Category Archives: Essays

Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review

by Dan Lockton

Hollywood & Highland mall

Continuing the meta-auto-behaviour-change effort started here, I’m publishing a few extracts from my PhD thesis as I write it up (mostly from the literature review, and before any rigorous editing) as blog posts over the next few months. The idea of how architecture can be used to influence behaviour was central to this blog when it started, and so it’s pleasing to revisit it, even if makes me realise how little I still know.

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”
Winston Churchill, addressing the English Architectural Association, 1924

In designing and constructing environments in which people live and work, architects and planners are necessarily involved in influencing human behaviour. While Sommer (1969, p.3) asserted that the architect “in his training and practice, learns to look at buildings without people in them,” it is clear that from, for example, Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902), through Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine and La Ville radieuse, to the Smithsons’ ‘Streets in the sky’, there has been a long-standing thread of recognition that the way people live their lives is directly linked to the designed environments in which they live. Whether the explicit intention to influence behaviour drives the design process—architectural determinism (Broady, 1966: see future blog post ‘POSIWID and determinism’)—or whether the behaviour consequences of design decisions are only revealed and considered as part of a post-occupancy evaluation (e.g. Zeisel, 2006) or by social scientists or psychologists studying the impact of a development, there are links between the design of the built environment and our behaviour, both individually and socially.
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Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence’:

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

Dredging up some old ideas

Three essays I’d pretty much forgotten about, written for courses at Cambridge during my Master’s in Technology Policy, linked here for no reason in particular:

Peer Treasure: how firms outside the software industry can use open source thinking
How can we strengthen links between entrepreneurial companies and entrepreneurial universities in the UK?
Motor vehicles in the developing world: options for sustainability* [all PDFs]

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J G Ballard & Architectures of Control

Ballardian

Over at the brilliant Ballardian, editor Simon Sellars has just published my article ‘J.G. Ballard & Architectures of Control‘, where I take a brief look at how Ballard’s work repeatedly examines ‘the effect of architecture on the individual’ – something central to both the physical and psychological aspects of my research. Many thanks are due to Simon for giving me the opportunity to write for this (very knowledgeable) audience, and I hope I’ve done the subject justice.

Surveillance cameras hung like gargoyles from the cornices, following me as I approached the barbican and identified myself to the guard at the reception desk… High above me, fluted columns carried the pitched roofs, an attempt at a vernacular architecture that failed to disguise this executive-class prison. Taking their cue from Eden-Olympia and Antibes-les-Pins, the totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong.

Super-Cannes, chapter 15.

What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 2

Office and workshop door plaques

In part 1 of ‘What I’ve learned so far…’ I looked mostly at being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and the idea of ‘Wexelblat’s scheduling algorithm’ (or the ‘good, fast, cheap: pick two’ theory) as it applies to a young freelancer starting out. There were some very insightful comments which are also well worth reading.

Before starting on Part 2, I feel I should apologise for the relative dearth of posts recently. This seems to be a recurring pattern, although this time it’s actually resulting in some people unsubscribing in Bloglines… The reason is primarily that I’ve had a series of projects which have taken a lot out of me, time-, sanity- and confidence-wise. I can’t really explain too much at this point, but referring to Client Breeds 6, 7, 8 and 11 as explained at the excellent FreelanceSwitch should give some hints! Suffice to say, I hope never to make the same series of mistakes again. A later part of this series will be my own take on the ‘Client Breeds’ idea and managing different clients’ expectations, but for the moment, on with Part 2:

The Portfolio Dip

When you’re at university, college, or working on design in your spare time, the rate at which you add new work to your portfolio can be equal to the rate you do the work. If you do three projects in the final year of your degree, you can add three projects. But when you start doing ‘real’ projects for companies, they’re likely to be confidential, at least until they reach production (if they even go this far), so you can’t show anyone. This applies, of course, to designers working full-time for a company as well as freelancers, but is more importnat for freelancers. (Incidentally, a friend of mine whom I’d classify as an extremely successful freelancer, suggests that only 1 out 10 potential products developed for clients are ever likely to reach mass production, and he makes that clear to the clients as he goes, which is something I’ve been far too reticent about doing.)

Back to the point: the confidentiality requirements mean that – superficially at least – your portfolio starts to look a bit stale (e.g. this). The rate of new work added drops sharply, and this can certainly have an effect on your own confidence quite apart from – we might expect – not being so persuasive to potential clients. (If you’re also, sensibly, weeding out some of the older projects of which you’re not quite so proud – too studenty, too weak – then as well as the size of the portfolio decreasing, the period it covers may also decrease to a narrow focus around, say, the final two years of your degree. And the rate of work added actually goes negative.) Roughly, you might end up with something like this:

The Portfolio Dip

If the most recent stuff you can show them is a student project, or even a speculative competition entry hacked together in your spare time (if any), then they may well treat you like a student or a speculative chancer rather than a professional designer. What they expect to pay you could also be in accordance with this.

Equally, even if the early freelance jobs you take on do reach production quickly, or can be shown without a confidentiality worry, they’re not necessarily going to be especially impressive. For example, I’m grateful for getting the job of making new signage (below) for a local sandwich shop, to the client’s design, but putting this into a portfolio primarily focusing on more technically innovative work may well dilute its appeal to certain prospective clients.

Nibbles signage, Datchet, BucksNibbles signage, Datchet, Bucks

All of the above reinforces something very important. Industrial experience during a degree – ideally a summer internship or an actual sandwich year placement – can be extremely valuable, especially if some of what you worked on has reached production by the time you graduate or start your freelance career. In effect, this work can help ‘plug’ the portfolio gap, with real-life, commercially viable products which may even be familiar to potential clients already. While choosing a sandwich course makes your degree longer – and that year’s wages may be very low – with the right choice of company and some hard work, you may have an asset which makes your portfolio work stand out above others’.

What I’ve learned so far as a freelance designer/engineer/maker: Part 1

The sign on the door

This is the first in a series of essays where I’ll try to look at some of the realities of working freelance in this field; I hope these will be interesting and possibly useful to others contemplating this kind of work. Please note, these are only my own musings and ramblings, written mostly on train journeys across North London, and I might look back on them with embarrassment and disagreement.

At the moment, I’m a freelance designer/engineer/maker. What that means is hard to define. There are no obvious boundaries: I’ve said ‘Yes’ to almost every project, mostly out of necessity but partly out of trying to determine what I’m any good at. In practice that means that in the last year-and-a-bit I’ve worked on some diverse stuff, from developing ultra-lightweight bikes to designing novelty packaging, from researching multinationals’ brand architectures to doing toothed belt calculations for gearboxes. I’ve tested radio-controlled things in the Thames looking across at Windsor Castle, and grappled with CSS while sitting in an abandoned factory in Dalston. I’ve hand-lettered sandwich shop menu blackboards and sprayed T-shirts with the logo of a new telemetry spin-out company. There’s mechanical engineering in there, some graphics, some electronics, prototype building, even copywriting.

What it’s shown me is that a jack-of-all-trades is not necessarily master of none, but unlikely to be any more than master of some, few in fact. And the main reasons for that — so far as I can tell — are time and money.

Time

If every project is different, you pretty much have to start by spending time simply finding out what you’re doing, what the precedents are in that field, what important things you need to know, even what equipment you’ll need to do the job properly. Some clients tend to assume that anyone ‘technical’ can fix (or indeed design) absolutely anything involving engineering materials, electronics, computers, etc, and while to some extent I don’t think that’s untrue, given experience, it’s probably not the best policy always to say ‘I’ll give it a go’. But you do need to test your limits before you can know them.

Back to the point: if you have to spend a significant amount of time on each project learning about the field, each project is going to take you longer than it would for someone who already knows what’s what. And you will make mistakes, of course.

Money

What the above implies is that, as it’s going to take you longer, you’re going to have to work out how to charge. Should the client pay for your learning process? How fair is that?

One point of view would say that no, you’ve created an (intangible) asset for yourself, and the client should only pay for your time once you know what you’re doing. The other point of view says that acquisition of knowledge is a prerequisite of being able to deliver what the client wants. Just as you charge for the acquisition of materials, so should you charge for the acquisition of knowledge. I think the answer probably lies somewhere in between, but it’s difficult for a freelance person — reliant on a sporadic income anyway — to ‘write off’ days as ‘knowledge acquisition’. If you have zero income (and maybe some expenditure) for those days, then you’re going to have to budget for that somehow, and that’s something that’s difficult to plan.

A second major point regarding money is that, well, the client wants to spend as little as possible. Why has he/she/it employed you, a freelance individual with (probably) few facilities other than your brain and your hands, rather than a ‘proper’ design consultancy? Unless the client genuinely thinks you are wonderful, or are likely to come up with stunning insights or innovation which someone else wouldn’t, the reason is probably because you’re cheap, or the client thinks you’ll be cheap (‘Because you’re young, and have lower overheads, right?’).

Wexelblat’s Scheduling Algorithm

But — the client also wants you to be good. So you have to be good and cheap. And on a smaller budget, and with less expertise and experience to call on than an established consultancy. How are you going to do it?

When I was working for a couple of weeks at a well-known design consultancy in London, two experienced freelance designers, David Baird and Simon May were also working on (more important aspects of) the same project. One morning, one of them (I can’t remember if it was David or Simon) drew out on his sketchpad, this diagram…

Wexelblat's scheduling algorithm: fast, cheap, good: choose two

…and said ‘You can have 2 out of 3. It’s either good and fast (and not cheap), good and cheap (and not fast) or fast and cheap (and not good). That’s what I try to tell clients.’

This stuck with me at the back of my mind; I’ve since found out it’s (sometimes) attributed as Wexelblat’s Scheduling Algorithm (presumably after Richard Wexelblat?), though also apparently an ‘old designer’s adage’ (Jason Kottke) and an ‘old Hollywood maxim‘. The impossible triangle used to illustrate it here is cleverer than what I’ve drawn above, but the principle is the same. (As with so many principles and maxims popularised through software development, it also seems to apply very well to design and physical product development.)

As we’ve seen, the client wants a project to be good and cheap. Hence, if Wexelblat is true, it’ll be slow, even if some of that slowness is accounted for by knowledge acquisition, and mistakes. But if you’re charging for that time, you’re incurring costs in the process, which tends to counter the ‘cheap’ aspect of the project. So, there’s an inherent difficulty with applying Wexelblat to jobs with a significant learning curve. If your costs are proportional to the time you spend, you can’t be cheap without also being fast, and bad (since you possibly don’t even know what you’re doing). For the inexperienced, cheap and fast and bad is possible, but good implies not fast and not so cheap unless — as we considered earlier — you’re willing/able to write off your learning time.

Reality

If the above sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. It’s exciting working on new things and building up expertise, but when clients’ primary reason for choosing you in the first place may be cheapness, you’re going to have something of a difficult compromise and balancing act on your hands, just in terms of scheduling your work and budget, let alone the specific challenges of the project in question. It might mean that your definition of ’1 day’s work’ slowly seeps into becoming ’7.30 am to 2 am’ just in order to get everything done in the same number of days you promised, and for the same cost. That’s fun for a while, but gets pretty tiring for those around you even before you get fed up.

An implication of all that is that to be competing on price alone can be a stressful game, especially when having to do so simply to get enough work means that you have a lot of learning to do for every project. It’s something of a positive feedback loop, a vicious circle. But, if you can build up enough experience in a particular field, and are able to use knowledge acquired (or problems solved) on a previous project, you have the start of something more edifying. You may still be able to compete on price, but you can now be cheap, faster and better, since you know what you’re doing. And, slowly, gradually, you might even be able to specialise in a certain field, no longer jack-of-all-trades, but actually mastering something.