When someone orders a coffee they’re sold two modern design values. Their chocolate-dusted vanilla mocha is their very own bespoke beverage and the cardboard mug they take it away in completes the very solitary, personalised experience of a daily staple.
Infinite choice and the ability to consume on demand – and in isolation – are seen as qualities in a progressive capitalist society. But increasingly voices across the design community are saying that innovation should be the driver of human interaction not the lever that prises us apart with shiny baubles.
What we drink and the way we drink it is insightful. Stephen Graham, a contemporary ceramics designer based in East London, creates elegant tea sets whose cups and pots can only be set down safely on the indented tray they arrive on. This tray then becomes the central hub for the timeless, shared experience of having a brew.
“I want to create visually interesting objects that have elements of performance to create an exaggerated sense of community and unity,” Graham tells Humans Invent. He notes the paradox of a digitally connected global community: “new technology is changing the way we as a society behave, it gives us the opportunity to be in contact with people worldwide, and be part of a larger community and closer to are groups of friends, but it can also become a barrier between that person and the immediate environment around them.”
The idea behind collective design is to get us socialising again, as this makes us more efficient and happier in our day-to-day grind. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Alex Pentland’s research explores ‘the water cooler effect’ theory. He finds that far from damaging productivity, increased social activity around the water cooler is a good predictor of increased performance. He used specially designed stickers embedded with a radio transceiver, microprocessor and motion sensors to track employees’ location, direction and vocal inflections. “What we found was that cohesion among employees, your ‘tribe’, is one of the largest factors of productivity and job satisfaction,” Pentland explained.
The length and tone of interactions were measured, and in various workplaces it was found that those that ranked in the top third of the study for group cohesion showed increased productivity of more than 10%.
No form better demonstrates the environmental psychology of design than architecture. Human behaviour is profoundly affected by space. Psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy conducts studies to show how higher ceilings produce more ‘relational processing’, i.e. qualities like abstract thought, empathy and social behaviour, whereas low-ceilings led people to greater efficiency in tasks requiring ‘item-specific processing’ like memorising lists.
Horizons in design are spiritual and physical and neo-brutalist architecture has meant much of the world’s urban development has long been about divide and contain.
Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing once promoted interactive communal living and child’s play out in the streets of inclusive communities set around public spaces. Now, among the current emerging economic powerhouses of China, Brazil and India, communities are being designed upwards rather than sideways.
Every year more people live on top of one another and less people side-by-side. As Churchill said, “we shape our buildings and they shape us.” Isolation and disenfranchisement are the consequences of short-term urban design: dark crime ridden stairwells and underpasses, and colour-sapping concrete sprawl.
Many designers and scholars are bucking this trend and it is morality as well as economics that drives them. Vijay Govindarajan, a Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business recognises the value of slum communities and proposes a $300 single-room family home that preserves the values of interdependent slum dwellings in a modern, sanitary context rather than turning them into housing blocks. He dubs his modern shanty home “a one-room shed designed around the family ecosystem, a lego-like aggregation of useful products that bring good things to life for the poor.” The house includes a solar panel, water filter, tablet PC, and a solar cooker.
The future for communal design often turns to the past for eternal human values. This is certainly true for Prince Charles, whose ‘perfect village’ of Poundbury implements the principles of his 1989 book ‘A Vision of Britain’. And Prince Charles’ view is that modern techniques can compliment a traditional sense of small-town community.
According to the Duchy of Cornwall – Prince Charles’s estate first created in 1337- ‘emphasis at Poundbury is placed on the quality of design and materials, landscaping, and attention to detail, even to street furniture of Cornwall.’ But this village is no oak-and-straw picture postcard throwback.
Housing is high-density with residential and commercial properties sitting side-by-side. Parking comes in the form of landscaped courtyards to the rear of houses. Poundbury anticipates a world where more people work from home, so housing incorporates additional spaces for workshops and studios, and to recognise ‘increasing demands for flexible living arrangements.’
It is interesting that for this kind of collective design to be implemented, there needs to be strong creative control verging on dictatorship. The Duchy regulate all work in Poundbury down to roof angles and chimney size. It seems that human beings’ natural state is to look after the individual first and the group later. To outdo one another and put space in between ourselves and the Joneses.
Design plays a crucial role in bringing human experience closer together. We can be sure of this because at every turn historically it has advanced the cause for inclusion. In 1961 architect Ronald L Mace, crippled by polio as a child, coined the phrase ‘universal design’ – the idea that all products and the built environment should be as aesthetic and accessible to the greatest number of people possible regardless of age, ability or status.
It begun with Mace designing and welding his own metal stool so he could get to the toilet because the bathroom doors were too narrow for his wheelchair. It ended in the Barrier-Free Design standard: a world movement of access ramps and textured approaches to road crossings for the blind.
All over the world, in all different fields, designers are continuing Mace’s pioneering work in striving to design a better world for us to share – one experience at a time.