Clive Grinyer: The drivel is in the detail

While Clive Grinyer enjoyed the architecture of the refurbished Whitby Abbey, his overall experience was marred by its lack of signage and poor facilities

The relationship between function and aesthetics is at the root of any design activity. For many users of design, it is often perceived to be the visual component bolted on at the end, a decoration to paper over the cracks. To overcome that view it’s sometimes necessary to point out that design is not about how things look at all. It’s about how they work and the process by which you get there.

For some, aesthetics is irrelevant. ‘The look of a website is completely unimportant. It’s just got to work’ was a recent comment made in frustration at a design team that was unwilling to compromise the appearance of the client’s site to solve a functional problem. But making things look good is the whole point of design. The power to create attraction and desire is its most potent force. Communicating character and emotion, beauty in form and detail on a surface or in space is the thing no amount of economics, research and marketing can do.

Making things look good takes skill, experience, understanding of the processes, and lots of iteration. It’s what designers take pride in, what marks them out and wins awards, a collective agreement in the beauty and effectiveness of a solution.

But if it doesn’t work, it’s bad design. For example, Whitby Abbey, on the edge of the North York Moors, has lost the temporary-looking sheds and cabins that were its entrance, and an adjoining, previously unused mansion has been transformed with Stanton Williams’ brave, powerful architectural solution. It’s a great piece of architecture, returning the Gothic abbey ruins to its rightful grandeur. But a visit to such a place is not just about the architecture. The experience encompasses how we interact with the space, information and signage, entertainment and the surrounding setting and historical context.

Sadly, what is architecturally innovative and beautiful is at odds with the needs of us, the paying public – finding the entrance, taking kids to the loo, or admiring the dramatic views. This experience is blighted by a lack of signage that leads most people past the visitor centre, round the back to the service yard to look at the dustbins, before returning to the front. The visitor centre has no toilet, it’s 200 yards across windy moor back in the car park. And the stunning view that was previously boarded up is now hidden behind tasteful fine metal gauze, which every visitor disdainfully pulls back for their photos, and takes the kids to the loo round the back. I am sure this was not part of the grand vision.

It’s a shame not just because a great piece of architecture at an internationally important site is blighted, but because the balance between aesthetics and experience is wrong. How long will it be before the poor staff tire of explaining that the loos are across the moors, and they have to go up the stairs and through the museum to get to the abbey? ‘The architect said the signage would ruin the look of the building’ was the inevitable answer to whoever asked how they were meant to know where to go.

It’s frustrating that such a wonderful effort that regenerates an international landmark should fall down in the detail. For visitors to the UK, it’s vital these things are right, to dispel preconceptions of poor service and low design quality in our hotels or transport systems. Increasingly, the opposite is true and we can be proud of many excellent buildings and experiences, from Rotherham’s Technology Centre to Manchester’s Commonwealth Games stadium.

In Bristol, for example, the unique problems for visitors to a city without a coherent centre or understandable shape have been solved by imaginative use of design collaborations. In the Legible City project, our most talented planners, product, graphic and information designers, with the backing of the local council, have created a solution that looks and works fantastically. Embossed maps present the city as it appears in front of you, not on the conventional North/South axis. A ring shows how far you can walk in five minutes, giving a sense of scale. Elegant back-lit signage paints the city in a blue wash that is being copied by many restaurants and shops and is creating a unique identity for Bristol.

It’s the designer’s role to champion not just their creative vision, architectural, emotional or decorative, but to represent the total experience. It’s that ability, to connect every need and want to the physical and virtual delivery that otherwise happens by accident, that marks them out. Surely this is where beauty and emotion is formed, in the vision, structure and detail that creates the experience in full.

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