own understanding of the issues. We may not realise how limited our own experience is as we tend to see the world through our own lenses. For example, unless life experience has challenged us, our measurement of human experience will not have moved on much further than own personal experience and that of our close friends and family.

When we undertook our training, we will have most likely been introduced to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and Le Corbusier’s Modular Man, but few of our courses will have moved us beyond these over-simplified ad arguably narrow models of humanity. By the time we have finished our studies we will find that many other pre-occupations have crowded into our thinking. For some, life experiences will have opened up our awareness of the things that get missed in design and these life experiences themselves will start to educate us in ways that formal education denied us.

But is it entirely the designers fault?  Well no. As has already been said, it would help if our training took better account of human factors. It would also help if the building industry in general took human factors more seriously.  How often will clients not ask for humane aspects of design or included them only to be cut out at a later stage through lack of understanding as to their intrinsic value to design?  Yes there are emerging measures known within some circles, and they are doing much to change the scene. However some of these measures seem to leave out aspects of human diversity in the process.

In part the problem is with the earliest project processes and the attention given to the questions that ought to be asked by commissioners, project managers, designers and cost consultants.   What’s more – to whom are the questions being posed?  Is there sufficient diversity of thinking and experience to adequately challenge our assumptions?

What might we do to address the issues? Arguably, we need to raise the agenda, alter how projects are commissioned and address how we are trained.  We could also learn from what has gone on before. Thought-leaders have been raising the issue for some time within both design and related fields. For example, Ernst F. Schumacher’s wrote “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.” How much of the economic turmoil that we have experienced in recent years could have been avoided if we had taken notice of what he wrote?  How much of these economic woes were embedded in how projects were conceived and how we then designed?

In an effort to address the issues and as a follow on from Schumacher’s book, The Schumacher Institute are teaming up with MEM (the conference organisers for both Workplace Trends and Learning Environments) to launch a London-based conference series under the “People Matter” banner. The first conference will be on the 15th November, entitled “Designing Environments As If People Matter?”

We will also be joining the worldwide celebration of the 100th year since the birth of the American urban activist, Jane Jacobs another campaigner for change.  Speakers will cover topics such as health and housing and cross refer to work.  Cross-cutting themes will include resilient communities; engagement and inclusion; and sustainable social, economic and environmental ecosystems.  For those of you focused on workplace design this conference will take you out of the design of workplace alone and consider the wider contextual issues of in which workplaces form a part.

Click here for a link to the webpage for the People Matter series and conference: “Designing Environments As If People Matter?”  The #tag is #PeopleMatterConf and address will be @PeopleMatterConf.  You may also want to take a look at @SchumacherInst, @bud_maz, @SuButcher and @workplacetrends tweets.

Speakers include:

  • Paul Morrell – People Matter – Keynote Presentation
  • Paul Fletcher, through… – The Fourth Industrial Revolution
  • Julie Fleck, OBE MRTPI – Inclusive Design Education and Training – Do you have the skills, knowledge and confidence to deliver inclusion in all your projects?
  • Tony Watts, Hartley Watts Communications – Designing communities for an ageing society
  • Lydia Ragoonanan, Innovation Lab – Rethinking Parks
  • Michael Kohn, Stickyworld – Engagement and Involvement
  • Paull Robothan, Aequus Developments – Sustainable Quality of Life in Social Housing

The day will be chaired by yours truly and Michael Clinton.

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Steve MaslinSteve Maslin is Director of Building User Design and a Co-Host of the People Matter Conference Series

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