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Mix Roundtable: Is safe thinking the enemy of good design?

We chart our industry’s catalysts for change, explore what it takes to create a needle-moving commercial interior and ask if the greatest asset in design is the courage to look beyond the conventional.

Feature in partnership with Specialist Group

25/04/2022 6 min read

Words: Harry McKinley

The design industry often talks of disruptors, both people and ideas. They’re radical and they’re controversial; they disrupt. In this though, there’s something of an unfortunate precept – that everything else is conventional, conformist and even unoriginal. But doesn’t design have a responsibility to lead, to affect change and, in some way, to challenge us?

Then again, it’s arguably impossible to choose a new path, to make different choices or to innovate without an element of risk – and that’s one word the commercial interior design industry does not enjoy.

From our roundtable rooftop vantage point, at Clerkenwell’s Fora, it was possible to see the Grade II listed towers of the Barbican Estate. Among the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture in the UK, they are as loved as they are despised – an example of progressive creative choices that created monumental ripples, and which live in history as a result.

Against that backdrop, we asked whether our collected industry leaders consider themselves the type of people who believe in taking risks.

“I am,” said tp bennett’s Ben Boxshall. “But as human beings I think we’re inherently risk averse and it’s part of my role to counteract that. As a designer, it’s my place to challenge that and create a conversation around what it means to make risky choices.”

For ISG’s Campbell Lean, the room to takes risks is essential in an industry centred on creating. “We need to push the boundaries to produce amazing spaces,” he opined.

“Especially in project management, pushing the boundaries is the only way to create something different. That being said, there’s room for balance. For all the risk takers in this industry, it’s important to have those who pull you back if you go too far; it’s all about the yin and yang.”

And if Campbell is the yin, then Gardiner & Theobald’s Gary Bibby is the yang: “A risk taker? Absolutely not. But it’s important to say that I think most of my clients would expect me not to be a risk taker. It’s right that the designers amongst us are, but it’s important to have both sides of the coin.”

Of course, in discussing risk as a route to innovation, it’s useful to understand what true innovation looks like to those in different pockets of the industry. For Linzi Cassels, Perkins& Will, it’s more than just new ideas.

“There has to be a reason,” she explained. “You have to ask what the energy driving something in a certain direction is and, equally, that direction should be forward. It’s difficult to sum up, but new ideas should be taking us to a better place and ultimately bringing some elevated level of comfort, joy, beauty or function, or there’s no reason to have them.”

Turner & Townsend’s Sally Marshall was in fervent agreement. “We’ve all got good companies,” she said, “so innovation is the differentiator. If we’re not pushing boundaries, we won’t win work; if we’re not moving forward, we’re not competitive in the market.”

“And it’s by necessity about challenging the status quo,” continued Gleeds’ David Breckenridge. “Convention is safe, innovation is uncomfortable and uncertain. There’s sometimes that feeling in your gut of, ‘should I be doing this?’ and I think that’s where innovation sits.”

Yet, innovation, along with terms like authenticity and originality, have been coopted by big business to the extent that they have perhaps become stripped of their genuinely disruptive meaning. It’s something Helen Berresford, ID:SR, riles against.

“Isn’t innovation now tied up with corporate speak? It’s listed on most people’s website. But does it actually mean what it’s meant to? I think for our industry, it’s important that we look at innovation in a real sense. For me, when you get a really good creative team, you almost need to throw open the doors and have them go and play and get messy. There’s a sort of alchemy that happens then. And it doesn’t always need to be revolutionary, because I think reinterpreting is also important, even in more subtle ways. Every time you do a piece of work, it’s never the same because the client and the ingredients aren’t the same. There’s always just something slightly different that happens in terms of your solution.”

For Specialist Group’s Ciaran O’Hagan, it all comes down to efficiencies and improving lives: “Just making something a little bit leaner is, itself, a positive. Thinking about buildings and spaces specifically, that could be how you park your car or where you hang your clothes.” “Exactly, it doesn’t have to be a large innovation,” Bibby shot back. “Sometimes you’re just looking for that little extra nugget that is a way of doing things differently that adds value.”

If creative thinking is risky, then, it’s because there’s also the potential of a flop; the chance that a brave idea may simply not work. But should fear of failure – both individually and on behalf of a client – be a barrier to trying the previously untried?

“We take our biggest risks when pitching,” said Cassels, “whether it’s for work or design competitions and, believe it or not, it’s often where the biggest innovations take place, because even if we don’t win, we’ve challenged ourselves. I’ve had a few that completely bombed.”

Of course, ‘untried’ is a moveable concept and, in an industry often fixated on referencing that which has come before, is anything ever really new?

“Look at Dubai,” exclaimed Lean. “Everyday there’s something new. I’ve always admired the steps that have been taken in a place like that because, though they’re fortunate to have the money to do it, everyday they’re pushing things; everyday they’re challenging things.”

“Yet design here is sometimes lazy,” continued Berresford. “Looking at social media is almost gluttonous; it becomes too easy to just pull some images from Pinterest of some seductive fantasy that has nothing to do with the real-world parameters of a project.”

“Not just gluttonous, but dangerous,” replied Marshall, “as it means there’s always a sense of looking back at what’s been done before.”

For Cassels, social media is sometimes a force at odds with creativity and invention: “It’s sucking away our creativity. Since we’ve had the ability to use Pinterest and Instagram, some design has become a bit lethargic and, yes, lazy, because it’s fed to us. But should anyone really want to go to a client with someone else’s ideas off Pinterest? Let’s start drawing and stop looking, because that’s where the magic happens.”

But for all the talk of safe thinking in contrast to risk and innovation, is there the danger that the pursuit of novelty could leave effective, established practice or design behind for insubstantial gains: does creativity always need to challenge? After all, is boring bad if it works?

“Well, a spoon could be regarded as boring and yet everyone uses one,” said Boxshall. “So we can take what you might call ‘boring things’ for granted but perhaps they’re not actually boring, we’ve just become accustomed to them. We could say the same thing about design.”

“Plus change and innovation will be dictated by necessity,” noted Breckenridge, “If something looks great but is destroying the planet then it isn’t good design; it isn’t doing its job. As for boring, well just track the trajectory of humanity. We’ve created cities filled with towers made from synthetic materials. You just need to look out of the window to see what innovation has created over the past couple of hundred years and, yet, is a building boring?”

Certainly the towers of the Barbican are not – or The Gherkin or the Walkie Talkie – all visible just beyond the neat roof terrace; a testament to risk, innovation and anything but safe thinking. As the conversation draws to a close, our guests are challenged to offer their big idea for the future.

For Beresford, it’s ‘radical authenticity’; for Bibby it’s more creative use of BIM (building information modelling); and for lean it’s anything that helps the industry fall in line with the Net Zero agenda. O’Hagan proffered a different idea: “Well, there’s never been a time when individuals have had more freedom here to express themselves and be who they are, and that’s fantastic. If only that could spread and we could have more peace, love and tolerance.” Now isn’t that a risky idea.

Read more interesting discussions from our Mix Roundtable talks here.

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