Ove Arup and the legacy of Total Design. Penguin Pool, London Zoo. Credit: Peter MacKinven

+ Total Design’s enduring strength lies in its simplicity: bring people and ideas together and let technically robust creativity develop the best solution.

When Ove Arup first formed the firm Arup, professional formalities enforced what he saw as an unnecessary separation between engineering, architecture, building and the many other construction related disciplines. His ‘Total Design’ vision was intended to overcome this siloed thinking and encourage creative collaboration to meet the challenges of the post-war era. Total Design’s ongoing legacy is a firm where many different disciplines continue to gather, learn, share and create. 

Total Design has dissolved the need for terms like generalist or specialist. For Arup, it has helped us become a firm of ‘integrators’, where collaboration isn’t so much an activity but an attitude. Total Design has a kind of magnetism, on each project we wonder if we can think beyond our existing boundaries and draw in new ideas and talent in order to continuously improve the built environment for the benefit of society.

Total Design also guides us through a central issue in complex project delivery: how to be creative and reliable at the same time, confident to share our individual expertise but balanced by collective judgement. When we do our best work it’s because we’re expressing this ability to be sure-footed in our specialist knowledge but supple enough to find the right place for our various inputs in the wider scheme of the project and the built environment as a whole. 

Total Design enables ‘systems thinking’, the capacity to tackle complex, large-scale issues. In this Ove’s philosophy has prepared us to move far beyond traditional engineering. When you look at challenges like climate change, or the move towards circular, more sustainable forms of production, the need for big-picture thinking is clear. Systems thinking is messy, there are no straight lines anywhere, so you need a working culture where people are confident to find insights and make decisions in complex, evolving contexts when you can’t clearly see the whole solution. It’s an approach Total Design is temperamentally and intellectually well suited to.

The range of disciplines our people practise has grown significantly. Ove might be surprised by an engineering firm that also has expertise in planning and policy. But if engineering is typically seen as a problem-solving discipline, Total Design makes it much more than that as we progress from rigorous first principles, through creativity and design, before finally meeting the requirements of regulations and codes that govern the world we operate in. 

For Ove, Total Design was an organising principle that would create solutions that were a mixture of art and engineering, investigating what is possible while delivering things that work. That’s an idea that continues to animate Arup as a firm today: the mastery of technical expertise combined with the power of creative thought. For us, the deeper our expertise, the wider our creativity can be. 

In a way, Total Design’s enduring strength lies in its simplicity: bring people and ideas together and let technically robust creativity develop the best solution. As emerging technologies and artificial intelligence begin to remove the need for some of the traditional tasks of human engineers I believe Total Design’s enduring value will be in letting us refocus our attention on bigger goals, to widen our creative remit to plan, design and engineer a better world.  

How has Total Design influenced your work?

You can learn much more about Total Design at the V&A Museum’s summer exhibition, Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design.