Category Archives: Architecture

Augmented reality in the museum

In October last year, a pair of somewhat mischievous new media artists staged a wholly 21st century intervention at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It involved placing numerous extra artworks in the galleries and introducing a whole new floor – the seventh – at the top of the MoMA building. And all this without the institution’s permission or knowledge (at least at first).

If you haven’t guessed already, this seemingly impossible ruse was achieved using augmented reality (AR), the overlay of digital elements on a live view of a real space, as seen through a smartphone or similar device. The two artists were Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek and the We AR in MoMA guerrilla show was conceived as part of the wider Conflux festival of participatory art and technology that was taking place in New York at the time.

Using the special Layar augmented reality browser installed on a smartphone, visitors were able to look at the galleries through their phone’s built in camera, while the GPS location system and internet connection allowed the virtual art to be projected over the top of the camera’s image of the museum space.

Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. According to Veenhof, MoMA has not made any response to the event, despite having large numbers of visitors conspicuously viewing the galleries through their phones.

Although We AR in MoMA was foisted upon a museum institution, augmented reality is something that museums and galleries are starting to experiment with themselves. Whether MoMA’s curators rate Veenhof and Skwarek’s work as a valid artistic intervention or not, it does offer some glimpses of how a gallery might use AR in order to give visitors additional interpretive content. AR guides bring a new dimension over traditional audio guides, whilst remaining personal to each visitor. They might include an artist standing ‘next’ to their work describing their working processes, for example. In fact, artist Jan Rothuizen has already collaborated with the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam’s ARtours programme on an AR exhibition of his work.

Other cultural institutions are also starting to use AR to mesh digital content with the real world. A number of early experiments in this area have concentrated on city spaces, overlaying historical or proposed architectural imagery on a live city view. The Museum of London’s iPhone app, Streetmuseum, is an example of this, where the museum’s collection of archive photography of London is delivered to users’ phones according to their current location and orientation.

The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia offers a similar AR mobile app, drawing images from the museum’s Flickr collection and presenting them via the Layar platform. Virtual buildings also feature in the Netherlands Architecture Institute’s UAR (urban augmented reality) mobile app, designed by Dutch interaction consultancy IN10. This overlays pictures of what used to present, as well as images of what’s to come, in the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There’s even a Layar ‘layer’ of the Berlin Wall and its imposing sentry towers, reinstating the barrier that once divided the now reunited halves of the city.

AR is clearly fun, sci-fi type stuff. Like many new technologies, it is alluring and captivating. But is it of real value to the museum sector or is it a mobile-based gimmick? Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition.

Does AR add something to a museum experience or does it becomes the experience itself? What do we gain from looking at a composite digital/real world through a mobile phone and what do we lose? In the case of archive photography there is a thrill to be had by looking down the barrel of history whilst standing in very same spot from which the original image was captured.

And perhaps AR can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted at the 2010 Tate Handheld Conference that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.

In this sense, maybe AR is the museum’s best technology tool yet. Objects came from the world and only subsequently were they indexed, filed, curated and exhibited by museums. Perhaps AR allows collected objects to be returned to the wild, but this time with a valuable augmentation of their own – the attachment of expert knowledge and interpretation by the museum professionals who study them and care for them.

In the meantime, keep your eye on new media artists for suggestions of what’s to come. At the 2011 Venice Biennial International Art Exhibition there are plans for a whole uninvited pavilion, thanks to Veenhof and Skwarek…

This article was written for MuseumNext, January 2011.

Pointers to the future

In 1967 Milton Keynes was formally born as a ’new town’. The child of a 1960s urban design template, its grid-like structure – a radical departure for a UK city – was focused around a very particular aspect of modern life: the motor car. As Tim Fendley, chief executive of Applied Information Group, puts it, the city was ’built on the 1950s American idea that you should be able to get your car as close as possible to the door of wherever you are going’. How times change.

Near Abu Dhabi, another planned city is starting to take shape. Developed by renewable energy conglomerate Masdar, the 6km2 Masdar City has ambitions to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world and an epicentre for energy innovation and clean technology.

A project of this scale has many aspects, but one area that will influence the way the city takes shape is its wayfinding scheme. Unlike when Milton Keynes was planned, today’s urban planning is framed by climate change, renewed ideas of localism and carbon-neutral living. For citizens this means, among other things, more walking and cycling and less driving.

Bristol-based wayfinding consultancy City ID is working with London and Dubai branding consultancy Endpoint on wayfinding aspects of the Masdar City project. These groups are, in turn, working with Foster & Partners on Masdar City’s evolving masterplan. ’Unlike most other projects, Masdar is being created on a blank piece of paper, which means we can really shape the city from a wayfinding and user experience,’ says Mike Rawlinson, director of City ID.

Wayfinding is concerned with how people ’read’ a city, with how they interpret its scale and layout, the character and composition of its different regions and the accessibility of its amenities. Rawlinson describes wayfinding as the psychological or metaphysical aspects of a place. Fendley says that just as architectural planning is concerned with the spaces between buildings, wayfinding is concerned with the space between the ears.

This thinking – and perhaps the term ’wayfinding’ itself – has its origins in the work of American urban planner Kevin Lynch, who published the influential book The Image of the City in 1960. Lynch’s message is that if people understand a place well, they will feel comfortable moving around it and will make the best use of it. ’Wayfinding design expertise is extremely valuable at the masterplanning stage,’ says Fendley. ’An awareness of the psychological aspects of architecture is growing. People are already thinking about it more in relation to building interiors, and it will start to play a bigger role in city planning.’

It is widely agreed that sustainable futures will come through shifts in outlook and behaviour as much as developments in technology. Masdar hopes to represent both: ’As a company, Masdar is a laboratory looking at what’s possible in terms of sustainable and clean technology; the city is to be the physical, living embodiment of that,’ says Rawlinson.

So what might wayfinding design’s role be in achieving this? Wayfinding is not just about signs, but about considering the whole infrastructure and layout, including transport systems, the climate, areas of shade and light, lines of sight and vistas. AIG’s Legible London scheme promotes awareness of walking routes, and, in particular, the idea of a five-minute walk radius, a ’scale and principle that is valuable for community neighbourhoods’, says Fendley.

Rawlinson also believes that walking will be crucial to the ambitions for Masdar: ’I think the whole environmental credibility of the project hangs on the development of a walking culture. We’re talking about promoting and encouraging new types of lifestyles,’ he says.

If Masdar City is successful in a region that has some of the highest CO2 emissions in the world, it could become an exportable commodity – a blueprint for future cities based on low-energy dwelling and the life à pied.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 January 2011.

Radio heads

It is often remarked that design is everywhere. This is true not only in the sense that we are surrounded by ’designed’ objects, but also in terms of design coverage. The many and multiplying design blogs could feed even the most voracious of visual culture appetites, while sumptuous monographs and design bibles in print deliver a more tactile canon of work.

When we talk about design we usually also look at it. But what happens to the quality of discussion when designers are temporarily disconnected from the work and left without recourse to visual and physical examples?

Perhaps one of the best ways of exploring this question is to consider design on the radio. This is not a facile gag about ’having a good (type)face for radio’, but a question of how we might talk about design away from the glare of the objects themselves.

There aren’t many radio programmes or podcasts dedicated to the discussion of design, but there are a few. Adrian Shaughnessy’s Graphic Design on the Radio, produced for London’s Resonance 104.4 FM, is quite well known in the capital, and then there’s Design Observer’s Design Matters series, hosted by Debbie Millman. There is even a whole radio station dedicated to typography, Typeradio, which is produced in the Netherlands.

Another programme is 99% Invisible, a US design and architecture radio series produced and presented by reporter Roman Mars. For Mars, the audio format is well suited to design. ’Radio may not seem like the most natural medium for a design series, but it’s not as incongruous as you might think. It exposes all the thought that goes into creating things, which people scarcely ever think about, and the stories of what objects say about us. Thought and story are what radio is all about,’ he says.

Radio forces interviewees to adopt a more reflective take on their practice. Design is a process, not simply a finished ’thing’, yet often it is only the end result that we get to inspect. This sometimes creates tensions, even within the design community, because critics are seldom given access to the designers’ brief or creative process – the full story is rarely revealed.

’Designers are very happy to sit and show you work, but without those props they are actually forced to talk about something more,’ explains Shaughnessy. Mars agrees, saying, ’The programmes have to be driven by the narrative and not by the beauty or glory of the object. This is good – I have absolutely no interest in fetishising objects. And designers themselves have great stories and can tell you about every detail and the entire evolution of their thought process. They can provide the story, the big picture and a moment of reflection.’

Writing can also explore this deeper, more reflective look at design, but very often the text is accompanied by a spread of illustrative images. This is not a hindrance, but it is different to the audio format. According to Shaughnessy, only very rarely does a radio interview suffer from the lack of visual reference. One of those occasions was in Millman’s Design Matters interview with Canadian designer and illustrator Marian Bantjes.

’In the 100-plus broadcasts that I have done of Design Matters, I’ve never wanted so badly to be able to show something to my listeners as I do now, because there is really no other way to experience this book [Bantjes’ I Wonder] other than to see it,’ declared Millman during the interview. However, on the whole she says the radio format allows her ’to discuss the motivation for creating something, or the philosophy of designing, rather than [being] seduced or titillated by the thing itself’.

Moreover, Shaughnessy believes that there is a growing interest in the more ’theoretical and discursive’ elements of design. ’I couldn’t have done Graphic Design on the Radio ten years ago,’ he says. If the exploration of these elements is precisely suited to the radio format, then perhaps we shall hear more design on the radio yet.

This article was written for Design Week, 9 December 2010.

Profile: Dunne & Raby

There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.

It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.

Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.

‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’

Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.

As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.

But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?

Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?

‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’

For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’

It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.

The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December –

This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.

Visual boost

The word ’corporate’ can so often be a synonym for bland and monolithic, especially when it comes to offices. Think corporate headquarters. Think facsimile cubicle workstations scraping upwards layer upon layer toward the sky. The work may be interesting, challenging and dynamic, but workplaces seldom are.

Yet dull, homogeneous workplaces can have serious negative effects on staff, as well as on visitors. Movement and interaction can be restricted and staff may fail to feel a sense of common purpose or belonging. This can lead to poor productivity, low morale and high staff churn.

One relatively quick and low-cost way of addressing some of these issues is through well-implemented environmental graphics. A rising awareness of the influence of internal graphics is leading more organisations to take their visual identity and weave it throughout their buildings. The idea is that buildings benefit substantially – and measurably – from stimulating and functional visual elements, promoting the organisation’s brand personality at the same time.

’I think the growth in this area is driven by a few things,’ says Michael Johnson, creative director at visual identity consultancy Johnson Banks. ’The barriers and costs seem lower, the technology is better, and clients and architects are more prepared to let “graphics” come into a space. For a relatively low outlay, environmental graphics can make a massive impact.’

Design group Household has worked on workplace graphics for firms including pharmaceutical giant Astra Zeneca, Yahoo, Transport for London and Virgin Media. Consultancy creative director Sarah Page says internal graphics can be ’a quick, efficient way to refresh the workplace, adding personality and boosting the sense of a culture’.

Graphics, says Page, are a clever and relatively subliminal way to communicate a company’s spirit, without relying solely on words such as straplines and mission statements. Astra Zeneca took this opportunity in its new-build hospitality and training headquarters in Macclesfield. ’The business had a corporate palette, but not an environmental one, so extending the language of the business values into the environment was essential. Encouraging people to move around means they are more likely to network, share information and generally contribute beyond their immediate task in hand,’ says Page.

In the London offices of property developer Land Securities the company’s purpose and speciality is demonstrated in graphics based on London A-Z maps. Created by Hat-Trick Design, the bespoke maps are intended to reflect Land Securities’ detailed knowledge of the city.

’There are 52 maps in total, covering parks, animals, noise levels, bridges, lost rivers, markets, film locations, inventions, books, churches, archaeological finds in London and so on,’ explains Hat-Trick director Jim Sutherland. ’Several were produced plotting the staff’s favourite restaurants, shops and bars, so we involved them in the process. The maps have become a real talking point for staff and guests and a book of map postcards was given to all staff on the day they moved in.’

It’s not just corporate offices that can benefit from environmental graphics – colleges and universities are also often housed in rather insipid spaces, battered by heavy use from transient students. Here too, large-scale internal visuals can increase the appeal and functionality of buildings, benefiting current students and attracting new ones.

Westminster Academy, for example, sports bold, large-scale typographic treatments by Studio Myerscough and Hat-Trick has worked on similar projects for Brookes University in Oxford. Johnson Banks, meanwhile, is in the process of applying its identity work with digital technology college Ravensbourne to a new Foreign Office Architects-designed building in Greenwich.

’The Ravensbourne building is open-plan, so it needs really powerful graphics just to make it clear which floor you’re on and how to find what you need. We’re developing the visual identity so that the shapes work as large-scale “supergraphics” and signage within the building, acting as a mixture of wayfinding and brand reinforcement,’ says Johnson.

Well-implemented environmental graphics that truly reflect an organisation’s culture and ethos can offer tangible benefits to the people using the buildings – staff retention and loyalty, a sense of belonging, and increased productivity and interaction can all be measured to some extent, says Page.

But there are things to watch out for, too. Enthusiasm from management and staff is important so people don’t feel patronised by the branding. ’It’s very important not to over-brand areas. Putting big logos everywhere does nothing to get a personality across – you just feel shouted at,’ says Sutherland. Land Securities’ staff-sourced maps show how people can contribute to the process and Johnson Banks included Ravensbourne students in its identity development.

It is also necessary to work closely with architects or estate management teams which may be responsible for delivering and installing the final workspaces. And you have to get the basics right first or risk creating animosity. ’It’s no good looking at inspiring images if you are sitting on a broken chair,’ notes Page.

But in the end, like most design processes, it’s about drawing out an organisation’s genuine stories. ’Interviewing stakeholders is the key to unlocking the stories that sit behind businesses,’ adds Page. ’And ensuring the essence of a business is captured in a timeless way is essential to the success of branded environmental graphics.’

 This article was written for Design Week’s Opinions on Interiors supplement, September 2010.

Toucy feely

It is all starting to get a bit trippy. Delving into the world of experiential and sensory design at its most experimental is, frankly, a bit like taking drugs. In a range of projects that slip elusively through the spheres of art, design and education, we have such things as ‘distorted lamp posts’ writhing around and illuminating trees when people pass by, an ‘orchestra’ modelled on the human brain, aromas scientifically composed for a museum exhibition and a game of armflapping with chickens.

What links these projects with arguably more ‘corporate’ experiential design work – such as Imagination’s exhibition stand for Ford Europe which allows users to generate content via a ‘visual jockey’ system and project it on to a huge LED screen – is a desire to draw in the audience, often making people participants in their environment. Not surprisingly, technology frequently has a big role to play, but, thanks to an array of available sensors and wireless communications systems, it can often be rendered largely invisible, rather than intrusive.

Across museums, retail, public buildings and art installations, experience, feedback and interaction have become watchwords. ‘It’s getting easier to sell these kinds of ideas, as there’s a greater understanding of this mixed discipline,’ says Jason Bruges, founder of interactive environments and installations consultancy Jason Bruges Studio. The group is behind the tree installations at Normand Park in Fulham, London, which use light columns each bespoke-designed for its host tree. As people move past the trees, LEDs are triggered causing light to ‘grow’ up the trunk and into the canopy. Because the colour and speed of this ‘growth’ are dependent on the location and proximity of the movement, the person becomes an interactive element in the display.

Even more intriguing is a forthcoming sonic/musical work from sound designer and composer Nick Ryan, visual artist Jane Grant and composer and physicist John Matthias. The Fragmented Orchestra is modelled on the firing of the brain’s neurons and will connect 24 public sites across the UK – including a football stadium, cathedral, dairy farm, school playground, motorway crash barrier and a field – to form a ‘tiny networked cortex’. Human and environmental sounds gathered from the sites will be relayed to 24 speakers at a primary installation at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool from December. The designers say the Fragmented Orchestra will adapt, evolve and trigger site-specific sounds at Fact whenever a ‘neuron’ fires.

The combined sound of the installation is in turn fed back to the individual sites and the project’s website. The results are hard to anticipate but, once again, the installation, people and environments become interactive, all feeding back to one another.

Experiential design is clearly important to museums keen to get the highest levels of engagement from audiences, and exhibition designers can provide immersive, sensory environments to achieve this. But there’s one sense that is seldom on the design brief, and that’s the sense of smell. Not so for Berlin-based smell artist/scientist Sissel Tolaas, who has spent almost 20 years investigating the properties of smell as language and communication.

For the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Fashion V Sport exhibition, which opened in August, Tolaas’ IFF research lab in Berlin has sampled and recreated the smells of human bodies undergoing sports activity, using different aromas to connect the different sections of the show. Triggering these smells, visitors will have a sensory experience which tells them that the human body is in the exhibition space.

Other museum installations are experiential without necessarily being sensory. Berlin-based Art&Com’s recent designs for the BMW Museum in Munich include the mesmerising Kinetic Sculpture, in which 714 digitally controlled metal spheres configure to form shapes, patterns and three-dimensional car outlines, seemingly floating in the air and synchronised with text and audio quotes from BMW senior staff. According to consultancy creative director Joachim Sauter, the installation illustrates, ‘the waves of thought and disorganisation’ of the design process.

Less cerebral, but equally involving, is Ico Design Consultancy’s Chicken Run game, designed for the V&A’s Village Fete, which took place in July. Players have to flap their arms to make their chickens ‘flap to freedom’. Video camera motion tracking, modified motorised chickens and radio control circuits were invisibly built into the game stall. When the amount of movement hits a predetermined threshold a radio signal instructs the chicken’s motor to start: more flapping equals more motoring.

‘The V&A wanted something with physical interaction and a lot of people thought this was quite magical, because you can’t see how it works; it’s all wireless and concealed,’ explains Ico creative director Benjamin Tomlinson.

In many ways, here lies the key to effective experiential and interactive design: the technology must not get in the way. Much of the delight and success of Nintendo’s Wii game controller – and its myriad modified uses – is that it is free and physical, not wired and restrictive. As wireless communications become omnipresent and hardware continues to shrink, we can expect more and more environments to come alive around us, seamlessly responding and reacting to input from their users.

This article was written for Design Week, 18 September 2008.

In the mix

Let’s face it, you don’t go into the arts to make money. Hanging around with musicians and artists – even supposedly ‘successful’ ones – can tell you that pretty quickly. Yet cultural activity is seen as necessary to society’s wellbeing, creativity a lifeblood of pride and human spirit. And it’s often public places of art and education – galleries and museums – that provide outlet for and access to this activity, even if there’s no big bucks in it.

One method of delivering these amenities in a fairly high-impact manner – maximising space, facilities and branding – has been the mixed-use development. Across the country, a range of mixed-use sites combine different aspects of cultural activity, often (but not always) as a component of commercial and residential complexes, or as part of a larger urban redevelopment. There is the Barbican and the South Bank Centre in London, for example, or the Lowry in Salford Quays and the Bluecoat in Liverpool. But how do these venues work and what is the rationale for developers in placing cultural amenities in their schemes?

One of the latest mixed-use developments is Kings Place, an arts, leisure, office and events space located in the heart of London’s King’s Cross, an area undergoing one of the highest-profile urban redevelopment schemes in Europe. Opening this month, the purpose-built Dixon Jones-designed building is already headquarters to two orchestras – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta. It boasts a 420-seat main recital space and a second space for smaller performances, rehearsals and education. There are two main galleries – Pangolin London, the first London base for Gloucestershire sculpture foundry Pangolin Editions, and Kings Place Gallery. Both will run a programme of temporary art shows, changing every two to three months, while the building’s main public spaces will also be used to showcase visual arts work.

Pangolin is a commercial tenant of developers Parabola Land, as are Guardian News & Media, Network Rail and footwear company Wolverine, which between them lease all but one of the seven storeys of office space. The final floor looks set to be snapped up by a computer company and all food and drink is run under commercial contract by Green & Fortune.

So far, so commercial. But arguably the most interesting aspect of Kings Place is its musical ambitions. Both orchestras have been given tenancy for a ‘peppercorn rent’, effectively for free. As Parabola director and mastermind behind the venue Peter Millican says, ‘you don’t make any money out of doing music’. Sadly, the same could be said of most theatre and exhibitions. So why, then, do commercial developers bother building in performance spaces, studios and galleries at all?

Partly, the answer is that local councils can use commercial developments as a vehicle for improving cultural amenities in an area. Without commercial money, large-scale development is unlikely to happen, explains Gail Lord, president of destination consultancy Lord Cultural Resources (LCR). ‘Councils generally want to improve humanities services because they can improve the quality of life. They’re a form of tourism, they benefit local merchants and residents and provide education and general wellbeing. But councils lack the money and resources to do this on their own.’

Councils do have at least one resource to hand and that is their control over land and what is built on it. And developers desperately need land. In cities especially, space is at a premium, so securing planning permission on a key site is crucial; adding a few cultural jewels to a commercial or residential proposition can ease the process. ‘Developers usually use cultural elements to get planning gains – quicker planning permission, higher densities and so on. For councils, planning permission is one of the most important tools at their disposal,’ adds Lord.

Mark Sullivan, director of destination planning group Locum Consulting says sometimes developers are simply looking for a more ‘unique and differentiated’ design. ‘Cultural amenities can be more effective in generating a sense of place, helping to get people and tenants in,’ he explains.

But that’s not the whole story. Councils, developers and investors alike, may all have an interest in the long-term regeneration of urban districts, many of which are now located in brownfield sites, ‘contaminated’ with the remnants of industrial activity and not immediately appealing to residents and businesses. Cultural venues can act as a catalyst in regenerating these areas, drawing in people and investment and allowing other developments to grow around them. The Barbican, the Lowry, West Bromwich’s Public Gallery, to name just a few, were all developed as part of urban regeneration programmes. The Barbican Estate, although contentious at the time, was planned in the 1950s to provide housing and a world-class arts centre in an attempt to rebuild the East End of London following heavy bombing in the Second World War.

Another example is Salford Quays, previously a desperately run-down dockland area of Greater Manchester that has been developed using private money into a zone of waterside housing and cultural activity, home to the Lowry arts centre and Imperial War Museum North. LCR advised on the development of the mixed-use Lowry centre, but Gail Lord says that it wasn’t until the other elements of the district were developed that the whole thing  came together. ‘The plan was to put the culture in first, then you get the BBC in the north and the condominiums and so on. With nothing there, it’s risky for developers to raise capital. It was the foresight of Salford Council to do this and to see that it could happen. The council, not a property developer, directed this,’ she says.

In the case of Kings Place, it was Millican’s desire to provide a non-publicly funded arts venue as part of a mixed-use space that led to arts facilities that ‘go way beyond’ what Islington council would have stipulated for cultural elements. And Parabola’s formation of the Kings Place Music Foundation to manage the music space and run a community outreach programme also go beyond what you might expect from a property developer.

According to Lord, cultural organisations are a valuable component in this type of mixed-use building. ‘Museums and galleries should recognise the great value they bring to these developments and show more leadership,’ says Lord. ‘They’re stable; they don’t come and go like retailers and they bring a lot of economic benefits, as well as the cultural ones. The cultural partner should be a lead partner, not just an element that gets moved around.’

Millican acknowledges that the council would always require something that benefits the community, if not necessarily on the scale of the music foundation. ‘If we’d only proposed offices, the council would have asked for something else, like social housing perhaps. They wanted to bring something to the community, which I want too. Buildings should be made to work for society, but it wouldn’t be possible to do the arts stuff without the commercial tenants,’ he says.

Thinking along similar lines, The De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea was proposed in 1935 by the socialist ninth Earl De La Warr to be ‘a building of world renown that will [create] a new model of cultural provision which is going to lead to the growth, prosperity and the greater culture of our town’. Its current deputy director, Emma Morris, confirms that the commercial elements which are owned and run by the venue – the shop and café/bar – are a critical part the business plan if they are to earn enough revenue to fund the music, exhibition and performance programme. Unlike Kings Place, where much of the building is purely commercial, the pavillion is entirely self-sufficient.

This is one of the reasons behind the rationale for mixed-use developments: commercial revenues are maximised (one café serves gallery, exhibition and auditorium visitors alike) and can subsidise arts programmes, while cultural events can attract people and further investment to the area, in turn increasing visitors. There are programming benefits too, especially if different programming heads work together as part of a venue-wide team. ‘Although we have individual directors, we try to present an integrated programme where there is a connection between different areas, but if there’s not an obvious link we don’t push it,’ explains Morris.

The De La Warr Pavilion’s forthcoming Michael Nyman exhibition illustrates how you can leverage a multi-space venue. Nyman’s audio-visual work will be shown in the gallery spaces and a related piano season in the auditorium will feature some acts suggested by Nyman, including live performances by the composer himself.

At Liverpool’s Bluecoat contemporary arts centre the focus is on artist development rather audience development, says chief executive Alastair Upton. All of the Bluecoat’s facilities – studios, artists’ shops, offices and exhibition spaces – are given over to various stages of artistic output. ‘It’s the creative process from one end to the other, including retail. We take an economic position and so can see very clearly the connections between the creative process and the economic results. I don’t know of anywhere else that does it from top to bottom like this. Here, the whole thing is integral,’ he says.

A seemingly clear benefit of housing different cultural organisations under one roof – and perhaps one brand – is that visitors will ‘cross-pollinate’ between the different areas. But in reality this is hard to achieve. Upton says that cross-promoting the Bluecoat’s different activities – dance, music, painting, or whatever – remains difficult, even though they present interconnected programmes where possible, such as this summer’s Arabic Arts Festival. ‘The contemporary arts audience tends to have minority interests and it’s very hard to move them into other areas,’ he explains.

According to Lord, this is a near-universal difficulty, but it’s also one of the key objectives of a multifarious arts centre. ‘There is cross-pollination, but there are very few examples of it working really well because it’s really complex and hard to get right,’ she says. ‘But that certainly doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.’

This article was written for Museums Journal, October 2008.

Why is public signage failing?

The phrase ‘to have lost one’s way’ is often applied to people who have become anxious, confused and vulnerable. Although meant metaphorically, it’s no coincidence that to literally lose one’s way – to become disoriented – also causes tension to rise very quickly. In public spaces, such as hospitals, car parks and stations, this is the last thing users want, yet poorly designed wayfinding systems often compromise safety and may even increase the risks of criminal behaviour.

Blind alleys, dead ends, poor sight lines and disappearing trails all leave people floundering. As the Home Office’s guide to designing out crime says, good street lighting and wayfinding measures, clear sight lines and a minimum of secluded or isolated areas go a long way towards making people and places less vulnerable.

‘In designing spaces we want people to feel safer and be safer, and wayfinding is important in this,’ says Jake Desyllas, director of wayfinding and pedestrian movement specialist Intelligent Space. ‘By moving people around in a certain way, you can increase the number of people who are viewing a space, as well as the potential for people to enter it at any given moment. Even if no one is actually coming in through a doorway, the fact that they might makes a space feel safer than, say, an alleyway which nobody can suddenly enter.’

The need for a calm, safe flow of people is especially important in environments where tension may already be high, such as hospitals. At Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, for example, the Accident & Emergency department suffered a rise in crime five years ago, especially in violence towards staff. An analysis by Intelligent Space found that incidents were talking place in the treatment rooms – the worst possible place – largely because people entered through the wrong entrance and were then drawn by natural light and activity into a medical-looking area. Poor wayfinding and signage also led to rising stress levels, increasing the likelihood of aggression. Intelligent Space created a new wayfinding system and resited the reception area so that it provides greater ‘natural surveillance’ by staff; the number of incidents subsequently fell by around 80 per cent.

Car parks are another trouble spot, with poor sight lines and lack of natural surveillance ratcheting up the risks of crime, according to design management consultant Raymond Turner. ‘They bend back on themselves and you end up in a space where nobody can see you and then a crime can happen,’ he says. ‘People need to be able to orient themselves where they feel others can see them. Ideally, you can always see a point of entry and a point of exit. Women report that they don’t want to be in a place that’s poorly lit, with poor signage.’

People with impaired memory are also vulnerable to losing their track, even on home ground. For the Design Business Association’s Inclusive Design Awards, wayfinding consultancy FW Design researched the needs of dementia sufferers and found that colour, iconic landmarks and repetition were all tools used to help this group of people navigate and orientate. The consultancy shows how its wayfinding and signage system for Romford town centre – which already uses a linear map to pictorially describe routes at regular intervals – could be extended for dementia sufferers to include a portable, task-focused navigational tool that works alongside the permanent wayfinding structures. These landmark cards work like stepping stones that can be compiled for any number of common journeys, by assembling specific cards in the right order.

Designing a space – or a wayfinding and signage system – that regulates the flow of people and minimises the risks of them becoming lost and confused can improve perceived safety, as well as reduce susceptibility to actual crime. Much of this is about creating spaces with natural wayfinding, rather than planting heaps of sign-based information everywhere. Desyllas describes effective spaces as having ‘casual surveillance’ and a ‘permeability’ of routes. Turner concurs, saying ‘Every sign you hang up condemns the building – it’s a crutch for a sick building that isn’t speaking clearly enough.’ He believes that architects need to work closely with wayfinding specialists to anticipate how people will use a space, if they are to reduce the likelihood of confusion and the number of trouble-spot locations. ‘Despite what they might say, architects are often not aware of how people actually use a space, and a failure of designers to put themselves in the shoes of inexperienced users can lead to lots of problems,’ he says.

Perhaps the key challenge lies in striking a balance between controlling people flow through layout, wayfinding and signage, giving them the freedom to move naturally in a pleasing environment and discouraging antisocial behaviour at the same time. Good examples of this are few and far between, says Marcus Wilcocks, a research fellow at the Design Against Crime Research Centre at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. ‘Concrete barriers or endless fencing may offer move-along-please aesthetics but rarely instil a greater sense of on-street security. I suggest we get back to designingin adjectives – not just specifications – when designing out crime from urban routes. Beauty, creativity and the resulting variation of form, material and colour are not utopian ideals, but necessities for human well-being, which can help us understand and move through city streets safely.’

This article was written for Design Week, 6 August 2008.

Interactive signage

Public signs which react to their users – providing just the information they need, exactly when they need it – are an appealing idea, especially to interaction designers. And with embedded communication technologies such as radio frequency tagging and wireless, mobile internet connections, the emergence of fully interactive signage becomes eminently possible.

At least, it does in theory. In reality, the cost of building interaction into signs is often thought to outweigh the benefits for organisations or their users. ‘Interactive signage can be very expensive,’ says Ico Design Consultancy creative director Benjamin Tomlinson. ‘The technology is there to create them, but the cost and complexity of rollout quite often directs [a project]. It’s not a case of what’s possible, but a question of initial investment. Will the extra interaction be worth the investment?’

In many commercial situations the answer would be no. But experimental research underway at the Design Museum in London aims to put interactivity and dynamic content into what the museum’s strategic consultant Daniel Charny is calling ‘explorative signage’ – part sign, part interactive wall. ‘It’s part of a process of making the museum’s collections more accessible through signage. Although it works like an interactive kiosk, it will be in the foyer so people will see it as they come in or sit in the café, so it’s signage,’ says Charny.

This explorative signage is pioneering something of a technical first too, marrying traditional screen-printed graphics with special conductive ink technology to create active ‘buttons’ on the surface of the foyer wall. Graphic designer Lea Jagendorf’s visual scheme will be brought to electrical, interactive life under a system designed by interaction consultancy Osmotronic. When users touch the buttons they will trigger media content that will be projected onto the wall.

‘It works on two levels: it’s passive for people looking on, but it’s being controlled by people touching the wall. And while it’s interactive, it doesn’t look digital because it’s a projection rather than screen,’ explains Charny.

The system will first be used to offer visitors access to objects from the Design Museum’s collections that aren’t currently on display in the building. These digital assets include video and photographic material, as well as detailed written information. But the system could function as an information point too.

‘As it’s in the foyer they need it to be flexible, so it can be unobtrusive if other events are taking place. So we’ve designed a minimal grid of buttons, each around 5cm across, “soft-labelled” at any given moment by the projector to show what they do,’ explains Osmotronic director Matthew Falla. ‘When you’re looking at an object, pressing a button might bring up more info about the design, its client, processes or materials and so on.’

At around 4m2, it’s perhaps the scale of the projection that allows it to be considered signage, but what’s especially valuable about this approach to wall space is that the content is dynamic, rather than static. Media can come to the fore or recede, as required by the user or the venue. Along with collections content, the Design Museum wall could also provide visitor information, introductory material for groups about to view an exhibition, or even media for private functions or events.

In a project for Manchester Art Gallery, signage design consultancy Holmes Wood also employed technology to create large-scale, dynamically changing signs suspended in the building’s main atrium. ‘They can be used for daily events and promotion and then used in the evenings for corporate events, with the addition of sound. We designed the software as a bespoke solution, with templates and grids that allow it to be updated and completely managed in-house by the gallery,’ says consultancy director Alexandra Wood.

A similar system was built for auction house Christie’s by Land Design Studio and digital consultancy Clay Interactive. Using high-quality projectors and screens, wall sections at Christie’s King Street showroom in London become embedded, ‘invisible’ media spaces, playing out content on items up for auction, or information about what’s taking place in the venue and so on. According to Land Design Studio creative director Peter Higgins, using media in this way allows it to become part of the physical space, just as static informational signage does. ‘It’s about how to nurture spaces, how it becomes media as architecture,’ he says.

Although not interactive from a user’s point of view, the Christie’s and Manchester Art Gallery projects show how, as at the Design Museum, dynamic media, architecture and signage can start to become one and the same. ‘The architecture, hardware and software development are all happening together with the client’s content. It’s incredibly important that these are in parallel,’ adds Higgins.

The Design Museum’s interactive signage will trial throughout the summer, after which it may be extended further into the museum and its interactivity thrown open to include content generated by users of the museum’s website. ‘It’s really a first experiment at this stage, but it could be used throughout the museum as a new type of signage exhibit,’ says Charny.

This article was written for Design Week, 8 May 2008.