Category Archives: Design

It’s good to talk

For many people, museums are perceived as balanced places of education and knowledge, embodying some sort of benign didacticism. Embracing this apparent objectivity, several institutions have been keen to set up as organisers and mediators of public debate on topical issues.

In doing this, they take on not only the interpretation of their own collections, but also attempt to connect more directly with what is going on in the world around them. Some have carved out dedicated debating spaces for this, while others attempt to design dynamic and responsive elements into exhibitions dealing with contemporary issues.

But how successfully can a museum chair this kind of dialogue and are they even the right places to do this? The Science Museum and Natural History Museum (NHM) in London have looked carefully at how they can build debate into the fabric of their operations. The Science Museum’s Dana Centre was launched in 2003 as a venue dedicated to the adult debate of contemporary science.

The decision to create the facility followed “huge focus groups” asking people what would get them into the museum, says its event programmes manager Kat Nilsson. “It is about creating a space for dialogue for adults, as the main museum is often thought to be for kids and families,” she says. “So we try to reintroduce adults to the Science Museum through the Dana Centre.”

The idea for the Dana Centre partly came about when it became clear that some subjects – an exhibition on plastic surgery, specifically – rely on images that are not suitable for children. But the focus groups also showed that audiences were demanding something more engaging and conversational from museums.

When the London Transport Museum (LTM) reopens this month following a £20m refurbishment, it too will attempt to tackle current debate, in this case over the future of the capital’s public transport system. For its director, Sam Mullins, looking to and debating the future is an essential role for the museum.

“It seemed ludicrous to end the transport story now, or 10 years ago, when it leads you inevitably into contemporary issues which are always changing,” he says. “But [tackling these issues] has big implications on the skill set of the museum’s staff and its exhibition furniture.

“This kind of perennial contact with the public doesn’t come naturally. What you can do in an exhibition is limited in terms of how much you can provide multiple viewpoints. The closer you get to contemporary subjects, the more viewpoints you really need.”

This is one of the difficulties of tackling current and changing issues. While historical objects are full of stories and interpretations, when they are consigned to the past they are mostly inured to controversy. Inviting debate over potentially contentious issues demands different sets of facilities and abilities.

Managing debate

“We have had to divide up the museum media into permanent exhibitions, temporary exhibitions – which are three to four years in planning, so not very contemporary – and a rapid response through Nature Live,” says the NHM’s director of public engagement, Sharon Ament.

Nature Live carries the museum’s programme of informal talks, which run on a daily basis – a huge undertaking even for a relatively well-funded national museum. The museum also had to create a dedicated “media lab” in its Darwin Centre to host the events.

Seating about 100 people and fitted out with cameras, screens, special microscopes and microphones, the studio also streams events live to the internet, inviting online viewers to contribute to the discussions.

But given the extra demand on resources, why do museums feel compelled to host such forums? Is it because the traditional role of collecting and interpreting objects is not dynamic enough to pull the public through the doors? With regard to the LTM’s desire to be at the heart of the transport debate, Sara Selwood, the head of cultural policy and management at City University, London, says:

“My immediate reaction is that they are interested in doing this because the main function [of the museum] isn’t sufficient. It is not an unreasonable thing for them to do, but it does also raise questions about whether museums are to do with the past or the present.”

Ament believes that contemporary relevance is not optional, but vital to museums’ survival: “The day museums stop having relevance to their visitors’ lives, they become an irrelevance.” And in today’s climate of online “social networking” and constant interaction, maintaining a dialogue with visitors is perhaps even more essential.

But genuinely open debate can create editorial difficulties for museums as mediators in how controversial viewpoints are handled and who has authorship of them. And as the notions of neutrality and objectivity are thrust more starkly into the spotlight, there may be commercial implications too – will sponsors or stakeholders become uncomfortable with tricky subjects?

Most curators and programme managers seem compelled to uphold a position of neutrality, insisting they retain editorial control and present both sides of an argument; it is seen as a prerequisite of having the authority to host a debate.

“It is vital that editorial control is maintained or the museum looks stupid,” says Nilsson, in reference to a previous Dana Centre debate on the future of energy, sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels. “If I were to put on an event saying how wonderful nuclear fuel is, I wouldn’t have much credibility with the audience or my conscience,” she says.

Ament agrees, claiming that “editorial freedom” is built into contracts with sponsors up front. “It is a founding principle of the museum and one we hold very dear,” she says.

But Nilsson does acknowledge that the Science Museum’s commercial department has had some difficulties managing partner relationships.

Greenpeace, for example, has shown some concerns over perceived (or potential) conflicts of interest with sponsors. Mullins, too, recognises the limitations of his situation, as the LTM is essentially an arm of Transport for London (TfL), itself a political entity.

The downside of objectivity

“We want the museum to be an objective place to discuss current and future transport, but there is a highly political dimension,” Mullins says. “As an example, the mayor’s office and senior TfL people are always critical of the public-private partnership route for funding the Tube, but underneath that, there are huge numbers of people who are having to try and make it work.

“There is always this kind of duality, so we have to be careful. It would be quite stupid to give a platform to people who just want to slag off the mayor. To do something that is significantly off-message regularly would be like cutting your own throat.”

But if museums want to be engaging spaces of public debate should objectivity really be regarded as so sacrosanct? Not according to David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool (NML). He believes that editorialising is necessary.

“I can’t bear it when people describe museums as neutral spaces,” he says. “It is like some sort of badge of honour that we have awarded ourselves, but it is also like we have emasculated ourselves. We are in search of the truth, not neutrality, and they are not the same thing. We should stop being frightened of having opinions voiced in a museum space.”

In August, NML opened the International Slavery Museum – a space that Fleming says is “full of viewpoints” and which takes a “fundamentally anti-slavery stance”. Alongside a historical context, the museum also addresses the present-day plight of people who are in bondage or are “practically slaves”.

Given the predominant moral consensus, this line of editorialising is unlikely to be seen as problematic. But how far can you push it? Is racist nationalism an acceptable viewpoint for an exhibition of multiculturalism in Britain? Should neo-Nazi viewpoints be given space in a show about 1930s Germany?

“We have to be brave enough to have things that might cause offence,” Fleming adds. “But the law will stop me having to show views on certain subjects – pro-paedophilia, homophobia or racism, for example. From a personal point of view, the law is my safety net.

“But I don’t see why we have to take the museum as some holier-than-thou, sanctimonious way to be neutral, just so it isn’t too threatening. At the end of the day, it’s a myth that we don’t have partiality – everything is authored.”

So maybe neutrality is not quite as desirable as received wisdom would have it. Perhaps a degree of provocation will engage the public and catalyse discussion. Even for museums interested in the contemporary rather than controversy, hosting public debates may start to change the way they operate.

“We are thinking hard about our collecting policies: less hardware, more documentary material – trends, photos, oral history,” Mullins says. “And if you’re reworking your collecting and communicating, you have to rework your curators, too.”

This article was written for Museums Journal, November 2007.

A second Industrial Revolution?

Certain people in certain circles are talking about a revolution. Not quite a political uprising, but something which could apparently change the nature of manufacturing relations on a global scale, not to mention fundamental rules of design. This agent of change is known as rapid manufacturing and it’s born of rapid prototyping, a system that has increasingly aided product design since its introduction in the mid 1980s.

At its most poetic, rapid manufacturing builds the ‘unbuildable’. It creates geometric forms that can be imagined and sketched, but never rendered physical using conventional tooling processes. In more industrial terms, the process dramatically compresses the time it takes to produce a finished product, ready for sale, direct from design. The commercial expedient is obvious. But there’s corollary to this too, a possible social and economic gain where manufacturing is drawn back from the crucible of the Far East and RM facilities are installed in towns and villages like latter-day blacksmiths, let alone in each and every home.

But that’s jumping ahead. Firstly, what exactly is RM and what does it mean for designers? ‘Throughout history we’ve only ever used a limited number of techniques to make parts. You take a lump of stuff and then chip it, carve it, bash, mould or press it. These are all processes of subtraction [from the original material] and they impose rigid design rules – rules designers have had drummed into them from a very early age and will probably take to their graves,’ says product designer and RM exponent Geoff Hollington.

Both RM and rapid prototyping build models by laying down materials in thin layers, fractions of a millimetre thick, in a process that is additive rather than subtractive. From resins, powders or metals objects ‘grow’ in three dimensions. Within minutes or hours designers may hold an accurate model of a design iteration developed on computer, without use of specially constructed moulds or machine parts.

‘Rapid prototyping has certainly changed the design process because you can get a model very quickly and cheaply and you’re not asking a client for tens of thousands of pounds for it. You also get a hands-on physical tool much earlier in the design process,’ explains Miles Hawley, head of industrial design at PDD.

Emerging possibilities now see that same technology creating complete products in a single ‘3D printing’ step. This is rapid manufacturing and it’s bound neither physically, by the requirements of moulds and tools, nor geographically, by the costs of manufacturing infrastructure. ‘It’s going to change the whole process of design,’ says Philip Phelan, director of product design consultancy Phelan Associates. ‘It means we’re going to have designers and engineers sitting together because all the elements need to be truly integrated [for direct output in a single process].’

Virgin Atlantic head of design Joe Ferry anticipates great benefits to the airline industry. ‘If they can get it right it could eradicate huge wastage and regain time that could be invested in design or delivery. I think eventually they will and it will be very interesting to see how industrial designers respond,’ he says.

Designers are already responding, says Matthew Lewis, manager of London Metropolitan University’s digital manufacturing facilities Metropolitan Works. ‘It’s clear that when you give this kind of technology to a creative designer, they’re very keen to explore what they can do. And I think we’re getting a new kind of design language, more organic, more freeform shapes; people like Future Systems and Zaha Hadid.’

Another RM facility, the Royal College of Art’s Rapidform centre, claims to be the largest of its kind in the world. But in most cases they are still producing relatively basic prototypes in a single material, rather than finished products. ‘The real Holy Grail,’ says Hollington, ‘is multiple materials. Wouldn’t it be nice to print an iPod? There are a lot of people who want this very badly.’

And there’s been a breakthrough. ‘A manufacturer has now made the leap from one to two materials,’ says Rapidform manager Martin Watmough. More will be revealed at an RCA event next week (25 September), but this is a step closer to more intricate RM. Theoretically – that is to say, within the laws of physics – there are no parts that cannot be made by RM processes, including circuitry and microchips. It also becomes possible to produce a product with a manufacturing run of as little as one unit. Adaptations to the data are made before the next product is formed and mass customisation by consumers becomes a reality: a chair formed precisely to the measurements of your back, or a set of loudspeakers tailored to the awkward curve of a living room perhaps.

And Watmough believes that domestic versions of these ‘3D printers’ will be available within ten years. He describes a future scene in which the hosts of a party design and produce a dinner service especially for guests, or another where a washing machine repairer downloads a broken part’s design data and ‘RMs’ it in the back of the van there an then. But why stop there? Why not make a new dinner service every weekend, or just build a whole new washing machine? And here another, darker corollary emerges: ‘I think the environmental consequences are of great concern,’ says Watmough. ‘What’s to stop people just making whatever they want, throwing things away and making a new one?’

As ever, technological advance brings reward and challenge. For designers, businesses and consumers alike RM may ultimately demand a whole new approach to production and consumption, tantamount, in Hollington’s eyes, to a second industrial revolution.

This article was written for Design Week, 20 September 2007.

Walk this way

It may well constitute the very basics of retail store design, but the challenge of enticing customers to visit every square foot of the shop floor demands a constant turnover of creative ideas from designers and retailers. The way the shoppers can be allured, tempted and seduced into the four corners of a store can mark the difference between mere shopping and an indulgent, sensory experience. Retail as theatre demands sets, props, smoke and mirrors.

There is an obvious commercial imperative to make every inch of the shop unit work hard, as rents are negotiated on floor space. But approaches to wresting the most out of this space can vary significantly depending on the brand. At one extreme there’s Ikea’s enforced route way, where every path must be trodden and every product regarded. Or, as Ikea rather innocuously puts it: ‘While exploring the store, visitors may be inspired to pick up a few extra products.’

Here, shoppers make a kind of deal with the devil: I’ll walk all the way around your store as long as you promise to show me lots of good products at low prices. Does it work? Well, Ikea attributes a large part of its success (worldwide sales of around E17bn and 500 million visitors in 2006) to this format. A spokeswoman for the company says the majority of visitors want ‘to explore the store and be inspired by all of our ideas and solutions’. And for the more focused customer there are shortcuts marked out, although some visitors have complained that these are not always obvious enough, adds the spokeswoman.

At the other end of the scale there’s a company like Apple, which is concerned with offering products that empower people and put them in control, according to Portland Design Associates director of retail Lewis Allen. ‘The Apple stores reflect this by allowing you to choose where to go, giving a nice wide, open space to walk around. This fits what the Apple brand is about,’ he says.

Most stores fall somewhere between these approaches, with a bit of cajoling and carrot dangling providing the impetus to move through the space. Clever use of lighting, route ways, signage cues, special promotions and even large-scale ‘exhibition’ objects, such as Dunhill’s vintage cars, are methods of catching the eye. Another enticement technique is the strategic placement of zones where customers can taste, smell or touch products. ‘It shouldn’t just be a passive journey. People want to try things and need motivation to keep going at a certain pace,’ says Allen.

Retailers can also take cues from exhibition design. Fashion brand Bench opened its first stand-alone store in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre earlier this month, taking just this theatrical or exhibition approach. Created by Barber Design Consultants, the 2,700 sq ft store recreates a Manchester house from 1989, referencing the brand’s origins. Features include an avocado bathroom suite, signature items such as a Game Boy console and iconic record sleeves from the Happy Mondays. ‘We have managed to bring together history, technology, art, music and the range of Bench product to create this story concept. We’re trying to create feature points that people will explore and talk about and that will create a conversational link between customers and staff,’ says Bench head of retail Greig Fowler.

Women’s fashion chain Coast is developing its stores with retail and brand environments agency Household, launching a concession format in Debenhams, Oxford Street last month. In department store environments a different approach to navigation is needed, says Household insights director Michelle Du-Prât. ‘We’ve treated the footprint like a normal store but with a convenience mindset. Customers pick up on visual cues for them to ‘stop’ and shop easily and quickly. The format has driven sales up exponentially in first month of trading,’ she claims.

Perhaps the most obvious means of guiding people through a space is the walkway. However, according to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel, there is a dilemma in the minds of retailers over whether walkways should be used to move people into every corner, or simply to guide them in and out of the store. ‘Prior to the arrival of [owner] Philip Green, BHS removed all the walkways and let people meander around. It was chaotic, with people getting confused, so they reverted,’ he says.

Dalziel also believes that the importance of sight lines is often overlooked. ‘Long views are very important, but many stores don’t take care of them, instead merchandising on all the corners. You need long views that show destination points. Dangling cardboard above people’s heads for navigation is one of the worst crimes a retailer can commit.’

This article was written for Marketing, 26 September 2007.

Shopping with frills

There is, many designers claim, still a huge opportunity for retailers to raise their game by creating stores that offer richer experiences and a sense of drama. Designers might well say this of course, as it is the conjuring of such delights from the drawing board that pays their bills. But there is no denying that to compete in the mercilessly cut-throat high street, as well as against burgeoning online retailers, demands an especially enticing offer. Responding to these challenges, the fashion sector in particular is currently abuzz with new formats, refreshed branding and store roll-out programmes.

‘Retailers are finally starting to do something after four or five years of stagnation with the white box concept,’ says Lewis Allen, director of retail at Portland Design Associates. ‘The Spanish invasion of people like Zara has really shaken things up and to some extent shown everyone else the way. They have brought theatre and experience to stores, with more products that are more seasonable. There is now more investment, better ideas and stronger visual merchandising propositions. Look at Marks & Spencer: they assessed styling, products and packaging, with a much stronger focus on the consumer.’

These changes are not simply the work of retail design agencies alone, but a collaboration between visual merchandising specialists, architects, store development directors and marketing chiefs. And the result, at least at present, is a constant upward drive toward the luxury, the chichi or the indulgent. As ever, brands need as clear a distinction as possible from one another, but to combat the internet in particular fashion chains are being forced to improve their level of service and create add-on offers for customers.

‘The internet is really a part of our lives now and there are many products that it’s better to buy online, such as books and CDs. But fashion retailing is a different thing: People are different sizes, they need advice and extra service. This means that they have to retain that high street presence, which is very expensive and competitive,’ says Jonathan Clarke, director at Universal Design Studio, which is creating store interiors for the forthcoming dedicated Reiss building on Barrett Street in London. Clarke says that added services are increasingly being used toward the luxury end of fashion, perhaps reviving the type of relationship customers had with dedicated tailors in years past.

One way of achieving this type of intimacy through store design is to introduce boutique style elements into what are essentially high street chains. Women’s fashion retailer Phase Eight launched a Caulder Moore-designed format along these lines in autumn last year. The company’s then-chief executive Joy Walters described as a ‘chic and glamorous’, saying it helped elevate the brand above the middle market with a more personalised and bespoke offer.

Universal’s concept for Reiss’ 10,000 square feet store near Bond Street in London will also represent a shift toward aspirational luxury when it opens this October. ‘It is a much purer look; a much cleaner space and a totally new approach,’ says founder David Reiss. ‘But we’re trying to bring some key elements and special features to the graphics, walls and space,’ he adds, reluctant to reveal further details.

The Reiss store will be housed in a bespoke redevelopment – by architect Squire and Partners – of the five-storey building formerly home to the London College of Fashion. ‘It’s effectively a branded building, which is a giant leap for the brand and something that I don’t think anyone else has done in the UK,’ adds Clarke. ‘David wanted to move the brand forward, but the existing stores [designed by D-Raw Associates] are already good and it’s hard to make changes to a good offer. However some of the stores had started to become to reminiscent of the collections themselves, so the clothes can get a bit lost in the same palette.’

But perhaps the most significant movement in the retail hierarchy at present is the budget sector’s push up against the mid-market. As the Primark case study here shows, the tactical use of visual queues from luxury brands, combined with super-low price tags, can have a potent effect on shoppers. And significantly, its high-value ethos can also take on the supermarkets at their own game. ‘The value copy cat sector has been driving fast-fashion hard. Peacocks has even launched a new format that looks more like New Look than New Look,’ says Michelle Du-Prât, insights director at design agency Household. ‘The store designs pump for a fashionable edge, with prices on basics set to match the supermarkets.’ Du-Prât asks whether this is sustainable, but then also notes that Peacocks is reeling in double digit growth at the same time as rolling out a new store format.

Caulder Moore joint managing director Irene Maguire also points at the launch of fashion ranges in supermarkets as a cause of major ructions in the high street fashion sector. She believes that this is compelling players in the middle market to ‘seriously consider’ how they differentiate. One of the ways high street retailers are combating this is by making branding even more central to their thinking in terms of store environments, she claims. ‘Retailers are working hard to define their own individual, distinct ‘emotional’ territory in the minds of their customers. Our belief is that design can create an emotive bond between the brand and their customer. Establishing this connection successfully allows a retailer to elevate their product beyond a commodity into something which is a special experience.’

Working with brands including Gap, Next and River Island, as well as Primark, Dalziel & Pow’s portfolio straddles the value/mid-market offers. ‘This push by value players has prompted the competition to raise their game significantly. The middle market retailers are now investing heavily in the design of store environments to protect their position or establish a new more premium position,’ says director David Dalziel. H&M’s new COS format, for example, takes cues from designer brands but addresses the mass consumer in a mid-market segment. However, some have questioned how well the format is performing. Dalziel says that although the stores look good, there is too much discounted product and not enough space, while Clarke also remains unconvinced that the format has really been effective.

And what is the effect of all this budget and mid-market jostling at the premium or luxury end of the street? As all retailers take more and more design cues from premium styling the top strata are feeling the pinch. And according to Dalziel, they are not reacting effectively. ‘The high brands are pressured to respond and in my opinion they are failing. Too many premium stores are not providing the differentiation considering the investment. High brands should be fulfilling a fantasy, inspiring their customers, not simply reassuring them with another ‘smart’ store. The spark and creativity is lacking,’ he claims.

In many respects, this is the challenge for everyone on the high street: to somehow provide an easily identifiable point of difference while at the same time developing an efficient and alluring store format. Having just opened Bench’s first standalone concept store in Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, the company’s head of retail and former Ted Baker man Greig Fowler is aware of the challenge of trying to stand out in the marketplace. ‘Everyone’s raised their game and doing a good shop fit is not enough anymore. You have to go the extra distance to stand out, which is extremely hard in this day and age.’

Case study: Primark – budget bonanza
There’s a lot of talk about how the budget sector is putting the squeeze on mid-market players such as Next, Dorothy Perkins or River Island by raising the game in terms of store environments. Perhaps at the apogee of this movement is Primark’s 35,000 sq feet store on Oxford Street, which opened late last year under a design by Dalziel & Pow, its retained agency for almost 20 years.

Lambasted by some as a purveyor of gluttonous and unsustainable over-consumption due to its low-price, high-turnover product, the store was nevertheless stampeded by wanton consumers at launch. Although this frenzy has since abated to some degree, the store is still around 50 per cent over its initial trading targets and is set to turnover more than £100m a year, according to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel. Footfall on the street outside rose by 16% in the three months after opening and it takes around a 100 staff to replenish the stock overnight. ‘There are still queues at the weekend and inside it’s running at four times the pace of Dorothy Perkins,’ claims Dalziel.

The retail design challenge is to accommodate – and indeed promote – this kind of throughput. The agency’s scheme has 64 tills positioned across two floors. This quantity is typically found in supermarkets, but here – in order to maintain a fashion store ambience – the cash desks must not dominate, so they are broken into four banks of 16. Sub-brand areas, such as children’s range Young Dimension and household goods in Home, give the store a ‘departmental feeling’, although there are only about seven finishes and a predominantly monochromatic colour palette, normally associated with higher status brands. ‘Spot and fluorescent lighting combinations and accents of other materials, such as baroque wallpaper and heavier timbering, are more sophisticated than you would expect. But it’s also important that people don’t think it’s out of their price range, so the space is clear and unfussy,’ says Dalziel.

And this is how Primark starts to trade up the budget sector. Using design, its low-cost and abundant products are set in an environment which suggests a higher price tag. ‘It’s almost like the price has been misprinted: a £40 dress for £4,’ reckons Dalziel.

This is article was written for Marketing, 26 September 2007.

The Art of Selling

‘A salesman is somebody way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoe shine,’ delcares Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s elegy to the expiring art of the travelling peddler. Loman cuts a fairly desperate figure, clinging to the idea that he is a face-to-face businessman and, poignantly, the notion that it’s the best thing he can possibly be. Almost 60 years since Miller’s play, a career in selling is still more likely to be seen as venerable and lucrative in the States, while over here the very word is tarnished with a grubby image and its practitioners occasionally viewed as something of an underclass.

Whichever way you cut it, selling can be tough. As a design consultancy or architectural practice, how much product sales material – printed or otherwise – do you immediately dismiss and discard? Or as a product supplier, how many sales leads turn to cold trails following an unreceptive snub? It’s no surprise given the sheer volume of commercial messages we’re bombarded with every day, that most sales advances are seen as nuisance intrusions. And yet, the whole system is symbiotic and everyone’s in it. Selling a concept, a process, a scheme, a team, a product or a service; whatever stage you’re at, you are flogging something to somebody to get a project completed and a pay cheque in the bank. What, then, is the art of selling?

With the power to strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned of hawks, cold calling is synonymous with the sales trade, but it is almost universally seen as a desperate and unproductive route to cracking a deal. ‘Cold calling is very difficult and there’s no point in us doing telesales,’ says James Mair, managing director of contract furniture and lighting company Viaduct. ‘We have to pre-promote ourselves before we call and then it’s no skin off our nose if people say we’re selling rubbish that they don’t want. That way we don’t waste anyone’s time.’ This is perhaps an unrealistically philosophical response to the old cold-shoulder, but it illustrates the need to pick your targets well and not flog the dead horse, as Mair adds: ‘Doing the hard sell won’t work. We’re trying to persuade people that what we’re offering will fit their scheme, which is one person’s opinion against another. If you try to hard sell that then the client will just dig their toes in.’

For product suppliers and manufacturers at least, it seems a degree of wastage in the sales process may be inevitable. Gianni Botsford, founder of Gianni Botsford Architects, says that around 80 per cent of the catalogues received at his practice go ‘straight in the bin’. Sales calls, meanwhile, are screened. So what does get through? ‘In the first instance I ask whether I am ever going to like [the product] and if not, it goes. Then I think you slowly get to know who you want to work with,’ says Botsford. And, as always, achieving a degree of stand-out amongst the noise is helpful. ‘There is a lighting company in the Middle East which has been sending me interesting little fliers and leaflets for a while, but no calls. Then, about a year later, they called to say they’re going to be in the country and would I like to meet, so I’ve agreed,’ adds Botsford. Building these kinds of relationships is hard, but probably essentially. ‘Sometimes we hit lucky [with a call], but mostly it involves nurturing. This is a pretty personal business,’ adds Mair.

But are there perception barriers to break down before these relationships can form? Designers are not necessarily accommodating and receptive when it comes to sales calls. ‘It’s much better with suppliers if you call them. You’re on guard the moment they cold call you, because you think they might not believe in [what they’re selling],’ says Yasser Al-Saheal, director of architectural practice SLAM. The group has recently been selling its own product concept for a £53,000 pre-fabricated house. Having done the door to door pitch routine, would Al-Saheal want prospective investors to think he didn’t believe in the future house concept? ‘I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but no, I wouldn’t want people to think I didn’t believe in it at all,’ he says. And therein lies the rub.

Preconceptions seem to suggest that as a professional salesman you’re more untrustworthy than if you’re doing a sales pitch as an add-on to a broader creative endeavour. Or, as Laurie Chetwood, director of architectural practice Chetwoods, puts it: ‘There’s an intellectual snobbery in architecture and design’. But while there are certainly differences between the two camps, are they as distinct as people may like to believe?

Gill Parker is joint managing director of workplace design consultancy BDGworkfutures and previously worked in senior management at contract furniture group Herman Miller. Parker believes that everyone is continually selling, even though the approach taken maybe depend on the form of the product or service. ‘People don’t like to think of themselves as salesmen, but we’re all doing it at different times of the day – presenting, projecting, negotiating. It’s only when you put a label on it that people get stage fright. If you mention sales in a design environment people start to recoil, but it’s inherent in every business,’ she says.

The keys to success appear to be passion and enthusiasm and, crucially, an ability to communicate them. Unlike product suppliers, designers often find themselves in the position of having to sell a rather abstract set of ideas and abilities. The belief, from some quarters, is that any verve they display in a presentation will stem from an ingenuous excitement about their creative inspiration. But, of course, they may just be good salesmen. Conversely, there are poor salesmen who may well believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing, but can’t convey it.

‘Architects are never trained as salespeople and I’m always amazed that clients are happy that we’re at the forefront of selling what might be multimillion pound projects,’ says Chetwood. ‘People who sell Hoovers are trained, but a mistake by architects can cost hundreds of thousands. Yet often clients don’t take much notice of who they send to sell a project.’

What designers repeatedly pick up here, is that academic training almost never provides a component on how to sell design ideas. ‘In architecture academia there’s no training. No one ever asks how you might have landed the project you’re proposing or how you’re going to sell it. And when it comes to figures, costs and finances, we’re not necessarily any good at it,’ says Al-Saheal. But not everyone is so doubting of designers’ abilities. Peter Lintott, director of sales for workspace furniture group Ahrend, believes that designers make very good salespeople indeed. ‘Often specifiers and clients are relieved when they get to talk to a designer because they are one step removed [from selling] and can focus on what the clients want to talk about. I think the salesman’s role is becoming more of a facilitator, bringing things together,’ he says.

Selling design is an ongoing process of convincing clients that each change and development to their project is creatively correct, as well as worth the financial and time investment. But it’s at the early pitch stage that the difficulty of selling abstract ideas is most acute. ‘When selling a product, you can see and touch it and know exactly what you’re getting. With a creative design you’re really selling an understanding of a process, taking the client on a journey and trying to build up a level of confidence. This can be especially hard if you don’t even have a brief,’ says Parker.

Botsford concurs: ‘More and more, people want to see the finished product first. It’s happening that unless clients like the building first they won’t choose you. So we have to bring the design process earlier and earlier. Really to sell a blank page and the whole collaborative process is the ideal, although it’s getting harder and harder. It’s amazing how important it is for architects to be able to do this.’

Mair agrees that being on the specifier side does not necessarily make life easier when it comes to plying your wares. ‘I worked as a rouge architect myself, having not done the seven years, and the one thing that pissed me off was that you’re always only as good as your last project. Then you’re drumming up business from scratch every time until you’re really established. I was more interested in doing something [with Viaduct] that is hopefully snowballing, with a range of good products that we’re building on.’

What’s clear, is that in some capacity or other, practically everyone has to sell. But the way the word is defined and the approaches taken can really affect people’s reactions and language used. For example, designers are ‘awarded contracts’, while suppliers typically ‘make a sale’. But as Dieneke Ferguson, chief executive of designer-maker support organisation Hidden Art says, ‘there are many different ways of selling and routes to market’.

But aside from the cold call or unsolicited advance, in essence everyone is pretty much left with the same tools: a belief in your product and an ability to communicate and connect with others. Crack that and you can probably the drop shoeshine. Maybe spare a thought when the dirty boot’s on the other foot though.

This article was written for FX, August 2007.

Into the body: The Wellcome Collection

The vast, nine-storey home of the Wellcome Collection, the Wellcome Trust’s new £30m public-facing venue, is littered with objects of art, culture, science and history. In a suite of exhibitions designed by Gitta Gschwendtner and Coombe Architecture, with graphics by Kerr Noble and Nick Bell Design, these subjects overlap and intertwine one another, serving up a polymath’s view of medicine, the body and health.

Sited on London’s Euston Road, the building is cultural repository, medical library, debate forum and social space, with its café, bookshop and a clubroom designed by Isle Crawford. It’s founded, so the blurb goes, on the attributes of the trust’s originator Henry Wellcome as pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector, and, with free entry, it represents something of a civic front for the independent medical charity.

The open ground floor foyer, carved by Hopkins Architects from Septimus Warwick’s original 1930s design, holds sculptures of the human body by Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn. It is an immediate demonstration that the trust – by far the largest organisation of its kind in the UK – is a purveyor of cultural spheres above and beyond its £450m per year scientific and pharmaceutical funding. In fact, a subject no narrower than the history of the human condition seems to be the conceptual gel for this venue, with its sweep from medical history to religious art via technology and psychology.

In design terms, this presents something of a challenge. Gschwendtner, who gave shape to the venue’s two permanent exhibitions, Medicine Man and Medicine Now, says the distinction between artworks and scientific objects – and the degree to which it is made explicit – are important in discussions between designers and curators. In Medicine Now, an exhibition of contemporary medical issues, Gschwendtner’s design sets out a clear demarcation by placing all artworks inside red cube ‘sub-rooms’ in the 350 sq metre space, to avoid misinterpretation.

The exhibition focuses on the period after Wellcome’s death in 1936. Gschwendtner’s bright, contemporary space includes a number of a simple white ‘sound seats’ which play a directional beam of audio revealing more about the exhibition’s issues, including the body, malaria and obesity, and genomes. An interactive by Ico Design Consultancy explores biometric data collection, creating a unique ‘Bio-ID’ symbol for each user, where graphic elements are adjusted for eye colour, fingerprint, height, pulse and age. A second Ico interactive maps users’ facial features to a range of personal and lifestyle factors, throwing up average faces for different demographic groups. Here, interactive installation becomes almost live scientific research and experiment, continuously generating a database of the facial characteristics of the venue’s visitors.

Medicine Now is held together visually by Kerr Noble’s graphic system – the ‘human quality’ of white Houschka letterforms set against white back-lighting, says consultancy director Frith Kerr. As part of the project, Kerr also had a hand in a spot of history-making: the consultancy typeset the entire human genome sequence for the very first time. Its 3.4 billion units of DNA code translate into 118 volumes, each a thousand pages long and set in tiny, 4.6 point type.
Gschwendtner’s design for Medicine Man, the second permanent exhibition, is a very different experience. A darker, walnut-panelled room, dotted with drawers and cupboards, aims to reveal Henry Wellcome’s prodigious collections in a Victorian library atmosphere. Visitors are greeting by a ‘Wunderkammer’, or wonder cabinet, of Wellcome’s huge glassware collection, while elsewhere objects are grouped in a more contemporary, thematic manner. Kerr Noble’s labelling system here is layered – more detailed information is revealed by rifling through drawers and opening doors.

Alongside these permanent spaces, the Wellcome Collection’s head of public programmes Ken Arnold has set aside the largest, 650 sq metre space on the ground floor for a more dynamic, changing exhibition schedule. The Heart, the first of these shows, slides more fluidly between art, science and historical objects than Medicine Now, tracing the changing cultural and medical relationships with the body’s most symbolic organ. ‘It’s not a parading of how art and science can be brought together, but a contemporary exhibition approach which doesn’t stop at boundaries between disciplines in order to explore the subject,’ says Arnold.

Designed by Coombe Architecture, the spare, white environment and VBK Lighting Consultants’ low lighting lend The Heart an almost brooding atmosphere, suffused with the sound of a gently pounding heartbeat somewhere in the background. Hopkins Architects’ exposed piping, painted black in the open ceiling, complements this slightly unsettling feeling, although the industrial canopy may not prove so effective for every theme.

Although the permanent exhibitions will remain largely as they are for the next five years, Arnold intends to install a new temporary show roughly four times a year. This changing space, along with the very well-rendered permanent exhibitions, a programme of debates and workshops and the medical library, combine to offer London another impressive scientific and cultural venue that is very consciously presented through design.

This article was written for Design Week, 27 June 2007.

Profile: Tom Barker, head of Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art

‘I tell my students to be prepared for a long period of really hard work if they want to make their mark in design,’ warns Tom Barker, head of department for Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art. Fair advice perhaps, until it transpires that earlier in his career Barker himself worked 18-hour days – fuelled by 20 huge espressos – solidly for four years. This eventually caused his immune system to collapse and precipitated a heart operation. ‘They don’t need to work quite as hard as that,’ he adds, apparently as an afterthought.

Perhaps it was the weighty presence in Barker’s mind of history’s great innovators that drew forth such a relentless drive. His own portfolio includes the development of technologies for the Millennium Dome’s MindZone, working with Zaha Hadid, as well as overseeing design engineering for the London Eye’s elegant pod capsules. Later this year he will release a book on futuristic technology and materials in design called (after The Doors) Weird Scenes From Inside the Gold Mine. Part of the book is Barker’s exploration of the psychology and cultural circumstances of some of his design and engineering heroes: What, he asks, connects Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and James Dyson?

Partly, the answer is tenacity, a characteristic which Barker has demonstrated in abundance to push his own design innovation – SmartSlab – to its current point of commercial take-off, after more than seven years in development. Drawn by a desire to see a project through from A to B and to be ‘fully responsible for its success’, Barker left behind the consultancy work of his B Consultants group to focus on the development of the SmartSlab digital building block in 2005. SmartSlab has now made Barker a ‘paper millionaire’, although any real cash will be ploughed back into the product and business, he says.

The SmartSlabs themselves are honeycomb-structured modules that combine to create huge digital displays. Content for these screens can be drawn from an array of sources – Bluetooth transfers, web servers, RSS feeds, as well as traditional commercials and television. The strength of the materials allows the blocks to be used as internal or external building facades, walls or even entire city blocks. With computer servers delivering the content, users are also able to interact and affect what happens on the walls before them.

To illustrate their physical structure, Barker rummages through his RCA office for prototype models and then sketches out a diagram on a piece of paper. This shows that conventional screen pixels, which are square, distort images because diagonally adjacent squares are further apart than those to either side. The hexagons of the honeycomb – or hexel, in SmartSlab terminology – are always equidistant. This idea is based on a fly’s compound eye and is the most efficient structure both structurally and optically, says Barker.

But there is more preoccupying Barker than the manipulation of clever materials and engineering structures. If anything, he is more animated by discussion of the content of the screens and the social implications of a fully wired-up, digital population. ‘I am interested in the fusion of digital media and physical spaces. The natural progression for designers who use computers to design spaces and digital content is the digital brick. Architecture as theatre is a trend. If you build interactivity and communications into a structure, it reduces a building’s redundancy,’ he says. But there is an unpleasant corollary. ‘Seeing the world through a screen is killing us as lively, vibrant, messy human beings. We are becoming a screen-based species.’

SmartSlab’s interactive and communications capabilities open a path to what Barker calls the product’s ‘dark side’, where, for example, advertisers could identify passers-by from their mobile phones and spam them with targeted commercial messages. ‘We are grappling with this and hoping that our ethics and licensing contracts will prevent it going down that path. We cannot have an unmanaged digital future. Areas of Tokyo are a complete mess.’

The better alternative, he believes, will be the emergence of ‘living media’. This is content generated from a combination of live, recorded and user-generated sources. It would be manipulated and re-formed by the viewers themselves. At once both modest and proud, Barker describes himself as ‘the bloke who shows up and tries to sell Leonardo a new set of paints and canvases. It is for other people to create the content,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 20 June 2007.