You can’t measure the value of design with any kind of measuring stick - and anyone who suggests you can deserves a rap on the knuckles
There has been much talk recently about the value of design and whether or not this is something you can measure. The implication is that unless something is measureable, it has no value in these straitened times. Well, you know what? I don’t care if you can measure it or not - that is really not the issue. But there certainly is an issue and that is: is the value of design valued? Does it matter?
Let’s take the example of a school. How can you really expect to measure the value of a well designed school? You can look at exam results before and after but how can you prove the design of the school had anything to do with a higher level of attainment? Who is to say how much was down to the excellence of the head, a reinvigorated body of teachers, more motivated or more able children? But ask the children and the teachers if they think their beautifully designed building has made them feel more proud of belonging to their school community, made them feel more valued and respected as individuals, put a spring into their step as they cross the threshold, made them more inclined to learn - I bet the answer would be an emphatic yes.
Design expresses and reflects the values of an organisation; it creates a sense of identity, a sense of belonging
Another oft-repeated question is: what is more valuable - a well designed school or a great teacher? The obvious answer, it is implied, is the latter as it is of course quite possible to have a great school in a rubbish building. But the reality is you are never presented with such a stark dilemma - the difference in capital outlay is simply incomparable - so it is an altogether immature hypothesis. However if you had the choice, and you always do, would you pick a good, bad or average teacher? Ditto with an architect.
Take another example - an office building. Are the unexpectedly high profits of an organisation down to the brand new building that has been designed around the particular needs of the business? Difficult to say really with any degree of scientific accuracy. The ethos and culture of the company are obviously strong factors in attracting and retaining the best talent. And people are generally very adaptive - they will tolerate banal surroundings if they are rewarded well both materially and in terms of job satisfaction and motivation. But a great building is a hugely important contributory factor. It expresses and reflects the values of an organisation; it creates a sense of identity, a sense of belonging. The way it is configured sets up communication networks that could lead to unexpected encounters. The design of a building has the capacity to generate new ideas that will contribute to the success of a business and establish new patterns of working. Any CEO worth their salt will understand instinctively the value of this without needing the crutch of a measuring stick. It’s lack of confidence and a lack of belief in your own powers of judgement that sends people looking for measureable data.
The same is true of cities. The way a city evolves, its capacity for change and renewal, the communication networks between buildings, the public spaces - these are all designed, historically or contemporaneously and are what make cities successful. Not to mention the buildings themselves. They can define a city - think Eiffel Tower, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the Sydney Opera House - they all generate incalculable income, even if it is hard to measure.
And what about the cultural value to society? Many column inches have been written about this because it is often presented as an either/or option. A new hospital or subsidy to the arts? This is not the right question and quite frankly not even a valid question. Of course you have to make value judgments and I’m not for one moment suggesting that all things cultural are good - there’s good and bad culture just like everything else. But there is the money for both; it’s simply how you present and argue it economically and politically.
Questioning the value of design, as though it were an optional extra is like questioning the value of thinking. It goes without saying that poor design is a poor investment - but who in their right mind would opt for poor design? How many times do we have to remind people that good design costs the same to commission as bad design? Well, perhaps not strictly true but the difference in the context of overall spend over the lifetime of a building is infinitesimal.
Design touches on the most fundamental aspect of what it is to be human; it embodies cultural and social meaning, provokes emotion, changes the way we interact, changes the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. That’s the value of design and it’s why I became an architect. So let’s just forget this measuring thing.
Amanda Levete is principal of Amanda Levete Architects