23 May 2012

User Centred Design: Towards a New Sustainable Architecture

Dieter Rams, the designer behind some of Braun’s most successful products and a major influence on Apple’s Jonathon Ive, powerfully stated in a speech in 1976,

Dieter Rams

“A designer who wants to achieve good design must not regard himself as an artist who, according to taste and aesthetics, is merely dressing up products with a last-minute garment. The designer must be the “gestaltingenieur” or creative engineer.  They synthesize the completed product from the various elements that make up its design. Their work is largely rational, meaning that aesthetic decisions are justified by an understanding of the product’s purpose”.

He went on to articulate his ethos of user-centred design and his now famous 10 commandments of what constitutes good design:

Long lasting
Thorough to the last detail
Environmentally friendly
As little design as possible!

Rams designed hi fi

You have to say that this is still a pretty compelling list, which is hard to argue with.  What is interesting is that while there are products, including I would argue, many designed by Apple, that follow this philosophy, architectural design from 1976 to today has, in the main, tried to satisfy as few of these principles as possible, making a virtue out of the irrational and on occasions the down right perverse!  You only need consider the latest iconic London tower or many of the Olympic buildings to see that what grabs the attention of the media is often the triumph of style over substance.

However, we have found that there are some notable exceptions to this trend, that I would argue signal the beginning of what will become a paradigm shift.  We have been fortunate to work for a number of owner occupier organisations, who having not been able to find buildings that satisfy their criteria have taken the courageous decision to build for themselves.  One of their key requirements is to create spaces specifically designed around the needs of their users, which reinforce the cultural and philosophical values that they hold.  They are not interested initially in what the building will look like, but how it works and what benefits it will bring in terms of reinforcing their values and how it will deliver measurable improvements in the way they conduct their core activities.

Central to their thinking is the way building design can facilitate team working, communication and knowledge sharing.  Ultimately, they demand solutions that will enhance the value created by the people who use them.  To achieve this objective requires a reappraisal of the nature of the workplace, challenging assumptions regarding occupation density, open plan to cellular ratios, break out space organisation and the provision of congregational facilities where all members can be brought together.  The architecture is developed from the user outward, rather than trying to force them into a pre-defined container.

This approach challenges the traditional Venn diagram that defines sustainability as being located at the intersection of the social, economic and environmental aspects of a project.  To articulate this approach we have developed the Black Target Diagram that places social issues at the centre of the process.  Economic factors form the outer frame to ensure that what is proposed is as innovative as possible while being deliverable within the available budget.  Environmental impacts must be minimised without impacting on the needs of the user or the economic sustainability of the overall project.

I believe that this approach will deliver the paradigm shift that is required if we are to address the challenges of our age, delivering buildings that are intrinsically sustainable.  They will no longer be designed simply to reinforce the house style of their architects, but will instead deliver a radical new sustainable architecture, moulded and shaped to satisfy the needs of its intended users.  It will be rational, logical and inherently beautiful and most importantly, capable of responding to the massive challenges that our society faces.

I believe that the future is already here, but it is just that we have not noticed yet.  We urgently need to design buildings that are relevant and this can only be achieved if we apply a user centred design process, focused on social sustainability and adopt the rigor set out in Dieter’s 10 commandments. 

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