Design for the Future

September 30, 2009

Key players in the Australian design world discuss how their work in the industry is changing.

Earlier this year, at the national office of the Design Institute of Australia in Melbourne, eight designers from prominent design and architectural companies gathered together to discuss the state of design in Australia and to outline the difficulties and challenges that confront the profession today. During the two-hour meeting the participants attempted to distill and condense their ideas into seven main areas or topics that would be presented by Caroline Diesner at the 7 x 7 forum held at the Stylecraft showroom in Melbourne on 22 July.

The members of the group headed by James Harper, principal of Brooking Harper and Melbourne director of the DIA were: chair Robyn Lindsey from Geyer, Caroline Diesner from HASSELL, Ninotschka Titchkosky from BVN, Andrew Parr of SJB, Hamish Guthrie from Hecker Phelan & Guthrie, Valerie Mack from Woods Bagot, Rachael McCarthy from Bates Smart and Sue Carr from Carr Design. (inside) editor Jan Henderson joined the group as an observer as did Caroline Benzie from the DIA.

James Harper The DIA has been running the Top 10 by 10 series for the last four years. This year the event is called the Top 7 by 7 and this gathering is a precursor to that event. As the event has become much more multidisciplinary with representation from the different disciplines that the DIA represents; from fashion to industrial design, we wanted to bring the focus back to commercial interiors, hence this roundtable with Robyn Lindsey from Geyer as facilitator.

Caroline Diesner Just in terms of globalisation, I think there’s a question of whether or not we as designers have the ability to deal with all the different issues associated with the expansion of globalisation. Or do we need to become extremely specialised? Personally I think companies need to be both.

James Harper So what about consolidation? Do you think that smaller firms will join together to create bigger firms, but maybe still retain their sub-identities within that larger infrastructure?

Caroline Diesner I think design is so diverse that you’ll get both. I don’t think it will be one or the other. I think because of the way in which the design profession works and the range of problems that we deal with is diverse, there needs to be a constantly evolving and changing paradigm to deal with the challenges.

Ninotschka Titchkosky On the flipside there could be a backlash to that idea of large global corporations, and I think you’ll find more organisations will want to sit in the localised framework and retain a strong sense of their brand as part of a kind of adverse response to the current global financial crisis.

Andrew Parr I think the senior people in firms are going to be doing more roles instead of specialising in the one thing. So I think in a way, I agree, the smaller firms probably are going to survive more in this time than being part of the bigger groups with the large overheads.

Hamish Guthrie That’s what we’ve found, because we have a very diverse portfolio, work from residential through to commercial projects. It’s the ability to adapt quite easily to the climate. I imagine for a big company it’s slightly harder.

Valerie Mack We’re a global company, but we have specialists within the company. Before the global financial crisis, we tended to fly those specialists all over the place, but now we’re training others to be specialists within each of the areas. So the global financial crisis has had a really big impact on our need for local specialists, and also if you think about the impact on the planet and the amount of air travel, it’s logical to actually develop specialists in each area.

Rachael McCarthy It really depends on how receptive the client is to using technology, doesn’t it?

Andrew Parr Sometimes they just want to touch and feel and talk to a person.

Ninotschka Titchkosky I don’t think you can beat face-to-face interaction, as you always get better outcomes if you’re able to sit around the table together.

Sue Carr Coming in on the edge of this, but it’s really not necessary all the time, so we really don’t have to do the travelling we used to. We’re finding that we’re working on a massive project in Queensland at the moment, and most of it we’re doing through video conferencing, but there’s no doubt [for] getting the ideas over, you can’t beat face-to-face.

Ninotschka Titchkosky One of the things we’ve been working on more recently is the idea of engaging all the senses in commercial environments, so we’re working with a sonic specialist from the States on a project that we’re doing at the moment, and some interactive projection as part of this learning environment that we’re creating with them. And I think basically it’s about collaborating with other individuals.

James Harper There’s a lot of collaboration between practices as well, for instance Woods Bagot and Hecker Phelan Guthrie. And that never used to happen.

Valerie Mack I think that’s sort of been beyond the practice itself to bring in skills from other areas – you can see it happening in small practices in Europe in particular. But I think part of that is the complexity of the problems that we’re dealing with, and the expectations of our clients in terms of understanding how to solve their problems, so we’re having to be more sophisticated about the solutions that we’re driving.

Caroline Diesner I think it’s a recognition that the design profession can actually provide something more in terms of a solution process, that it’s not just about ‘give us the three walls and some colours’; it’s actually more about the process of what that space is giving them and how they can utilise that space as an education component as well. I’d like to see how we communicate with our clients in five years time, like the face-to-face we’ve discussed, but how do we actually communicate our ideas and our concepts with technology changing so much and the way in which we perceive design adapting as well.

Rachael McCarthy I think one of the biggest changes in technology is some of our students that are going through Swinburne at the moment are learning to use technology as a conceptual tool, and that’s something that’s changed, the capacity of what you can design is really not limited.

Ninotschka Titchkosky We actually spend a lot of money in our own business to constantly be professionally training people, whether it’s about conceptual issues or whether it’s about a technological thing, but we’re always bringing people into our organisation to actually continue to ignite the fire in everybody, including ourselves to be honest.

Valerie Mack And as you go up through the business, there are a whole lot of other skills that are required, like presentation, project management and leadership skills. So there is a lot of training to take a young interior designer up to be a senior interior designer, a lot more than just design.

Ninotschka Titchkosky I’m actually an architect, but I’m really anti the divide between designers and architects. I think it’s got to be a much more meshed sort of approach, and that’s actually how you get really good strong projects. If you just have teams of interior designers, I don’t think you ever get as good a result as you can if you have a multidisciplinary team. And so we send interior designers off to the same conferences as our architects go to, and I think that’s how you have to think about education on an ongoing basis.

Robyn Lindsey We need to continue to understand that we’re a real profession; therefore we have to take responsibility for the risk and not just believe ourselves to be conceptual designers, and take on those other responsibilities. But interior design will never get out of that kind of hole until it starts, I believe, to take on the kind of rigour and that kind of business that architects do.

James Harper So do we see a trend of continuous learning or greater professionalism in the industry?

Ninotschka Titchkosky I don’t think you can say it’s a trend; I just think that’s a totally wrong approach because it should be completely embedded in the profession. The designers that come to us have no understanding about what it actually means to create a corporate workplace, and that you’re actually reacting to business objectives, and the great thing about doing a corporate workplace is that you get to really understand all these fantastic businesses and it’s fascinating.

Valerie Mack I specialise in workplace and head up a workplace group and many students that come to me only want to do what we call lifestyle design. They think commercial design is boring, but the wealth of research and knowledge that you can grow within that is mind boggling and exciting. Luckily, I work for an organisation that actually supports research and learning, and we pour millions of dollars into that area.

Hamish Guthrie I guess maybe hospitality and retail work is seen as a bit sexier, so people think it’s not as serious or as intellectual, but it is still very intellectual and disciplined stuff.

Robyn Lindsey What’s the prescription? Rather than what it is and what it has been, what do we want it to be?

Andrew Parr I think going forward, you do want a business point of design as well, so OK, you can be creative and all the rest of it, but you have to have business acumen well taught at school.

James Harper And what about branding?

Ninotschka Titchkosky It is a tricky one, but I don’t think we can go away from it to some extent; I think we have to – because the world is very brand focused with everything, isn’t it?

Caroline Diesner But the brand also enables you to define yourself. We find that it’s almost an ongoing process whereby you’re constantly assessing and checking against it to see who you think you are and what you’re trying to do, and so it almost becomes just a validation process.

Robyn Lindsey Do you think a brand can be [a] service in our industry?

Hamish Guthrie I think the service definitely can be. We’re very much a personality-based office, and people come to us for a service, not just about the end product, but it’s about the experience of getting the end product, so it’s something we are focusing on, how we deal with people who come into the office and what kind of experience they have.

James Harper We haven’t talked about sustainability in terms of where is it heading? Is it becoming embedded in everything that we do?

Caroline Diesner Absolutely. That’s one of the things that we’re finding with sustainability. Green Star is actually only one small component of the whole discussion about sustainability, and we’ve sort of almost focused at the tip, which is an easy one.

James Harper So sustainability will move from being sort of a buzzword to become…

Caroline Diesner Endemic.

James Harper But you actually can take it down to basics, people with water tanks in a very domestic environment now know about conserving water, power and all the rest of it. So that’s at your very basic level, so surely design can do the same, really? And just be part of a natural thinking process.

Robyn Lindsey Do you think one of the most powerful things we can do in the future is just to put pressure on our whole supply chain? Because a lot of our issues are actually things that are dictated to us in a large way by our suppliers, materials, finishes.

Ninotschka Titchkosky The other thing is all of us can actually build into our specifications the principles of Green Star.

Valerie Mack Sustainability should actually embrace financial sustainability and social sustainability. It actually should be in the whole. For an organisation, financial sustainability is obviously important, but so is social sustainability commitment to the community, particularly to the actual workers.

Robyn Lindsey So to summarise some key points, we have globalisation, environmental responsibility, social responsibility and marketing. It’s how we talk, the language we use and it’s got to be a new language that we start to articulate, which it’s more than just choosing colours.

Valerie Mack That’s our social responsibility: to actually help make the world a better place by helping people gain that knowledge.

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