Good design is not an extra that adds aesthetic value – it is the essential intellectual process at the heart of every product

Simon Allford

Design is acknowledged everywhere. Even in government procurement documents. But what of the commissioning environments that allow it to emerge iteratively? All too frequently they are ignored and consequently design is presented as aesthetic ornament. So what is design?

Design is the organising of ideas, words, objects, buildings, and their subsequent “construction” as products. Whether those products exist in reality, virtual reality, or the blurred region in between.

Good design oscillates between being the product of our desire to progress and the essential need to address very real and specific problems. The former attitude is best captured by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s remark that his endless redefinition of text, product, car and building was predicated on the philosophy that “you can never leave well enough alone”. Whilst Charles Eames summarised the latter position commenting that without problems there is no design and that great innovation is design’s response to immense challenge.

So, next time anyone queries the value of design to a process or a product, remind them that it is not an optional appliqué

So good design is about defining the essential problem and thus the opportunity for design to add value. Established designers bring their brand as well as their design to any project, which is why reference to “designer” shoes, bags and frocks, and indeed planes, trains and automobiles, and even architecture, is as inevitable as it is irritating. But, as both Loewy and Eames knew, delight is an essential function of design. Being frivolous and indulgent can be as necessary a design tactic as being frugal and discrete. Of course even good design can be the victim of circumstances generating an unforeseen outcome.

In architecture once prevalent ideas about design and morality are now avoided mainly because of their association with the technical and social failure of so much rapidly built low cost housing. “System building” is frequently seen as the product of social aspiration suppressing critical faculties.

So, next time anyone queries the value of design to a process or a product, remind them that it is not an optional appliqué but an essential activity of any project. Once this is understood the only real obstacle occurs when the long-term value of the design does not flow back to those who pay for and commission it.

No institution has a better covenant than the state so successive governments’ desire to outsource design and construction (and thus long-term value) to others is evidence of their admission of the incompetence of government management. Governments are, however, only transitory manifestations of the state and with long-term projects they are forced to undertake all the risks of committing politically and financially without benefitting from any of the possible rewards of the conclusion. In this unfortunate context successive government commitments to HS2 and a new London airport can, regardless of their merits, be seen more as a response to a need at the polls for an economic good news story (to a Keynesian branded design model) than the result of a considered design review.

This suggests that the most important current design challenge in both projects is the selection of committed, expert client bodies without vested interest to review and confirm value and viability. Those chosen then need to be ever mindful of unforeseen circumstances. No moralising Victorian legislator ever anticipated that the design of licensing hours and the consequential call for last orders would serve only to increase the rate of consumption of the beer and gin drinking classes.

Simon Allford is a founding partner of AHMM