We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of form in our quest for function

Tom Dixon Workplace DesignThe enduring struggle to improve the working conditions and performance of people through the design and management of workplaces carries more than a whiff of the Enlightenment, a period in which pure reason was seen by its proponenst as more than enough to convince the world of the ways in which we could improve the human condition. It’s a battle that was won in some ways but which continues to endure to this day, as you can tell from the very existence of the latter day evangelists of reason such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Yet one of the issues with arguments based on pure reason is that they leave gaps regarding abstract notions such as love and beauty. When it comes to workplace design the idea of beauty seems pretty important. Yet the very notion that an attractive workplace will make people happier and more productive seems to assume that we can agree on what is attractive in the first place.

This was also a challenge for the great thinkers of the first Enlightenment such as Hume, Voltaire and Kant who worked on the basis that one of the best measures of mankind’s progress was how much beauty was spread around by the arts. It’s commendable that they had this goal, but was it conceited to be the people who determined the measures for our taste in the first place? This is the eternal battle for a common definition of beauty with regard to things with which we surround ourselves. Take the reaction to whatever architectural and design awards you care to follow. The subsequent backlash invariably covers the standard complaints of critics to any attempt to define ‘best’ including:

  • Questioning the qualifications of those passing judgement, subtext: I know more about design than This Person.
  • Asking why the judges didn’t also include Product B if Product A made the list when B is self-evidently superior to A.
  • Focussing on one particular award winner to discredit the lot.

It’s all a game but at least serves the purpose of helping us to define common standards of beauty as a way of improving our lives. This thinking has a longstanding tradition dating back to John Ruskin and the social reformers of the early Twentieth Century. It was even bound up in the outlook of John Maynard Keynes who combined his day job as the world’s most eminent economist with another as  founder of the Arts Council.

Sometimes we get the balance between form and function wrong in the way we develop our surroundings. We prefer to brief and measure buildings  according to their sustainability, cost and efficiency rather than their beauty. This is understandable at all times but maybe now more than usual because of the economic downturn. ‘Space efficiency’ isn’t in the eye of the beholder and appeals to our utilitarian mindset.

Yet people clearly value beauty and we shouldn’t forget that in our focus on the bottom line. We buy and make things simply because  we  admire them for their beauty and want to add to the beauty of our world. We are hardwired to associate the beauty of other people with characteristics such health, virtue and integrity so it’s no surprise that we automatically imbue beautiful buildings and things with abstract characteristics. We can even reach a common understanding of what constitutes the perfect balance of form and function. Pretty much everybody agrees that the iPhone is more beautiful than other mobile handsets.

This notion of commonality is a useful idea, but is extremely difficult to apply. But that shouldn’t oblige us to focus solely on narrowly commercial or economic definitions of what constitutes good design in the built environment. That we should look beyond the numbers when designing and managing buildings seems obvious. After all, it doesn’t necessarily cost more to make something beautiful rather than ugly.

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Image: Tom Dixon’s pop up coworking space created in a church during this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week

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