Who delivers design?

From this one burning question sprouted a whole clutch of side issues, ranging from client expectations to the national perception of design. Johnny Tucker sat in to report on the proceedings

Who delivers design? was the central question of our latest seminar held at Strata Tiles. But it wasn't the only one that came up in a wide-ranging debate that also asked: What do clients expect ('more') and for how much ('less')? And do clients, not to mention the country as a whole, value design and, if they don't, isn't that in turn an issue of marketing and education that designers and architects need to address?

One problem touched on was the lack of official regulation for interior designers and the knock-on effect that has in the perception of design as a whole. But as BDP associate interior designer Gordon Cloete pointed out, there are good clients, ones who recognise the value of design and don't ask the bean-counting, room-killing question: 'But how do you measure its productivity?' So many questions...

FX editor Theresa Dowling kicked off the afternoon session by saying that delivering design used to be a simple hierarchical process with designers and architects at the top of the tree. They offered the service to the client, had the key relationship, and were in many ways the guardian of the client's needs, 'but now it's become a bit of a bun fight and the other side of this is the fees - who is charging whom and for what? Whose design is it and who ends up with the ultimate responsibility when the invoices go in at the end?'

Swanke Hayden Connell's interior design director, Jason Turner, continued the inquisitive vein, adding that it would be good to find out from those present, 'How you believe clients see value in what everyone does. Clients can now procure design from pretty much every part of the industry: from furniture suppliers, which offer space planning, workplace consultancy, even research, and will offer that service for free. You can go to the design-and-build practices, which are busily chipping away at the consultancy offer and providing all the services in one. And there's everything in between. So where does that leave the professional design consultant or any other sort of professional consultancy business that works on a fee basis, and why would a client go down this route rather than opting for a one-stop-shop?'

MoreySmith director Nicola Osborn answered: 'It all depends on who they engage with first, from the D&B contractor to the QS, to the designer, and it also depends what sort of design experience they have and what sort of team they have in-house.'

Adding a further layer to the original question, Theresa Dowling also wondered whether this varied by sector. Jerry Lehane, director at Chapman Bathurst, believed it was 'more client-based than sector-based. If a client knows what they want, that may drive them to which services they need. And then there's the situation that as soon a client lets the market know there's a job they get all the phone calls, a D&B will call them up and say: "You don't want a design consultant that will cost you 20 per cent more on your job." Then a consultant rings them up to say: "You've got to have us, to establish exactly what you need, protect your design, go out and buy it competitively" - and the client is stuck in the middle going "Eh?"'

Gordon Cloete pointed out that, from the client point of view, so often it is 'ultimately about the bottom line'. He went on to add: 'There is also this mentality that anyone can be a designer, the kind of "I work in an office so I know how an office works" way of thinking. If you work in a hospital you don't know how a hospital works!'

Jason Turner agreed, adding that this mindset was particularly prevalent in the office-design sector - interestingly also a big D&B market - but that with hospitality, such as hotels, they tended to value design more highly and buy into a concept.

Imagination director, Ewald Damen, added that sometimes a client only wants you for part of the process: 'Your name is attached to the project, but they don't want the cost of you delivering it.' Haskoll associate, Lisa Burton, likened this to the situation 'that's come about in the past 10 years whereby you get the signature architects coming together to get planning permission'.

But BDG Architecture + Design creative director Colin Macgadie interjected: 'We're making an assumption here that the people who are delivering the design are going to do a bad job - somebody might be very good at design through planning while others are better at delivering.'

Ewald Damen took up his point, applying it to project delivery in the international market: 'When working in different parts of the world, while we'll do the design, there are, of course, big benefits to having local architects - they're next to the site, they know the local products and specification and what they have to comply with. We see that in hotel design and more in retail as well.'

This led the conversation round to the perennially thorny issue of specifying abroad and the problem of retaining the integrity of design as elements are re-specified for financial, geographical or 'political' reasons.

In relation to that Strata director, Trevor Horsely, raised the interesting point of ultimate design responsibility for a project that has been re-specified during delivery, particularly in relation to the performance of materials such as ceramic tiles.

While Ewald Damen said he wouldn't consider it his responsibility if a great deal had been changed without his control, Gordon Cloete countered: 'Ultimately the responsibility does end up on your shoulders.'

Nicola Osborn continued: 'It's a long journey, things get changed, diluted, and in the end it's up to the client as to whether they value your input and value your design.'

Jason Turner added: 'Isn't the real issue that, as designers and architects, we've not been able to differentiate ourselves in a business sense - to say to a client that our service will be demonstrably better for their business than going anywhere else?' He added, addressing his comments to Jerry Lehane: 'The classic case is probably M&E, where your remit is chipped away at all the time.'

Lehane answered: 'In M&E we are subservient in the process. Firstly it's the function of the space that matters and how it's created. Something that has brought us deeper into the game in recent years is the need for resilience in a variety of IT. People think, "Do I really want to give that to a couple of blokes who turn up in a van?" So that has brought us back more into the game.'

Looking more generally he added: 'Overall it is client-dependent. In the hotel sector, if you get a signature hotel they will want a good designer and want that good design protected and delivered. If you get a Travel Lodge they already know what they want and they will go out into the market with a good set of specifications. And then there's the whole range in between. I think the market is big enough for all of us, but designers have been poor in selling and protecting what it is we do.'

This brought things back around to the thorny issue of everyone thinking they are an interior designer, cue 10 minutes of Changing Rooms bashing.

Ewald Damen added: 'Often a client likes elements of different things, so they put a kind of mood board together for you and you have to step back and say, "Hang on, do you want us to copy all those things or do you want us to do the design?"'

Lisa Burton added: 'Different countries treat design differently as well. In countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Denmark, we are looked at completely differently. What the architect and designer says goes - it's a really nice experience!'

Damen added: 'I come from the Netherlands and there's a RIBA and a body for interior designers. In the Netherlands there is high appreciation for design. They know who the star designers are, but they also know the value of design. There is more exposure to design. It's embedded in the culture.'

Strata director Paul Wallis wondered if it was the case that everybody wanted to use English architects and designers and they were seen as the people to come to for worldwide specification, but not so well thought of 'in their own back yard'.

Nicola Osborn agreed with that, adding: 'The respect for the creative industries in this country is not what it should be.' This in turn led Jason Turner to ask: 'But whose, fault is that?' 'Kevin McCloud's!' replied Osborn, 'It's not our fault.'

Continuing the theme started by Ewald Damen, Richard Collis, associate at construction consultant Jackson Coles, added: 'There is a problem that the client says, "I want one of these", and too many designers have responded directly to what the client wants with, like you say, their mood board, and then there is no architectural ? are in what they propose. So having done that it then becomes a problem for architects who do have ? are and vision and aren't allowed to use it.'

Moving the argument on to a business footing, Jason Turner stated: 'I think far too many architects and designers trade on what a space will look like rather than saying to a client, "We can save you money. We can make your space work better and be more efficient and, by the way, it will also look better". It's all about making the client's business function better, and the space they occupy is an intrinsic part of that. That gets completely lost and you need an intelligent consultant to tell you that - not somebody who is just going to flog you some furniture!'

Nicola Osborn wholeheartedly agreed, and pointed out that maybe architects and designers needed to be more literal with their clients when explaining exactly what 'real design' entails: 'Of course we care about the aesthetic, but we also care about a project that ticks all the boxes, which is on time, on budget and works functionally. I think we don't sell that enough. We say we're great designers and that means all of these things, but we don't actually say that and they just think we care about the aesthetic.'

Jason Turner went on to expand on the business side and how work now comes from different areas, depending on who has the key client relationship: 'Sometimes we end up bidding for work with main contractors. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, it's just symptomatic of how the relationships now can be with anyone. Let's face it: contractors are not hairy-arsed builders any more,; they are very smart.'

Theresa Dowling picked up on this point: 'There was a time, not very long a go, when D&B was seen as the lowest of the low. They were seen as undercutting and undermining the professionals, but it does seem now that it is the D&Bs that have the key client relationship?'

'The D&B industry has been very smart as they now offer themselves up to us as contractors, as well as having their own clients to whom they offer the whole package and say you don't need consultants,' agreed Nicola Osborn. 'What they also say, which always makes me shiver when we employ them is: "We have our own designer who can help you take it to site." And I'm thinking, "Why would we want that, when the client already has us?" There's a subliminal message here that design is free and doesn't matter that much.'

BDG's Colin Macgadie added: 'The thing is, everyone can do design - but not everyone can do it well and some do it really badly!'

While the conversation lingered around the importance of the client relationship and how the designer and architect used to be the guardian of the vision for the client, for some that had been eroded by concentration on the bottom line, and by trying to measure the 'productivity' of design.

Ending the session, Jason Turner asked for a show of hands: 'Who has had that elusive beast, a client who really values what you do and speaks to you first, rather than a project manager or cost consultant?' he posed.

Interestingly, every creative in the room put up a paw. So they are out there - they do exist!' exclaimed Turner, to whom the response was not really a surprise. It's just that this kind of client seems to be becoming the exception rather than the rule in many sectors of the industry.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial