Rick Poynor | Essays

How to Chew Gum while Walking

Engaged design: poster by Brisbane-based Inkahoots, 2007, a tribute to Redback Graphix
For more on Inkahoots see Change Observer

This week, in a review in the Observer newspaper about the proposed design of the London HQ for the Swiss bank UBS, the British architecture critic
Rowan Moore set out the demands of principled design with startling clarity. Here are the opening words of his article:

Good architects should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, meet their clients’ needs, design well-made and sustainable buildings, and also add something to their building’s setting, such as work with their surroundings to create a place more harmonious/fascinating/humane/pleasurable than it was before. 

The particulars of this project don’t concern me here, though I’m inclined to agree that the building designed by Make looks like it will be “an aloof fortress that ignores its responsibilities to the wider community.” Moore’s statement of principle caught my eye because I was already mulling over these issues with reference to my recent Observatory essay about the state of Dutch graphic design.

Just as the comments thread appeared to be running out of steam and the essay was about to drop off the front page, Florian Pfeffer, a German professor of graphic design with a commercial practice in Amsterdam, Berlin and Bremen, arrived with a thoughtful riposte to a number of points I had made (or at least that he thought I had made). I had been wondering how to reply to his comments, when I read Moore’s article, which addressed the two interlinked issues on my mind. First, the question of the designer’s relation to the client. And second, what it means to function as a designer (or architect) attempting to apply clear and conscious principles — in other words, a position — to projects undertaken for clients.

I can’t resist adding that we in design seem to have been talking about these matters forever. It’s amazing that the issues at stake apparently remain so unclear to so many designers, and that there is always someone ready to say, “Oh, it’s so much more complicated now than it used to be” — with the implication that earlier analysis (and perhaps wisdom) can safely be ignored. Often this assertion is made about a time before the designer was even working. How do they know?

Moore mentions the high regard in which UBS’s architects are held in some quarters:

Clients of Make praise the company as responsive and professional, and these virtues are obviously important ones. What is lacking is a core of principles: a Make building tends to be as good as its brief . . . If UBS wants a defensive-aggressive citadel, it gets it.

This, then, is the fundamental issue: core principles. Of course, a design company can dedicate itself to fulfilling its clients’ needs and leave it at that. This has always been a possibility. But it’s perfectly fair for the rest of us to ask: is that all there is? When the issue of guiding principles comes up, even allowing for the contingencies of our own time, it simply isn’t adequate for designers to suggest that the luxury of resistance might have been possible in the past, but that everything is far too fragmented and complicated to allow this now. If you can’t be the designer you would like to be in the work situation you are in, then follow the example of highly principled designers — they still exist — and change your situation. The issue then becomes, as Moore rightly suggests: what else can a designer add to a project beyond merely fulfilling the client’s brief?

Nor should it ever be a question of attempting to “bend clients” to one’s will, and I would like to be clear that, though I used this phrase ironically in my essay to evoke the mystery of Dutch design when seen from afar, I have never advocated such arrogant and most likely counterproductive tactics. I have been a client of designers many times myself and if anyone were to try this approach with me, I would have no wish to work with them. I do, however, respect the validity and indeed necessity of a designer’s principles and personal position and hope to work with designers where there is a creative correspondence of views. Isn’t this the most that anyone who is sensitive to design, on either side of the meeting-room table, can wish for?

Moore rounds off his critique of Make’s bank HQ design with this sharp summation:

Make is a perfect distillation of 00s architecture, where genuine professionalism, slick stylishness, and a real if well-advertised commitment to the environment are boosted by hype and infinite adaptability to the demands of the market.

Exactly the same could be said about the kind of graphic design I was criticising in my essay. This is part of a larger cultural tendency, for sure, but can that be a reason — is it ever a reason? — to suggest that we just go along with things as they are? Let’s discard the complacent mid-1990s to mid-00s mindset once and for all. These difficult times demand principled engagement with complex societal needs, not bland acquiescence to the marketplace.

Posted in: Architecture, Business

Comments [10]

you must have seen my twitter page. i created the manual on how to walk and chew gum at the same time :) http://twitter.com/TennesseeV

Joshua Prince-Ramus has an interesting perspective on the relationship between the client's brief and the designer's agenda: "[...] if the Owner's constraints form a round hole, why not pick an embodiment of your agenda that is a round peg? Then your vision will slip right through the Owner's needs without either being compromised."

What is the yardstick for good or responsive design? Design has emotional, visual and spiritual aspects as well as physical dimension, what else is there to add? Is it just the Western perspective?
Mwacharo L.G.

Thanks Rick. This fits well with my thoughts about the course of design as well. I agree that it's not enough to simply fulfill the brief and satisfy the client. To me, great design goes beyond that and becomes a cultural artifact. Great design is museum-worthy; it attains a life far beyond the time and scope of the completion of the project.

In reference to Dilettante's quotation above, the design should not be a round peg, but more like a balloon that squeezes through the hole, and expands out the other side without popping.
marian bantjes

dear rick,
thank you for this article which i can wholehartedly agree to.

Designers need positions and principles - as clients do. Nothing could be more damaging to the design profession than client/designer relationships with one side not having a position. What good could possibly come out of that?

Without wanting to make an endless loop out of this there is a remark though in your post which urges some clarification from my side since it suggests me having made a statement which i would never make:

By saying that there is an ongoing fragmentation in society today i did not say that resistance was a luxury which we probably can't afford to have anymore. The contrary is the case - we can't afford the luxury of not being resistant (see below).

And i did not (at least i did not intend to) imply in my post to discard earlier analysis or wisdom. That would be a pretty unhistoric and ignorant attitude. It must be allowed though to talk about earlier times without having lived/worked in them ... otherwise we had to discard historic reflection (beyond the personal/professional lifespan) as a whole.

Even though there is a large portion of "earlier times" in which i did not live, there is still at least some "earlier times" i can look at from first hand experience. This experience has teached me that those earlier times only rarely and in few aspects were dramatically "better" or "worse" than the times we are living in. Most earlier times were simply different and had different challenges for us in stock. It is important to investigate these differences and also sometimes challenge earlier positions in order to make them productive for us today.

My personal challenge would be that it won't be possible to engage with the complex societal needs outside of the market place (well, it is of course possible, but is this a smart strategy?). Bertold Brecht once was saying: "What is the robbery of a bank as compared to the formation a bank?" Today we know that we cannot leave the formation of banks to bankers - they will mess it up.

We do not need to adapt to the market. We need to adapt the market. And this can be done only by being part of it - and not by standing next to it. This is what concerns me about many (not all) expressions of "political design" from today and from earlier times - a lack of real engagement and true risk taking. Making political posters or simply making a "logo" for Wikileaks is not taking risks - it is to reassure oneself about ones own moral integrity (and in how far is this an answer to complex societal needs?). These things make me wonder: "Is that all there is" for design to make a contribution?
Florian Pfeffer

Thanks for these comments.

Mwacharo L.G., what I’m talking about here is a point of view that is particular to the individual designer. If you are asking the question from a non-Western perspective, then your own view of this issue would be very interesting to hear.

Marian, yes, I agree that exceptional design does tend to last. We sound like Paul Rand! For more on this subject, an issue close to my heart, see this article.

Florian, I’m glad you think that resistance is possible. The question then, is resistance to what? What are the social problems that require resistance by designers and what form might this resistance take?

You say, “We do not need to adapt to the market. We need to adapt the market. And this can be done only by being part of it — and not by standing next to it.” This is an argument that designers often make because (a) it appears logical; (b) it means they can continue working inside and get (relatively) well paid with a clear conscience; (c) it takes back the moral high ground from opt-out designers by implying that these refuseniks are wasting their efforts and changing nothing; and (d) adapt-the-market designers are unlikely to be challenged by colleagues or even, I’m sorry to say, by design journalists to demonstrate exactly how their efforts inside the market have adapted it in any fundamental way.

However, the issue is more complicated for reasons that are rarely acknowledged by designers — even would-be radical designers. We can see this problem in your own use of the idea of the market. Even a “radical” designer, you argue, needs to devote his or her efforts to adapting the market. But if you set out with the sole aim of adapting the market, you accept the idea that the market is the sum total of our reality and that reality can only be a market of the kind we have now. It can be improved here and there, but it can’t be changed in essence as a way of life because, as a famous British advertising man once told me, in a phrase that perfectly sums up the market-is-reality view: “Our whole structure of life is about selling something.”

For more on this crucial issue, there is an interesting article, which points out the inherent problems with the First Things First manifesto, which also accepted the inescapable reality of the market.

To assess the value of the presence of designers such as Metahaven or, in a different way, Inkahoots (image shown above) one only has to imagine how the design landscape would look without them — if, that is, the only kind of design activity being undertaken was in and for the market. Strongly divergent and even extreme positions are essential because they show that completely different ways of thinking from the usually unquestioned norms of the market are possible. They posit, in the most encouraging way — at least for some of us — the prospect of an alternative system of values, set of priorities and way of life.
Rick Poynor

While I agree that the building is quite ugly (to use a subjective term from ages past), I find it interesting that it is assumed that the client's brief did not include "fortress-like character."

I might expect that the board of directors of a Swiss bank might LIKE an imposing, impenetrable mass. These are bankers, after all.

The question then becomes, "if a client asks for a mean, ugly building, is the architect compelled to deliver it?"


Your question is valid, and interesting. The design of the Great West Life Assurance Company Canadian head office building has alternatively been praised and criticized for being just that: a fortress-like structure. I find it quite attractive and appropriate, even though it has a formidable fortress feel (sorry for the alliteration). Is this not a positive and appropriate message for a bank or an insurance company headquarters?

The GWLA building also has the redeeming factor of the beautiful welcoming glass entrance. The architecture of the building seems to be able to invite the arriving visitor in, while at the same time conveying the company's intended message of strength and dependability.

(Unfortunately, too much vegetation was added to the adjacent landscaping, which has since grown up and somewhat spoils the intended effect, in my opinion. see link below)



did not mean to post above anonymously. apologies.

Thank you for the article, Rick. I think a designer has to think 'beyond' the role of merely meeting requirements of the brief and consider the larger role she/he is playing in the society by implementing a particular design project. I would say a strong consideration for the long-term impact (on the society and the immediate environment) of the design project could give insights beyond the scope of the brief or of the design process and perhaps lead to that extra 1 or 5 percent that is often missing in design briefs and finished designs!
Mayank Bhatnagar

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