What happens in a designer’s mind and Mac can be very different to reality

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel

Social media is inarguably closing the gap between organisations and consumers of their services. Advances in the way we interrogate the opinions of building users are lifting the veil on some sharp practices in management and the negative impacts of poorly thought out design or badly executed installation of designs into the built environment. The positive impacts of this new, more open world are evident in changing attitudes to mental health and other wellness issues that affect us in the workplace. And it is becoming ever more evident in the response to a clear disconnect between what happens inside the designer or architect’s MacBook and its effect on the physical spaces with, and within which, we interact.

Drawing is a very human and often intensely personal activity. It requires a thought process that is very rarely replicable when that activity happens in the binary innards of a computer. Abrogating responsibility to the machine puts one at a distance from the creative process, dehumanising the output. People are messy, complicated, contradictory, contrary and confusing. This cannot be factored in to digital algorithms. The persistence of desire lines in our public spaces, in spite of a dogged determination on the part of designers to funnel us in unnatural directions, reinforces the uselessness of those efforts.

Even the field of ergonomic chair design is not immune to the uses their products are put to when presented with a real human who will use them to move boxes of files around the office or as an accessory for practical jokes or for impromptu office races. The designer of the new public plaza will never have envisaged the urinary utility of unintended blind spots to the perambulating drinker caught short between Corney & Barrow and the tube station.

All too often, for designers and architects, it seems that “The computer says yes”. Yes – to orienting a passageway so that it acts as a proxy Large Hadron Collider of the polystyrene detritus so beloved of Ronald McDonald. Yes – to constructing a 37-storey building with convex glass that concentrates the sunlight so acutely onto surrounding streets that it melts the wing mirrors off cars. Yes – to laying paving stones in such a configuration that the resulting optical illusion causes pensioners to trip and injure themselves.

It is seen as cliché that “civilians” look aghast at architects’ sterile models of futuristic spaces and buildings and wonder at the madness that imagined the vision working in the real world. As is so often the case, it’s a cliché because it is true. The ability to draw or to design does not necessarily confer unique insight and intelligence or depth of knowledge and understanding. There will no doubt be those who will take issue with this position. An oft-used defence is to fall back on a “quote” attributed to Henry Ford (although it seems that there is now some dispute as to whether he ever actually said it), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That is, people know what they want but are too stupid to know what they need. This is trotted out in an attempt to prise open the closing gap I referred to in my opening paragraph.

Drawing has the ability to capture the very essence of our humanity. It is profoundly hoped that the architects and designers of our future draw on the reality of modern human existence before embarking on the sort of hubristic flights of fancy that would make even Icarus blush.

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Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog https://workmusing.wordpress.com.