Spiralling concrete ramps of the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, Arup's first project completed in 1935. Copyright Arup." title="Spiralling concrete ramps of the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, Arup's first project completed in 1935. Copyright Arup.

+ From the spiralling concrete ramps of Arup's first project – the Penguin Pool at London Zoo – good design has stayed at the heart of the firm.

Good design is cool, right? Definitely. But good design is about much more than fashion. It lasts and remains relevant. It pleases people, functions consistently and lets people experience something special, whether manmade or forged by nature.

Think of the LBD (little black dress), the E-Type Jaguar, the New York subway, or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Think also of Australian dolphins surfing, American eagles soaring or the African lion staring down its prey.

Where does good design like this come from? It needs a design culture – people and places, skills and habits, symbols and systems, arranged in such a way as to best accomplish this purpose. Something as simple as the iPod could only have emerged from the complex design culture that is Apple Inc.

A design culture is a strange thing. It has few rules, yet a sharp focus on doing great work and a conviction that good design can make a positive impact in the world.

Leading people in this world is a huge challenge. Imagine managing Leonardo Da Vinci; having Pablo Picasso reporting to you; or leading a creative firm such as Imagination or Ideo. Creative people are unforgiving, relentlessly questioning of leaders and ideas, and dissatisfied with anything less than great work.

At Arup, good design has always been at the heart of the firm. Starting with the spiralling concrete ramps of the Penguin Pool at London Zoo in 1935, evident in the structural design for Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Sydney Opera House, and driving the fresh thinking required for the High Speed 1 rail line linking Paris to London.

Many factors combine to nurture this design culture: our focus on people; being owned for the benefit of employees with no outside shareholders or long-term debt; a strong degree of autonomy, with encouragement to share ideas and collaborate; a willingness to take risks and back individuals who believe they have a valuable idea.

I believe it’s vitally important that we sustain our design culture, and our series of Penguin Pool events aims to encourage new connections and seed future collaborations across the design community. But how do you think designers like Arup can succeed in today’s challenging economic conditions?