I think it’s time to have lunch with my wife.
Not just any old limp triangles of pappy bread and filling from a corner shop, you understand. Though we might be actually eating any old limp triangles of pappy bread and filling from a corner shop. No. The ingestion isn’t the point. Even if it has three. The real symbolism about this lunch will be its location.
The lovely first lady of Momo once said to me that she rather envied the fact that at the end of my working day I can often hand her, or make her read, or firmly encourage her to interact with, or basically force her to listen to an actual thing. A something. A product of some tangible kind. Whereas she, she often felt, couldn’t exactly bring home a portfolio of decisions and discussions and demonstrably dreary but confidential reports for me to pin to the fridge.
I’d always point out that I loved her for her all the things she naturally brought home with her every day. Most pertinently, the wage.
But, once we are enjoying that lunch I’m thinking of, it will be churlish of me not to point out then and there that we will be actually, tangibly, most definitely making use of something that she has most certainly made. We’ll be sitting IN it, in fact.
A very real thing. A very affecting thing. Rather more so than your average website.
I remember Day One of Year Two of my three-year degree in Graphic Design. It was, I could sense, very possibly the beginning of my redemption from a Foundationy, fantastically arty-farty first year that saw me nearly thrown off the course for blatant, balsa-wood-boring creative ineptitude. Don’t judge me. I’d done a BTEC.
Salvation glimmered for me, however, that morning. Sitting there, the Veteran Lovely Chap Proper Old School Designer who then ran the course – or at least, the much neater, cleaner, second two years of it – held up a piece of A4 paper and gazed around the classroom at us in a drawn-out, expectant silence.
“What is this?” he then asked imperiously.
All barely-post-adolescent eyes flicked from him to each other, wondering how to play this obvious duffer trap in a louche, cool way.
Silence hung theatrically. The bit of A4 seemed to fill the room.
Someone cracked. “It’s, ah. Well, it’s a bit of A4 paper.”
The tutor’s eye’s twinkled with the casual joy of an easy pounce. “No, it isn’t.”
“Yes it is.” we all thought in unison.
“No it isn’t,” he countered intuitively, pulling a large lever to collapse the trap door underneath the cretin who gave in to blurting out the obvious, “not for you. Not if you plan to be designers.”
(“Yes it is. It’s a bloody bit of A4 paper…” said an echoey voice through cries of bone-broken pain from somewhere beneath us.)
“This…” our wise old tutor continued mystically, waving a hand portentiously around the dimensions of the bit of A4 paper like Paul Daniels in a Saturday matinee on the pier at Great Yarmouth.
“..this is a field.”
Silence fell. Noisily.
“Ah.” I thought, with some dawning relief, “I may yet be alright on this course. I can do pretentiously ponsey.”
“IT’S A BLOODY BIT OF A4!” shouted the voice in the pit below, but some of us were no longer listening.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and one thing I’ve banged on about since my clever wife completed her training as an Urban Designer a couple of years ago, it is how universal are some principles of design.
Understanding how to make use of that space – that field – is as important to putting print on a bit of A4 as it is to putting people and buildings on an actual field. Except a bit of A4 comes ready cow-free. But you’re missing the point.
Dynamics are all. How things work in the space.
People are funny creatures. Like cows, but sometimes nimbler and more complexedly stupid.
We most instinctively respond not to logic and wisdom and clever ideas but to feelings. And I don’t just mean obvious emotional theatrics like jealousy, rage, fear, inadequacy, nausea and Jeremy Kyle – which is really all those feelings in one half-hour TV experience. I mean the sort of feelings we spend most of our day being steered by, below the radar of awareness.
Yes, get hippy with it, man. Vibes. You might be a pretentious boob like me and imagine yourself able to analyse your environment at every step like some artistic Terminator and so fancy you’ll never be caught unawares by the subtle schemes of discomfort. Or you might just pop to the shops every now and then. But either way, you’ll be responding to a thousand secret stimuli between here and the chemist. So deal with it, organic boy.
When things are blatantly awful, they raise above the threshold of subconscious and we may actually notice ourselves reacting. Bad breath. Radio One daytime presenters. Terrible road accidents – that kind of thing.
But most of the time your and my day is affected by stupid things we don’t notice are attacking or adding to our wellbeing. And you’d be amazed how stupid these things are.
And how stupid are many of the decisions made by the chief catagory of human supposed to tackle these daily injustices and save us from inexplicable daily misery – designers.
Designers are our defenders. The guardians of space. They are the people that are hired, like a SWAT team, to go into a bad situation and basically shoot everybody.
Except they’re not. They supposed to ask questions and analyse the situation and come up with a clever plan based on the evidence and brought to life with a little aesthetic flare. They just like shooting everybody.
Whether you’re screwing up a flyer before it’s even hit your post mat because you can see from the upstairs bathroom that it looks about as reassuringly professional as a Victorian pick-pocket trying to land an airliner, or you’re walking into your work environment and suddenly thinking about jumping out of the fourth floor window despite the good night you had lastnight with Dave and all the crazy cats in marketing and the good chance that the window won’t open any more anyway, design is the thing at fault. At fault by being absent.
Websites are one of the most effective, efficient and well-practiced ways to destroy large parts of your soul, for example. Try setting up a MySpace account. Now, in 2010. Try it. But do so only with a friend in the room who has sworn to never look over your shoulder and to pull you roughly from the screen when the filthy expletive count rises to one in three.
But anything in print can do the same. You might not know why you’re getting a headache while reading a book, but it could be that some fancy-pants designer has set the measure too long – too many words on a line. Or it could be that you’re reading a Dan Brown. Either way, your day is made rather worse and you may not know why.
And so it is true of any space at all. Even a public one. If the space isn’t working well, it’s your autonomic vibe detection ability that will sense it and your wellbeing that will suffer. Either because some engineers have systematically ‘worked out’ how the space should operate – or more likely, how it is allowed to operate – or because some designers have decided to conceptualise a bold new aesthetic for it.
Brilliant. Hooray for our brilliant space guardians.
Enter then, centre stage, the oil-stained, concrete joy of Bournemouth’s Triangle.
Here is a part of this gently feel-good seaside resort that is almost smack-centre of town and yet spent 30 years devoid of any pedestrians other than people who got lost coming out of one of the car parks. Haunted and frightened, these creatures never stayed out in the open for long.
But here too is a south-facing open area, lined with shops on all three sides, including a design award-winning new community library, and with an established grassed area with trees in the heart of it. In, may I point out again, the middle of town.
So why were the local traders so grumpy with my lovely wife when she first walked in to their meeting 18 months ago?
Because this space – this daily definition of their working environment – just felt so wrong.
Felt so wrong, and left for so long, that they were ready to pounce on just about anyone from the council foolish enough to walk into their discussions about it.
Lastnight, however – 18 months later – when I picked up Caroline from a sort of official jolly they’d all thrown up there, she was wide-eyed with feel-good. Because all the locals were, those same local traders. Wide-eyed with feel-good and effusive with gratitude at what she’d ensured had happened to this sick space.
The design is not flamboyant. It’s not tricksy and the team worked hard to spend a minimal amount of council tax money on it. But they focused that spend. And thought about what was wrong. And went with the simple and obvious design solution for the space – and crucially did everything to ensure, through all the very many technical and political possibilities of the process, that that simple and obvious design was not diluted.
Gone is the bus lay-up. Gone is the crumbling high wall to a green space out of reach. Gone is much of the clutter of old street furniture. In its place is another simple green triangle with three new trees on it, but accessible from all points, visible, readable, from everywhere, which accentuates the clean lines of the new library and creates a public space facing it with simple seating steps that is simply pregnant for things to happen in it.
As a result, people can now be seen in the Triangle. And some people are suddenly discovering that Bournemouth has a very nice new library, some ten years after it opened.
That so many people had to be involved in making it work is a given. That so many people had recognised that there was a problem beforehand is interesting too. That so many people began to see how to put it right is even more interesting. The Landscape team, Transport guys, town center management people, local traders, local politicians, external contractors and internal specialists. They all helped to realise the new space and all began to see what would work about it.
But I think that the Triangle redesign’s apparent success is down to two things; indeed a vindication of them:
Good design, and good diplomacy.
Understanding how people ACTUALLY work is crucial to designing something well. Where will they really walk, how will they really ‘read a space’? And crucial to understanding how people work is understanding our need to feel placed.
Where am I? What is this place? What am I dealing with and how should I interact with it?
It’s as true of a website, or a poster, or a magazine article as it is of a car, or an apartment or a whole part of town. Or any relationship.
Does it put you at your ease? Does it make you feel comfortable? Because if it does, you’ll want to hang around it. Whatever it is. At least for a while.
Lastnight, as we drove away, Caroline and her Urban Design colleague Catherine – both playing such crucial roles in co-ordinating everyone’s thoughts on the Triangle project – seemed pretty alive with encouragement. Not simply from all the people who’d asked them up there to say thankyou to them quite so enthusiastically, but perhaps most by one final bit of evidence that summed up the success.
Like a scene from an unbelievable 80s movie, a group of street dancers had moved into the Triangle’s new open space with a ghettoblaster and were practicing their absurdly cool moves for an hour. Without prompting, these people had walked out of an Urban Design textbook and into the space, owning it without even noticing themselves doing it.
I mean, honestly. I didn’t even know Bournemouth HAD any absurdly cool street dancers.
The lovely first lady of Momo is not one to make a fuss. You should, and probably do, know this. She is more of an unselfconscious street dancer than a show-boater. Really, you should see her move. So she is insistent on not dwelling on kudos – especially that of a large team of individuals. Many talents renewed the Triangle for many more people.
But I am proud of her as a husband that she is so particularly good at pulling all those very different groups of people together. And I am impressed with her as a designer that she understands the way that well engineered design can change something pretty fundamental to people – their day.
She and Laura and Catherine and the other members of her team are showing some remarkable skills and aptitude between them, across the many projects they’re currently working on. But I’m not sure she will pursue my suggestion that the three of them do a photoshoot for BH Life in manner of Charlie’s Angels. Which is a shame.
But they certainly are in a remarkable position. As Caroline said to me lastnight over a glass of cheap red and frozen pizzas, “Who gets nights like this in their job? Who gets people saying thankyou to them like that?”
It’s been a long time coming for her, you might say. The lovely first lady of Momo has served in very many places and roles that don’t get seen or appreciated. But ultimately, lastnight’s celebrations are really about the power of good design.
In all matters creative – everything designed for other people – you have to try to hit the sweet spot. To sense what resonates best. Because if you bring the vibe waves into phase, everyone will feel it.
While we are sitting there – there in the middle of the Triangle, in this summer’s fortuitously gorgeous weather, eating our limp triangles of pap and sandwich filling, and despite whatever pitfalls and problems that lie ahead – I will point out that the splendid person beside me has certainly made something she can show people.
She has made that crucial thing that is the point of all design.