Is it a paradox that designs that appear simple are in fact the most complicated to realise and by association, designs that appear complex are the easiest to produce? Most of us apparently value clarity and legibility, so why do complicated designs even exist? Is it the consumer / specifier pulling complex products or is someone pushing them on to the customer?
We see situations where a simple design sells better, for instance, regard Braun’s iconic ET66 calculator first made in 1987. That’s £30 compared to a more feature-rich offering by Casio which with fully scientific functions costs £6. Nobody could argue that the Casio is unreliable or not fit-for-purpose. So why does one fetch a premium price and the other…doesn’t? Brand value undoubtedly plays a significant part, but before we dismiss this as brand snobbery, consider first how Braun earned their following.
Why make the poor selling article in the first place? Why design something so badly that nobody wants to buy it at the listed price? It must surely follow that we should design great things that everybody aspires to but of course, it’s never that simple.
It would seem that desirable products stay in production longer and are rarely discounted, whereas mediocre and me-too versions have a short production life and have to be discounted because they don’t sell. This affects the whole supply chain from maker to retailer and the cut-price goods have to be propped up commercially by the reliable, best-sellers. In construction design, we don’t offer goods; time is our commodity and we don’t want to have to sell it cheap because a client doesn’t value it.
Let’s look at hifi: the law of diminishing returns dictates that the more you pay for audiophile kit, the fewer knobs you can expect. This no-nonsense example from Lavardin comes in at a shade over £3K, add another £430 if you want the phono stage if you’re a vinyl listener. There’s no tone or balance option, just source and volume. Lavardin are proud that the transistors in their amps sound more like valves than solid state components. It can’t be denied that the design is legible – intuitive even. Beyond connecting up the sources and speakers, the instruction manual is redundant. The simple form-factor and interface conceal a complex technical product. With each incremental improvement, the packaging remains largely unaltered, hence the packaging is of lasting value and serves to reinforce the maker’s brand.
Understanding your customer helps hugely. Products that play to the maker’s heritage (Fiat 500, VW Beetle, Mini etc.) usually do well. Think also of really simple designs that have endured – we all know that Hipsters love bikes – single gear and fixed wheel are favoured. And to finish the look of vintage authenticity – a Brooks leather saddle.
The entry level B17 saddle with machined rivets rather than hand-hammered ones retails at £83. The design is over a century old. Advocates love them – they will give you a lot of reasons that this is the best saddle you can buy. The saddle requires investment beyond the initial purchase – the leather needs to be nourished with cream and it slackens and stretches so that it needs to be re-tensioned occasionally with a spanner. Ironically, this is what gives the saddle uniqueness and desirability, the reason Brooks have lifelong fans. They have achieved the holy grail of design – attachment. Customers literally experience joy about their products, physically and emotionally.
Leica launched a new model in 2016: the Type M 262. The premium version is supplied without a screen. Jason Howard, MD Leica UK said “photographers must return to the principles of photography: accurate framing and composition, selecting the appropriate parameters and settings, and ensuring that they capture the decisive moment with the thought and consideration that has always been necessary in analogue photography”. The M262 screenless camera costs £4650 whilst the version with screen is £600 cheaper; the adage ‘less really is more’ was ever more appropriate. The M series has been in production in a recognisable form since it was invented by Oskar Barnack in 1913.
The Queen is a known Leicaphile and has owned several, including the well-regarded M3 from 1958. Fujifilm’s X-Pro 2 is a fantastic range-finder alternative and could be described as an Type M for the rest of us, but it’s unlikely to ever have the desirability and universal appeal that the Leica commands.
In construction terms, how can we make our clients and the users love and care for our designs as much as they do a Leica M camera? Will they pay more for simplicity than they would for complex solutions? Do they understand that it takes longer to work through a rigorous design solution, removing the clutter and curating, so less really is more?
In construction projects, designs that are delivered faster should deliver better value to the client and make the design studio more money as they have taken less of a designer’s time. So it is economically sensible to spend less time on a project than it is to obsess over subtleties. Another way of driving profitability is by rolling out designs that you’ve already laboured over previously, cookie-cutting in other words. The first approach is ‘good-enough’ and the second has nothing to do with design anymore. We all need to provide value and make money, so we have to decide as individuals or as practices where on the esoteric – compromise continuum we sit.
Being realistic, not all projects need to be esoteric. But I’m not talking about those practical projects, I’m interested in the more aspirational ones. The projects we like to win as the moment we do, we can visualise the outcome – happy clients, magazine features, awards, warm feelings.
It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that a complex solution has suffered from a lack of time investment. Sometimes a weak and complicated design has been heavily indulged. If it is not successful for such an investment of time then we’d have to question the experience and skills of the designer.
So what, in my opinion constitutes simple design? On the matter of lighting, which is my sphere of expertise, the space should be legible. On first experience, it shouldn’t feel like a lighting designer has been at work; the feeling evoked should be that it just feels instinctively right. The lighting design should support the architectural objectives, not fight with them or try to outdo them. The user shouldn’t need an explanation as to the strategy and even if they can’t articulate what they feel, if the space feels right then the user will enjoy being there. In public projects that can translate as a sense of well-being because users know how to navigate, see where they are and where to go, be aware of other people around them and feel secure.
By contrast, complex designs confuse and disorientate. Light sources are now small enough to slot in anywhere, therefore everywhere is an opportunity to a lighting designer. But by illuminating everything a lighting designer risks cluttering and diluting the legibility of a space. This could be a hotel or office entrance lobby with linear lighting to plinth details, shelves, wall slots, walls, desks… literally all elements of furniture and finish. Linear ceiling slot details are still on-trend right now and those lead the eye in the direction of orientation, but they don’t always lead to a place a person wants to go.
Lighting is a valuable way to enhance the experience of the user and to reinforce the legibility of a space. Projects are not given to us as a means of demonstrating how many techniques we have learned, surely our role is to elucidate the space and to delight the users. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t create focal points or to render the project so boring that we may as well have not bothered, but I do think that confidence and a sparing approach leads to more successful and timeless projects than those where the designer has gone large.
And of fees and economics: Let’s say you’ve won a project and your fee for (RIBA) Stage 2 Concept is 100 hours collectively. You might spend 10 hours of that on generating ideas, another 10 in design team meetings and the other 80 generating your documentation. If you’ve left the meeting room without committing to what’s important and you’ve got a surfeit of ideas, you’ll be producing sketches, renders, pages more documentation. If you decide to absorb the time to do the right thing as a designer rather than tapping-up the client then the over-spend might conservatively be 20%, or 16 hours. Whereas if you’d chosen to sweat on the concepts for 20% longer and focus on what you really believe in, that’s only 2 more hours. And you are leaving the meeting room with a clearer vision, hence less material and options to document. You probably won’t see savings in time spent but at least you’ve got more time to build a convincing presentation around a solid concept.
Downstream stages are all similarly affected: imagine the impact on time and fee of flabby, incoherent designs – all that detailing, including construction level and implementation. And for what? An illegible and confusing array of stuff that meant you had to downgrade all the lighting to ‘value-engineer’ it to a price when you could have spent the budget wisely on a few truly excellent products that work beautifully, create great lighting and bring joy to the space, one that gives the client value and reinforces your own reputation.
My preference and the working style for my office is to create recommendations for our clients – we’re hired to solve challenges, not present multiple choice solutions for our projects. Most of our work, therefore, focuses on a strong and coherent solution and occasionally (but very infrequently) we will offer an alternative scenario where the choice really could be subjective. It’s imperative that we’ve received (and understood) a good design brief but assuming that our clients understand and trust us, they usually want a decisive and not an iterative process of realising the design.
We shouldn’t try to copy what other people have achieved but we should learn why their designs are so effective and durable. Disregarding those projects and products which have fared well over time and which users still love could be regarded as arrogant or at best, ignorant. In so many cases, enduring designs are successful because they are simple and well-executed.
In conclusion, simplification really is important in delivering optimal projects. Professionally speaking, my aims would be to use the time and fee agreed with my client as wisely as possible, to deliver value and in so doing, to create strong, exemplary designs that people will love – to engender a sense of attachment with our clients that the likes of Brooks, Braun and Leica have all achieved. And maybe make a modest profit in the process.
– Paul Traynor