I am a structural engineer, Arup Fellow and...
Why is design so important to us at Arup? Why do we celebrate it by publishing our Design Book? It’s because collaborative design is what enables us to shape a better world.
Fundamentally, design is about asking: ‘Is there a better way of doing this?’ The best design occurs when you frame this question in the widest possible context. So for us, better design must ultimately be about creating a world where people are healthier and safer, one which functions more effectively for them and in which they can take delight.
As a structural engineer this means that, for me, design isn’t just about producing the perfect structure; it’s about considering how that building affects people. I don’t just mean its influence on productivity but also its capacity to delight – and to do so efficiently, sustainably and cost-effectively.
Consider the three main ingredients of a typical project: quality, time and money. Without the inspiration that comes from design, they remain interdependent. So, for example, you can improve quality, but it will take longer and cost more. You can do things more cheaply but it will take longer and reduce the quality.
Design is what enables you to adjust these factors independently – ideally improving all three. So the genius of great design is that it allows you to improve quality while reducing programme time and cost. You can deliver a building that meets the client’s aspirations but also saves them money and is more sustainable than they thought possible.
The skill of the designer lies in sieving through the different opportunities to do this and using hunch and emotional response to find the most appropriate one. You can test the solution using analysis, but – as I’ve written about before on Thoughts – you can’t solve open-ended problems with mathematics alone. You need both sides of your brain; you need intuition as well as logic.
You need to start by immersing yourself in the problem. Make sure you understand it by finding out what’s really important to your client – something that may not always be apparent from the brief. Then you need to do your research. Learn what others have done in the past, how they have solved similar problems.
Next, comes the process of synthesis and analysis that uses both sides of the brain. Before finalising your solution, it may benefit if you put the problem aside for a while and let your subconscious worry about it. Design is a fluid thing and needs time to develop; it’s not something that always flourishes under excessive pressure.
Design also relies on collaboration for better outcomes. At Arup we design in collaboration with our clients and partners, and the Design Book celebrates our joint successes. We also collaborate internally, where our diversity of backgrounds and skillsets bring new perspectives to the design process.
I heard Peter Rice say that innovating is ultimately less risky than just repeating what you’ve done before, because that repetition makes you complacent. I admire his sentiment. I’d add that innovation isn’t always possible but as designers it’s something we should always strive to do because of the benefits it brings.