In praise of ‘everyday designers’

A little musing on me thinking through what kind of designer I am and want to be

In search of some design advice and inspiration for my home

I went to the Grand Designs event in London earlier this week. A home event focused on consumers, but in relation to the TV programme of the same name. On the programme, some of the efforts are grandiose. Massive ambitious builds. Sustainable design classics. Most go over budget. Most involving good architects.

Lots of stands. Less tat than Ideal Home show, but less grand then the TV show

The show itself is a little more ‘everyday’. 30–40 stands devoted to architects and garden designers trying to position themselves against each other. Trying to show off their (generally more elaborate) work to punters as they come though. A few of them talking to actual punters, but most of them standing there bored, hoping to engage. They offer a stark contrast to the other stands full of pushier sales people. Bi-fold doors. Windows. Garden studios. Knives. Face creams. Taps. BBQs. Beds.

Most of the sales stands offer mid-end products. Not bargain basement. Not luxury. But mostly not the sort of stuff you’d find used on Grand Designs. More ‘everyday’.

At previous events, i’d had drop-in appointments with garden designers and architects there. You can get 30 min with someone to discus your project. Sometimes useful. Often resulting in some follow-up business. Probably a great opportunity to suss out if you like each other and can work together. It’s a bit like speed dating. But you have 30 mins. And being promiscuous doesn’t feel like the done thing.

Not bad description of what a trend should be

This time round, there was a splinter group of appointments you could have with interior designers. I had a lovely chat with an Interior Design duo who were presenting later that day on trends. We had a little chat about that, and I was reassured by some of the way they talked about trends. Beyond the fads and fashion so prevalent in the media.

The future of furniture design… or is it?

Towards the end of my visit, I attended a session at the big stage. It was titled ‘The future of furniture design’. Given it was about something closer to my world, and included ‘future of…’ which I love overusing, I gave it a try.

Nice interior design, but not so sure about their value systems

It hugely disappointed me. Then it angered me. And then it made me see something a bit clearer.

Dissapointing lack of futures thinking

You see, there wasn’t much ‘future of’. That was the disappointing bit. A little about trends in getting pre-curated furniture sets for millennials. Easier furnishing for their shorter rental accommodation. So they didn’t have that dreaded ikea trip. That’s interesting. Some interesting behavioural shifts. What other solutions could there be? No. Dismissed. Not explored. Next superficial topic.

Angry at the choice of designers

It angered me because of the people chosen. No classically trained furniture designers. Not such a bad thing. But there was an ex-fashion designer, an ex-artist and an interior designer. Again, not necessarily bad. Designers have been known to transition between disciplines and fields. Sometimes successfully. But I was angry at them specifically being chosen for this subject. Their perspectives were focused on the aesthetic. Colour. Shape. Possibly texture. A little about having something that lasts. But they were more concerned with the ‘wow’ effect their work had on their clients.

As a designer, I do like to wow clients too. But after I have delivered something to their real needs. These folks just seemed a bit too superficial.

Well dressed. Talking in jargon (‘patinate’). Talking about throwing away rules of design. What rules? Why throw away? They created a lot of distance between themselves and the audience. I looked at the audience at one point, and aesthetically, there was a huge gap. Age-wise, a huge gap. But more importantly, I felt like there was a values gap. Did the audience care as much as the designer for the ‘wow’ effect. How long would it last exactly? Every time I saw that chair? Every day that I opened that drawer full of cutlery.

Clarifying thoughts on design and the ‘everyday’ designer

When you live with something. Using it every day. That wow has surely got to fade. Surely. It may give you some form of pleasure (socio, psycho, physio, or that forth one Lionel Tiger came up with). But the degree of that pleasure surely comes down over time. It makes me think of the Kano model, when delight becomes hygiene.

Despite my disappointment and my anger, I learned a few things that day that i’m going to think about a lot more over the coming months:

  • I wouldn’t have been able to work with these designers on my house. I don’t want wow, or a portfolio piece to get them more press and critical acclaim
  • I couldn’t work with these types of designers in my own work because of a) above and b) they just didn’t value the same sort of design I do
  • Some designers distance themselves from their audience. Who they hang out with. What they read. The words they use. What they value. How they think better, or have better taste than their clients. How they like to be perceived as experts. I’m not always sure how deliberate this is. Whether it’s a preference. Or just accidental. I probably fall into that trap.
  • For every stage-worthy, press gathering designer, there’s probably thousands of hard working, considerate designers. Not necessarily better. But certainly not worse. Just different.
  • I feel like all designers should better connect with their clients. To relate to them. Appreciate their needs. And explore solutions based on that. Refining those solutions based on the fit.
  • I feel like the more the stage-dwelling designers communicate their superficial values, the less respect other designers get

Amongst all of this, I realised I find myself oscillating between two different ambitions. Being innovative/disruptive/progressive for the market, and doing what is right for my clients. Sometimes those can be aligned. The perfect harmony. Often they are not. I have to change my approach based on what I learn.

But i’ve seen so many designers struggle with doing both or either of those things.

Being unrealistic. It’s ok to dream, but you’ve got to keep it real as much as you can.

Being inappropiate for the client. Good idea, wrong org. sort of thing. Did they review the org as much as they reviewed the market?

Or the cardinal sin for design: Mediocrity. Absolutely fine if it serves clients’ needs. But doesn’t get much praise from peers or clients. In fact, I think this is just fine. If mediocrity satisfies the need. It doesn’t need to wow. It might just work. It’s familiar. It may be appropriate. It may scale.

I’m not saying that mediocrity is itself positive. But I don’t think it’s negative either. If it’s appropriate, then it’s possibly a result of good design. And I wish more designers would see that.

Praise the everyday

What I am saying is that maybe we should applaud more of the hard-working, silent ‘everyday’ designers. The everyday heroes to many indiviudals and orgs who make things better enough. As a bit of a stage-dweller myself over the years, I shine back on myself and the work I am doing or have done. Is it ‘everyday design’ or press-worthy? Should I care? I’m unsure.

What do you think?