design, sustainability

Elegance and Sustainability

Steve FItz, Director Technology

By: Steve M.Fitz
Director, Technology

5th September 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Design

There is a grandfather clock in my house that is nearly 200 years old – it has been in the family for a long time. Its face is lined and the body is a bit shabby (rather like its owner I hear you say) but it keeps good time and announces itself on the hour with a musical bong. Once a week I lift the 7 kg weights approximately 1m to make sure that it continues for the next 7 days. That energy input is equivalent to about one-quarter of the capacity of an AA cell; an impressive exercise in low power design given the amount of ticking and bonging that goes on in a week. In its 200 year life, it would have used about 2400 batteries if that was how it was powered.

Were it to break we would have to get it fixed because it is impossible to contemplate destroying something with such dignity. Luckily the designer had in mind the ability to repair so it has been patched and bodged over the years. If it ever finally comes to the end of its life however, every part of it could be recycled: the wood, the brass the lead weights. In fact, it could be reborn as a whole new clock.

Designing for a changing world

I have been thinking about this clock and the lessons it can teach us in designing future products that face up to the implications of climate change.

Form: Most of the products that we use are so ugly that we cannot wait to sling them the minute their function is superseded by the next model. They have no personality or vitality, they are just there to do a job and we have no emotional attachment to them at all. Looking at it more positively, if a product is to be designed to have a long life it will have to be sufficiently elegant for us to want to have it around for that long. Something that is old (or at least not current) will have to get cool; people who carry around and use stuff that is not the latest will themselves have to get cool. It has happened in the past and it needs to happen now.

Function: The clock is quite demanding. It needs winding weekly and putting right occasionally; wouldn’t it be better to have it powered by electricity and set by radio waves? – wouldn’t that improve the ‘user experience’? Definitely not. One of the attractive things about the clock is its dependence on me to wind it; we have bonded, I and the clock are one machine.

So some questions to ask when designing our next product: How can I make this last 200 years? How can I make this so elegant that someone wants it to last 200 years? How can I make this completely recyclable, even if that means making it more demanding of the user?

There is a grandfather clock in my house that is nearly 200 years old – it has been in the family for a long time. Its face is lined and the body is a bit shabby (rather like its owner I hear you say) but it keeps good time and announces itself on the hour with a musical bong. Once a week I lift the 7 kg weights approximately 1m to make sure that it continues for the next 7 days. That energy input is equivalent to about one-quarter of the capacity of an AA cell; an impressive exercise in low power design given the amount of ticking and bonging that goes on in a week. In its 200 year life, it would have used about 2400 batteries if that was how it was powered.

Were it to break we would have to get it fixed because it is impossible to contemplate destroying something with such dignity. Luckily the designer had in mind the ability to repair so it has been patched and bodged over the years. If it ever finally comes to the end of its life however, every part of it could be recycled: the wood, the brass the lead weights. In fact, it could be reborn as a whole new clock.

Designing for a changing world

I have been thinking about this clock and the lessons it can teach us in designing future products that face up to the implications of climate change.

Form: Most of the products that we use are so ugly that we cannot wait to sling them the minute their function is superseded by the next model. They have no personality or vitality, they are just there to do a job and we have no emotional attachment to them at all. Looking at it more positively, if a product is to be designed to have a long life it will have to be sufficiently elegant for us to want to have it around for that long. Something that is old (or at least not current) will have to get cool; people who carry around and use stuff that is not the latest will themselves have to get cool. It has happened in the past and it needs to happen now.

Function: The clock is quite demanding. It needs winding weekly and putting right occasionally; wouldn’t it be better to have it powered by electricity and set by radio waves? – wouldn’t that improve the ‘user experience’? Definitely not. One of the attractive things about the clock is its dependence on me to wind it; we have bonded, I and the clock are one machine.

So some questions to ask when designing our next product: How can I make this last 200 years? How can I make this so elegant that someone wants it to last 200 years? How can I make this completely recyclable, even if that means making it more demanding of the user?

Further Reading

What Is 5G and How Does It Work?

By: Daniel Tomlinson
Project Engineer

18th July 2019

5 minute read

Home » Insights » Design

As a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on data driven applications, 5G promises to provide better connectivity and faster speeds for our network devices. However, whilst the previous generations of mobile communications have been fairly analogous to each other in terms of distribution and multiple user access, 5G will be drastically different – making it a challenging system to implement. So, how does it work?

Initial Concept

Enhanced Mobile, Massive iot, low latency, the 5G Triangle
Fig 1 – The 5G Triangle

 

As with any concept, 5G was initially based on a very broad and ambiguous set of standards, which promised low latency, speeds in the region of Gbps and better connectivity. Whilst no intricacies of the system were known at the time, we knew that in order to achieve faster data rates and larger bandwidths we would have to move to higher frequencies – and this is where the problem occurs. Due to the severe amounts of atmospheric attenuation that’s experienced by high frequency signals, range and power become serious issues that our current systems aren’t capable of handling.

Range & Power

A modern GSM tower features multiple cellular base stations, that together, are designed to transmit 360⁰ horizontally and at a range in the order of tens of miles, depending on the terrain. However, if you were to consider that the received power transmitted from a cellular base station degrades with distance at a rate of…

And that by factoring in frequency, this effect worsens…

…it becomes obvious that transmitting over larger distances and at higher frequencies becomes exponentially inefficient. Therefore, a key part of the 5G overhaul would require thousands of miniature base stations to be strategically placed in dense, urban environments in order to maximise capacity with minimal obstructions.

Directivity

5G Radiation pattern
Fig 2 – Radiation Pattern of an Isotropic Antenna versus an Antenna with Gain (Dipole)

 

One way to increase the range of a transceiver, whilst keeping the power output the same, is to incorporate gain into the antenna. This is achieved by focusing the transmitted power towards a particular point as opposed to equally in all directions (isotropic).

Figure 1 shows such a comparison, in which, a dipole antenna’s energy is being focused in the direction of 180 and 0 degrees. Equation three reflects this additional factor:

However, as the essence of a wireless handset is portability, it is likely to move around a lot with the user. Therefore, a high gain 5G transmitter would still require a tracking system to ensure that it stays focused directly at the end user’s handset.

User Tracking

One solution for tracking devices could be to employ a high frequency transceiver with a phased array antenna structure. This would act as a typical base station, capable of transmitting and receiving, but an array of hundreds of small scale patch antennas (and some DSP magic) would make it capable of beamforming. This would not only allow the structure to transmit high gain signals but to also steer the beam by changing the relative phase of the output.

However, as this is a technically complex system that has yet to be implemented on such a large scale, the technology is still in its infancy and is currently being trialled in select areas only. Considerable efforts will have to be made to ensure that such a transceiver could operate in a bustling environment where multipath and body-blocking would cause strong interference.

5G in 2019

3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project) is an organisation that was established in 1998 and helped to produce the original standards for 3G. It has since gone on to produce the specs for 4G, LTE and is currently working to achieve a 5G “ready system” in 2020.

With certain service carriers already having released 5G this year in certain parts of America, 2019 will be welcoming numerous 5G handsets from several of the flagships giants like Samsung, LG, Huawei and even Xiaomi – a budget smartphone manufacturer.

As with previous generations though, only limited coverage will be available at first (and at a hefty premium), but in practice, it will be fairly similar to Wi-Fi hot-spotting. A lot of work is still required to overcome the issues as discussed above.

As a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on data driven applications, 5G promises to provide better connectivity and faster speeds for our network devices. However, whilst the previous generations of mobile communications have been fairly analogous to each other in terms of distribution and multiple user access, 5G will be drastically different – making it a challenging system to implement. So, how does it work?

Initial Concept

Enhanced Mobile, Massive iot, low latency, the 5G Triangle
Fig 1 – The 5G Triangle

As with any concept, 5G was initially based on a very broad and ambiguous set of standards, which promised low latency, speeds in the region of Gbps and better connectivity. Whilst no intricacies of the system were known at the time, we knew that in order to achieve faster data rates and larger bandwidths we would have to move to higher frequencies – and this is where the problem occurs. Due to the severe amounts of atmospheric attenuation that’s experienced by high frequency signals, range and power become serious issues that our current systems aren’t capable of handling.

Range & Power

A modern GSM tower features multiple cellular base stations, that together, are designed to transmit 360⁰ horizontally and at a range in the order of tens of miles, depending on the terrain. However, if you were to consider that the received power transmitted from a cellular base station degrades with distance at a rate of…

And that by factoring in frequency, this effect worsens…

…it becomes obvious that transmitting over larger distances and at higher frequencies becomes exponentially inefficient. Therefore, a key part of the 5G overhaul would require thousands of miniature base stations to be strategically placed in dense, urban environments in order to maximise capacity with minimal obstructions.

Directivity

5G Radiation pattern
Fig 2 – Radiation Pattern of an Isotropic Antenna versus an Antenna with Gain (Dipole)

One way to increase the range of a transceiver, whilst keeping the power output the same, is to incorporate gain in to the antenna. This is achieved by focusing the transmitted power towards a particular point as opposed to equally in all directions (isotropic).

Figure 1 shows such a comparison, in which, a dipole antenna’s energy is being focused in the direction of 180 and 0 degrees. Equation three reflects this additional factor:

However, as the essence of a wireless handset is portability, it is likely to move around a lot with the user. Therefore, a high gain 5G transmitter would still require a tracking system to ensure that it stays focused directly at the end user’s handset.

User Tracking

One solution for tracking devices could be to employ a high frequency transceiver with a phased array antenna structure. This would act as a typical base station, capable of transmitting and receiving, but an array of hundreds of small scale patch antennas (and some DSP magic) would make it capable of beamforming. This would not only allow the structure to transmit high gain signals but to also steer the beam by changing the relative phase of the output.

However, as this is a technically complex system that has yet to be implemented on such a large scale, the technology is still in its infancy and is currently being trialled in select areas only. Considerable efforts will have to be made to ensure that such a transceiver could operate in a bustling environment where multipath and body-blocking would cause strong interference.

5G in 2019

3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project) is an organisation that was established in 1998 and helped to produce the original standards for 3G. It has since gone on to produce the specs for 4G, LTE and is currently working to achieve a 5G “ready system” in 2020.

With certain service carriers already having released 5G this year in certain parts of America, 2019 will be welcoming numerous 5G handsets from several of the flagships giants like Samsung, LG, Huawei and even Xiaomi – a budget smartphone manufacturer.

As with previous generations though, only limited coverage will be available at first (and at a hefty premium), but in practice, it will be fairly similar to Wi-Fi hot-spotting. A lot of work is still required to overcome the issues as discussed above.

Further Reading

Does your workplace identity matter?

By: Edwina Mullins
Head of Marketing

9th July 2019

5 minute read

Home » Insights » Design

It’s hard to miss the corporate Pride activity in the last few weeks where companies have been showcasing their inclusion of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Last month I read a brilliant blog from Jen Hennings where she asks the question: “What 5 terms would you use to describe your identity?”

For me, I picked Human. Mum. Foodie. Arty. Country-loving. It was actually a harder process than I thought and I partially failed as I realised I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my career, the way I bring up my children, my purchasing decisions, and how to be a better version of myself. But I have never reflected on my actual identity – who I am not what I like.

I posed the same identity question to a few friends, and many were similar to me, with the exception of colour and religion additions: ‘Brown’ was one answer and ‘Christian’ was another. For Jen, her 5 words are Female. Queer. Butch. Athlete. Trans. There is an obvious point that if you identify yourself with a minority group or have struggled with your identity being accepted by a wider community, then it will be front of mind and you will have been forced to reflect on who you are as a person. I consider that as a relatively tough, white, straight, outgoing female I have been lucky not to receive too much discrimination during my career (apart from being hit on when younger and being asked to make the tea). And I haven’t had to analyse myself and put me in an identity box (others can do that for me).

Having children, however, has opened my eyes to more ideas about identity. My husband, Barry, and I have talked extensively about how we are going to bring up our children – both our base instincts on parenting and learned behaviour. When Barry held our son in the hospital for the first time, his immediate thought was “I’m going to have to teach this little thing to be a man”. Then later (when we’d got over the initial shock of being parents), he had to define what ‘man’ actually meant. Much of this was deciding what from our own childhoods was good/irrelevant/needed redefining.

Living in a box

Simplistically, I would love it if everyone didn’t put themselves or others in a box; people could just exist and co-exist. I don’t want to identify myself or be identified as a type – no one should care that I have Saxon heritage as supposed to any other heritage for example – I want to identify myself with the choices I have made in life, not what life has given me. And that is because I don’t have to struggle with being accepted.
It’s easy to only care about the things that directly affect us. Here are some quick stats from Jen’s blog, and things I didn’t particularly consider until I learned about them:

  • LGBTQ+ people in the UK weren’t legally protected from discrimination at work until 2003.
  • It wasn’t until 2007 that sexual orientation was written into the Equality Act.
  • It took until 2010 for gender reassignment to be added as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.
  • As of June 2019, the UK Law does not offer any provision for non-binary individuals.
  • According to research performed by UM (Universal McCann), up to 60% of UK graduates will go back into the closet when they enter the world of work.

I find the final stat particularly frustrating. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) identified that 16 – 24 year olds have a higher percentage of people who consider themselves gay/lesbian/bisexual than other age groups. With all the other stresses of starting your first job, your sexual orientation and how it will be accepted by others just shouldn’t be another worry in a perfect world. So at the moment, we HAVE to focus on the struggles and identity of LGBTQ+ people until what is considered ‘normal’ in every workplace changes to accept everyone. So what do we need to do? Yes acknowledge Pride Week, wear rainbow colours and put a post on LinkedIn. But all workplaces need a plan for the other 51 weeks of the year too.

In my perfect world, anyone can be who they like, and bonk who they like and it is just normal. This doesn’t take away the importance of who a person is or the choices they make, it’s about true acceptance. Perhaps in that world, we won’t need 5 words, we’ll just need to identify 1 word: Human.

It’s hard to miss the corporate Pride activity in the last few weeks where companies have been showcasing their inclusion of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Last month I read a brilliant blog from Jen Hennings where she asks the question: “What 5 terms would you use to describe your identity?”

For me, I picked Human. Mum. Foodie. Arty. Country-loving. It was actually a harder process than I thought and I partially failed as I realised I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my career, the way I bring up my children, my purchasing decisions, and how to be a better version of myself. But I have never reflected on my actual identity – who I am not what I like.

I posed the same identity question to a few friends, and many were similar to me, with the exception of colour and religion additions: ‘Brown’ was one answer and ‘Christian’ was another. For Jen, her 5 words are Female. Queer. Butch. Athlete. Trans. There is an obvious point that if you identify yourself with a minority group or have struggled with your identity being accepted by a wider community, then it will be front of mind and you will have been forced to reflect on who you are as a person. I consider that as a relatively tough, white, straight, outgoing female I have been lucky not to receive too much discrimination during my career (apart from being hit on when younger and being asked to make the tea). And I haven’t had to analyse myself and put me in an identity box (others can do that for me).

Having children, however, has opened my eyes to more ideas about identity. My husband, Barry, and I have talked extensively about how we are going to bring up our children – both our base instincts on parenting and learned behaviour. When Barry held our son in the hospital for the first time, his immediate thought was “I’m going to have to teach this little thing to be a man”. Then later (when we’d got over the initial shock of being parents), he had to define what ‘man’ actually meant. Much of this was deciding what from our own childhoods was good/irrelevant/needed redefining.

Living in a box

Simplistically, I would love it if everyone didn’t put themselves or others in a box; people could just exist and co-exist. I don’t want to identify myself or be identified as a type – no one should care that I have Saxon heritage as supposed to any other heritage for example – I want to identify myself with the choices I have made in life, not what life has given me. And that is because I don’t have to struggle with being accepted.

It’s easy to only care about the things that directly affect us. Here are some quick stats from Jen’s blog, and things I didn’t particularly consider until I learned about them:

  • LGBTQ+ people in the UK weren’t legally protected from discrimination at work until 2003.
  • It wasn’t until 2007 that sexual orientation was written into the Equality Act.
  • It took until 2010 for gender reassignment to be added as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.
  • As of June 2019, the UK Law does not offer any provision for non-binary individuals.
  • According to research performed by UM (Universal McCann), up to 60% of UK graduates will go back into the closet when they enter the world of work.

I find the final stat particularly frustrating. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) identified that 16 – 24 year olds have a higher percentage of people who consider themselves gay/lesbian/bisexual than other age groups. With all the other stresses of starting your first job, your sexual orientation and how it will be accepted by others just shouldn’t be another worry in a perfect world. So at the moment we HAVE to focus on the struggles and identity of LGBTQ+ people until what is considered ‘normal’ in every workplace changes to accept everyone. So what do we need to do? Yes acknowledge Pride Week, wear rainbow colours and put a post on LinkedIn. But all workplaces need a plan for the other 51 weeks of the year too.

In my perfect world, anyone can be who they like, and bonk who they like and it is just normal. This doesn’t take away the importance of who a person is or the choices they make, it’s about true acceptance. Perhaps in that world, we won’t need 5 words, we’ll just need to identify 1 word: Human.

The Virtue of Failure

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

25th June 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Design

The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

Aesthetic and Function (or, Why I Can’t Play a Green Guitar)

By: Nick Burman
Graphic Designer, Marketing

6th June 2019

4 minute read

Home » Insights » Design

At the 1st Annual AIGA Louisville Design Week in Louisville, KY in 2015, New York designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a talk on Why Beauty Matters, drawing on real-life examples to illustrate how aesthetic affects function.

The first example he gave was an 80-foot tunnel in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass that had become a run-down eyesore. After painting two large murals on the walls, the tunnels became tourist attractions and even a wedding location.

Beauty came first, function followed.

 

The “Yes” Underpass, commissioned by Sagmeister’s company, Sagmeister & Walsh Image Source: www.creativebloq.com

 

Secondly, he talked about The Highline, an abandoned rail line that, once converted into an elevated park, with plants and trees, became a favourite destination for events, live art and performances. Critics were concerned that it would crumble into a crime haven – in six years not a single crime had occurred in the area.

Beauty made it a useful place.

Lastly was the comparison of two functionally-similar New York stations, Penn Station and Grand Central. Both are widely considered as anger-inducing transportation hubs, with nothing to offer except a means to an end. Testers used Twitter and an algorithm designed to map emotions through tweets to show that people are happier when visiting the beautifully designed Grand Central, instead of the dingy Penn Station.

Given the choice, beauty won.

 

Grand Central Station, New York, USA. Image Source: www.unsplash.com

 

This A-B test is really compelling as it shows the choice that people actually made. It wasn’t a case of heightened awareness, publicity or curiosity, but a conscious decision to choose a station that was more aesthetically pleasing, even though the outcome from visiting each of the stations is unlikely to be any different.

Sagmeister didn’t suggest we build things that work and then make them attractive so people will use them. Instead, he suggested that it is the beauty that promotes function. But this idea of aesthetics having an impact on usage extends to more than public spaces.

Art and science

In many cases, the role of a designer can appear to be ‘making pretty’ for the sake of it or imposing one person’s taste when, in essence, it doesn’t matter if corners are round or square, it is painted pink or black or doesn’t even ship in a box. But those aesthetic choices can mean that a product is more likely to be picked up and used, even long after the sales process is over.

Typography can be a matter of taste, but is an art form based on science. When the type is set in order to flow well and be easily read, reading becomes less tiresome and the information much easier to absorb. In this case, the aesthetic concerns are functional. Also, lines of text that are too long can become difficult to read as the eye can take a few moments longer to find the beginning of the next line. Those few moments lead to fatigue and a reader is more subconsciously inclined to give up reading, no matter how interesting the content.

Similarly, properly spaced (kerned) letters make words easier to identify and make the copy easier to read. Cram the letters together and they become difficult to recognise. Spread them out too far, and the text takes up too much space making it awkward to read.

Just don’t make it green

Without scurrying down the troublesome rabbit warren of colour theory, personal responses to colour also impact immediate appeal and attraction, even when we know better. For example, I’ve never been able to play a green guitar. The colour green isn’t one that I associate with music, and if I had a lime guitar, I just wouldn’t pick it up. It would stay on the wall (or, more likely, in the case). This isn’t related to function, or synaesthesia, because a guitar, like most musical instruments, can work the same in any colour. It’s just me. And I’m fine with that.

While there should always be a balance between function and aesthetic, the end result shouldn’t sacrifice either to the detriment of the other.

As William Morris famously said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Why can’t the things we design be both?

At the 1st Annual AIGA Louisville Design Week in Louisville, KY in 2015, New York designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a talk on Why Beauty Matters, drawing on real-life examples to illustrate how aesthetic affects function.

The first example he gave was an 80-foot tunnel in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass that had become a run-down eyesore. After painting two large murals on the walls, the tunnels became tourist attractions and even a wedding location.

Beauty came first, function followed.

 

The “Yes” Underpass, commissioned by Sagmeister’s company, Sagmeister & Walsh Image Source: www.creativebloq.com

 

Secondly, he talked about The Highline, an abandoned rail line that, once converted into an elevated park, with plants and trees, became a favourite destination for events, live art and performances. Critics were concerned that it would crumble into a crime haven – in six years not a single crime had occurred in the area.

Beauty made it a useful place.

Lastly was the comparison of two functionally-similar New York stations, Penn Station and Grand Central. Both are widely considered as anger-inducing transportation hubs, with nothing to offer except a means to an end. Testers used Twitter and an algorithm designed to map emotions through tweets to show that people are happier when visiting the beautifully designed Grand Central, instead of the dingy Penn Station.

Given the choice, beauty won.

 

Grand Central Station, New York, USA. Image Source: www.unsplash.com

 

This A-B test is really compelling as it shows the choice that people actually made. It wasn’t a case of heightened awareness, publicity or curiosity, but a conscious decision to choose a station that was more aesthetically pleasing, even though the outcome from visiting each of the stations is unlikely to be any different.

Sagmeister didn’t suggest we build things that work and then make them attractive so people will use them. Instead, he suggested that it is the beauty that promotes function. But this idea of aesthetics having an impact on usage extends to more than public spaces.

Art and science

In many cases, the role of a designer can appear to be ‘making pretty’ for the sake of it or imposing one person’s taste when, in essence, it doesn’t matter if corners are round or square, it is painted pink or black or doesn’t even ship in a box. But those aesthetic choices can mean that a product is more likely to be picked up and used, even long after the sales process is over.

Typography can be a matter of taste, but is an art form based on science. When the type is set in order to flow well and be easily read, reading becomes less tiresome and the information much easier to absorb. In this case, the aesthetic concerns are functional. Also, lines of text that are too long can become difficult to read as the eye can take a few moments longer to find the beginning of the next line. Those few moments lead to fatigue and a reader is more subconsciously inclined to give up reading, no matter how interesting the content.

Similarly, properly spaced (kerned) letters make words easier to identify and make the copy easier to read. Cram the letters together and they become difficult to recognise. Spread them out too far, and the text takes up too much space making it awkward to read.

Just don’t make it green

Without scurrying down the troublesome rabbit warren of colour theory, personal responses to colour also impact immediate appeal and attraction, even when we know better. For example, I’ve never been able to play a green guitar. The colour green isn’t one that I associate with music, and if I had a lime guitar, I just wouldn’t pick it up. It would stay on the wall (or, more likely, in the case). This isn’t related to function, or synaesthesia, because a guitar, like most musical instruments, can work the same in any colour. It’s just me. And I’m fine with that.

While there should always be a balance between function and aesthetic, the end result shouldn’t sacrifice either to the detriment of the other.

As William Morris famously said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Why can’t the things we design be both?