Tag Archives: Design Week

Grey aesthetics

Old people are younger than they used to be. It’s oxymoronic of course, but this little aphorism sums up how a generational shift has formed a 50-plus demographic with a much keener sense of design and aspiration than the one before it. Today’s older people are astute, discerning and demanding consumers of products and services, with huge combined purchasing power.

Although it’s not news that populations are ageing and the 50+ have money to spend, domestic appliances manufacturers have been slow, or unwilling, to take older consumers’ needs into account when designing mainstream products. Instead, this group is often tackled separately, if at all, through specialist, targeted products often tightly focused on specific disabilities. To convince manufacturers of the great commercial opportunities of more inclusive design, a symposium at this year’s Domotechnica – the household appliance trade fair – will focus two days of debate on the 50-plus market.

‘We’re not talking about producing products for handicapped or very elderly people specifically, but better design for everybody,’ says Martina Koepp, managing director of the German Society for Gerontological Technology and a speaker at Symposium 50+. ‘Manufacturer interest in inclusive design is rising – and it has to. This is a very interesting group; they’ve consumed their whole life, have high buying power, a high share of real estate and a willingness to invest in the quality of their environment and products.’

As we age our faculties deteriorate. But unlike previous older generations who, recalling a time before the welfare state, were often happy with any help or attention they received, today’s 50-plus consumer is accustomed to great choice and is unlikely to buy products focused on age or ability. ‘Older people don’t want to be targeted or stigmatised; they want to be part of a continuum,’ says Rama Gheerawo, a research fellow at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre, home of inclusive design at the Royal College of Art. ‘We design with aspirations in mind as much as disabilities and we talk about a multigenerational approach, especially in the household, where there may be up to four generations.’

HHRC graduates worked with BT to develop a concept telephone that connects the ‘digitally excluded’ (typically older people) to broadband, without a computer. The TwoTone Phone acts as a normal cordless phone on one side and a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone on the other. The VoIP mode has no screen, but six large buttons on which users can write the names of their contacts. These buttons turn orange if the person is online and available and flash if they call. The phone also connects to a television to allow video calls via the TV screen.

‘Mostly, inclusive design ideas come from research rather than commercial projects, but it is becoming of greater interest to commercial parties and is creeping into design briefs slowly, especially from Japan,’ says Mike Woods, creative director at product design consultancy Tangerine and host of an inclusive design workshop at the Nikkei Design Innovation Forum in Japan last year. Andy Davey, founder of TKO Design, also cites Japan: ‘It is at the centre of usability issues due to the substantial ageing population. Olympus, for instance, is always trying to create imaging products such as digital cameras that are less complex.’

But attention also needs to be turned to more quotidian domestic appliances, says Alison Wright, managing director of Easy Living Home, a consultancy specialising in inclusive design for the home. She believes there’s still a long way to go before domestic products start to meet inclusive design principles. ‘Very few manufacturers consider an inclusive design process and very few even realise it’s an ageing market,’ she says. Even those products that do address universal issues often do so coincidentally, as a result of ‘funky’ or aspirational designs, adds Wright.

Zanussi and Siemens, for example, have each developed a fridge in which all the drawers slide out, allowing access to the very back of the shelf. ‘This is useful to everyone, but one wheelchair user was especially delighted because he couldn’t normally bend any lower to see inside,’ says Wright. And a Siemens worktop hob aligns the plates side by side rather than in a square, so users need not lean across steaming pans or bend under an extractor to reach to the back. ‘But even here they’ve missed the final five per cent because the hob controls are low contrast and hard to read,’ observes Wright.

Screen displays are a black spot for many people. Poor contrast, small type and narrow angles of view all blight easy use, especially for those with poor sight. Woods recalls the long-standing joke that nobody can ever successfully programme a video recorder: complex menus, tiny buttons and a requirement to get down on your hands and knees do not make for a user-friendly experience. Tangerine designed the Sky+ set-top box, which saw off all such problems with its one button record. Although a high-tech gadget, Sky+ is easier for everyone, but it’s especially beneficial to older people living alone who are unable to programme a VCR, notes Woods.

‘There’s nothing special about these well-designed products. They’re good for handicapped people, good for children, good for everybody,’ says Koepp.

This article was written for Design Week, 13 February 2008.

Intelligent buildings

In any traditional model of working life we’re likely to spend up to a third of our waking hours in an office. Yet a British Council for Offices survey this year finds that more than 40 per cent of us are dissatisfied with our workplaces. It’s a problem that can have unwanted effects on any business, from lowered morale or creativity to higher staff turnover and absenteeism. Creating an effective and comfortable working environment is therefore an investment rather than a cost. But with mobile technologies and a shifting work-life balance breaking up the traditional working model in any case, how should we begin to conceive and design the workplace of the future?

Just before Christmas a multidisciplinary team of designers, architects, engineers and universities presented the first results from a forward-looking piece of research into how technology might begin to answer this question. The study, called Building Awareness for Enhanced Workplace Performance, or BOP, received £1m of funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board, a £1bn-plus fund to promote technology and innovation in business.

In an attempt to get a better understanding of the conditions of a workplace, BOP uses pervasive computing, where devices are embedded into ordinary activities without users even necessarily knowing they are there. Built into the fabric of the building, these wireless network devices monitor the state of individual rooms, gathering information on temperature, noise, air pressure, humidity, light and even human presence. According to Duncan Wilson, a futurist at engineering firm and BOP partner Arup, there are commercial benefits to be gained from applying pervasive computing technologies to the design of working environments. ‘The wireless sensor network offers the potential to understand which factors affect work performance and how people feel about and interact with the building,’ he says.

Installed at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Arup in London, the sensors provide a continuous reading of environmental conditions, which are then fed back to workers via a live ticker tape designed by interaction consultancy Artificial Tourism. This information is then connected with how people in the office are actually feeling through interactive installations designed by Maoworks. The consultancy developed a number of user feedback devices, including a simple Yes/No floor-mat onto which users step to register their response to workplace-related questions shown on an adjacent screen.

Stuart Jones, a designer and senior research fellow in Interaction Design at CSM, believes that this type of information can help to create better working environments. ‘This kind of tool would support those organisations that do want to change, because it gives you the means to understand what’s going on. Then you can start to change whatever will be beneficial,’ he claims.

Perhaps our offices need this kind of scrutiny. Unlike most other areas of business, a building’s performance is seldom monitored from the user’s point of view, says Wilson. ‘In the sector of building design there’s a huge void between feedback from the consumer and how the product [office] is performing. This is not the case in other industries such as automotive and retail.’

BOP organisers claim the research is the first of its type in the world. Its approach to understanding how spaces function and people relate to them may inform the design of more adaptable workplaces in the future, suitable for mobile workers and fluid roles. According to Frank Duffy, founder of office design consultancy DEGW, this is exactly what’s required. ‘We need buildings that can learn, with the capacity to accommodate change. It is better to do this with interior design than with architecture, which is fixed in a 50-year time scale. We need more choice, more complexity and more diversity,’ he says.

This article was written for Design Week, 3 January 2008.

Balancing tricks

Anyone familiar with the world of typographic design will know that it’s an art form for the obsessive. And the obsession lies, along with the devil, deeply in the detail. Tuning and balancing each element of each character in a set – their ascenders and descenders, shoulders and spines – is not for the faint-hearted. Add to the bargain the likely demand for multiple language support and the task of creating a harmonious set of letterforms is, to the outsider at least, somewhat daunting.

It’s a frustration, then, that despite the sterling efforts of type designers to control every detail of a font set, proliferating publishing platforms still lack a standard system to determine how characters will be displayed on screen. PCs, Macs, web browsers, PDAs, mobile phones – the list goes on – all carry type that publishers need to be reproduced to the highest possible standard of legibility and design. But huge variations in font size, reading environments and users mean that achieving top quality and consistency across platforms can be a challenge. To make matters more complicated, the way that a character’s original outline shape is converted into pixels for display on a screen is determined by software called a rasterizer – and, you guessed it, different systems use different rasterisers.

‘There isn’t a single decent, proper display standard that takes advantage of all the good technologies which are emerging, and the majority of fonts are not designed to be optimum on all platforms. This means that you end up with a narrower set of available fonts at the highest quality,’ explains Bruno Maag, director of type design studio Dalton Maag.

When it comes to displaying fonts on a screen, the art (and difficulties) lie in the process of hinting: a set of instructions from the designer which tell a font how to behave at various sizes. If a system can’t read these instructions, then it might ‘auto-hint’ the letters. But with the devil in the detail, this doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal legibility. ‘Auto-hinting takes care of the worst case of display problems, but for high quality publishing fonts need to be hinted by hand for all the display types they’ll be used on, which can be costly,’ explains Maag.

Research Studios designer Luke Prowse, designer of The Times newspaper’s headline font Times Modern, believes that the degree of control over type is set by the commitment of the client. ‘Specific use requires specific modification of the base brand style. But like anything, it depends on timeframes, cost and how responsible the client is. The Guardian is an example where the type family works across all the paper’s requirements – headlines, body text, race results and so on.’

Towards the end of last year, the picture arguably became even more complicated with the US launch of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle eBook readers. Using ‘electronic paper’ and a display technology developed by eInk, these handheld screens claim to deliver an experience akin to reading from paper, coupled with the benefits of digital storage. eInk itself is tiny black and white ink particles, charged negatively and positively and embedded in the screen ‘paper’. An electric current then causes black or white particles to rise to the top and display on screen as characters. Although purportedly more pleasant to read, eInk particles still function as pixels, meaning the letterforms are determined by a particular rasterizer.

But with newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal already delivering eBook editions alongside newsprint and online versions, it’s clear that publishers should consider the complexities of porting typography across platforms. And it’s not just publishers: BMW wanted to take its Dalton Maag-designed typeface into the car’s interior screens, but found that the Freetype rasterizer it uses cannot read the hinting instructions without an extra licence from Apple, which has patented certain processes. Complexities and proprietary squabbles abound.

So what to do? Allan Haley, director of words and letters at Monotype Imaging, sounds a final word of caution when it comes to the myriad platforms. Type designers, he says, should focus on the requirements of the typeface, rather than its display process. ‘If you design for a particular technology, the technology will change and your design will have problems in the future. The best thing you can do is create the best design for the [client’s] application and then the technology will make it perform.’

This article was written for Design Week, 7 February 2008.

Brand building

‘Live and breathe the brand,’ is the familiar cry of marketing directors, design consultancies and brand custodians far and wide. Advising their clients on how to stay on-message, branding rulebooks will often cover every facet of the face that a company presents to its customers, but some businesses are also ‘branding’ the very spaces that their staff work in day in, day out.

Taking a business’ brand values into a three-dimensional environment is arguably fraught with design dangers: imagine the ad agency desperately exaggerating positive attributes, such as ‘creativity’ or ‘irreverence’, with ‘crazy’ cushions on the floor, a ten-pin bowling lane and inflatable toys in the break-out room. Hip play den and effective work space are maybe not the same thing, so should a company’s branding be brought into its office space at all?
According to Household director Michelle Du-Prât, branding the workplace is the ‘future of internal communications’, integral to the way a business communicates its values to staff.

‘Companies need to live the kind of business they want to be and [designers] can give them the tools and spaces to achieve this. It’s not just about saying here’s your new office design in corporate colours, but about considering staff behaviour in the space,’ she says.
Household has been working with Virgin Media, the entertainment and communications company formed after the acquisition of Virgin Mobile by NTL Telewest last year, on a refurbishment of around 900 buildings across the country. Starting with locations ‘crying out for a morale boost’, the Virgin Media call centre in Wythenshawe is one of the first sites to receive the facelift, says Virgin Media creative director Adrian Spooner.

‘This isn’t classic corporate branding. We could have put big logos everywhere, painted all the walls bright red and reminded everyone where they’re working around every corner,’ he says. ‘But it’s not just a veneer; there’s a reason why all the design components are there. It’s about making people feel at home and about allowing them to be themselves; each site can decide which of the different design components they want to use in the space.’

Under the scheme, Virgin’s playful attributes are becoming part of the work environment, with office design motifs such as a flock wallpaper, wall silhouettes and chalkboards sitting alongside ‘dating car park spaces’, extending what Spooner calls ‘classic Virgin humour’ into areas outside the building’s four walls.

For Virgin it makes sense to lean more overtly on a humorous and light-hearted approach to the office in order to draw out similar behaviour from staff (living and breathing the brand again). But designers all seem to agree that it’s about changing behaviour, not colour schemes. As Duncan Mackay, director of brand design at Gensler, says: ‘There’s a misconception about what’s involved. It’s not just sticking a huge logo behind the reception desk. Every successful brand understands its brand values and needs to get its customers to understand these values, which means workers should too. The workplace is an opportunity for a physical representation of this, but it’s a working environment and people still have to work there.’

Gensler’s own research finds that just 4% of managers believe that their company brand is the main reason behind the design of their office. But does this really matter? Naturally, workplace design consultancies holler a resounding ‘yes’, but even an independent report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment recommends that workplaces have an ‘expression’ which ‘influences the way inhabitants think about the organisation’; in other words, making the most of the brand.

Environment branding needn’t be based on humour – it must match the company’s attributes. Elmwood has worked with the Met Office to show staff how the organisation’s weather forecasts and research have a chain of influence in everyday life and how the different departments are interdependent. Mini-stories showing these sequences of influence are displayed along the main ‘street’ in the Met Office’s purpose-built headquarters in Exeter.

Gensler worked with the London Stock Exchange as part of a wider rebranding exercise aiming to imbue the business with a 21st century style. ‘Their office was an opportunity to express how they’re going forward and there are more and more subtle ways of saying something about your business. So instead of printing ‘global company’ everywhere, graphic squares on the doors reference the office’s Paternoster Square location, forming a map of the world when the doors are closed. Map references then designate the room locations as a system of wayfinding,’ explains Mackay.

Similarly, BDG Workfutures’ design for Network Rail’s head office is intended to create a culture of communication, not only between internal departments, but also between Network Rail and the many external companies it works with, says BDG joint managing director Phil Hutchinson. ‘You can apply as much colour, graphics and so on as you like, but if you’re not creating the right spaces you’re not going to foster communication between staff, which was the aim,’ he says. ‘It’s not often that brand is mentioned as a major part of a brief, but it’s always relevant.’

This article was written for Design Week, 21 January 2008.

Shoot from the hip

Everyone knows that rock and roll is about abandon, not precision. The squalling, folding feedback ululating from Jack White’s amp is the sound of deal-making with the devil, a fight for control between creativity and randomness. It’s fitting, then, that cult photographic company Lomography, with its unpredictable, super-plastic, devil-may-care cameras, should turn to the White Stripes for a very limited edition design of its Holga and Diana+ models (only 200 of each have been made).

It also helps that the Stripes are perhaps the most graphically branded of rock groups for some time, presenting everything they do – including these cameras, of course – in red, white and black. Renamed ‘Jack’ and ‘Meg’ after the duo’s frontman and drummer respectively, the Holga and Diana+ are the photographic equivalent of feedback – you can’t really control them. Spotless, grain-free portraiture this ain’t.

Inside these packages, designed by collaborator Rob Jones, expect to find everything you need to create heavily saturated and dreamy, indistinct images, including psychedelic filters and gels to help you on your way. It pains me to use such a phrase, but the brand fit is neat indeed, not least given Lomography’s staunchly analogue nature and Jack White’s penchant for recording to 2in magnetic tape. What fantastic, plastic fun.

This article was written for Design Week, 31 October 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.

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.