With the next FX Talks event being planned for 2021, we spoke to M Moser’s Frances Gain about the radical thinkers that have proved most inspiring to her
Can you pinpoint the thought that led you to a career in design?
I used to run along my city’s (Cape Town) seaside promenade. One day, I realised that instead of taking in the stunning coastal views, I was always mesmerised by the architecture. Big changes start from small steps – from that run, I applied to the Cornell summer architecture programme, where I learnt to make cardboard mock-ups and use Photoshop. I was hooked. I made my first portfolio, fast-tracked an application, and asked my mum to send over my winter clothes. Three years later, I graduated with a master’s degree.
In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?
It has to be postmodernism and its celebration of collage. Postmodernism is willing to admit that nothing is new or needs to be new. All we need to do is move design forward. As creatives, we can build on the success, failures and findings of the past, and we don’t have to feel bad about it.
This removes the impossible pressure to create something radically new – instead we can focus on creating something of radical value. For the postmodernists, value meant something ‘more’, but for me, it means purpose and delight.
Design is a continual conversation – I don’t believe in a pivotal era or moment. Great designers simply listen, look and contribute to the conversation. We’re moving away from the starchitect era and into the age of belonging and community creativity. Let’s not try to drown it out or attempt a monologue.
Frances Gain Associate at M Moser
Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?
Anyone who says ‘we’ not ‘I’. No one person can design anything in our field. It’s a collective process – there’s always a team behind you.
Which radical thinkers inspire you now?
Storytellers. Anyone who speaks with passion. Those who enable me to experience their ideas in exciting ways through the narratives they weave.
Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer known for his ‘less but better’ approach, is the father of good design, addressing the basics of both beauty and function. Ripping away the frivolous and unnecessary, he allows us to layer-in our own aesthetics, as long as they carry purpose. Radical for his time, his approach to design continues to transcend generations.
Other inspiring radical thinkers would have to be Tim Brown and David M Kelly of IDEO and their ability to engage the world on ‘design thinking’. They wanted to take the agile approach to design and bring it to business leaders – it’s a great example of how design has adapted to today’s world.
Understanding people and user groups, creating rapid prototypes, testing and refining puts the intended audience in the driver’s seat. We often take the approach for granted now, but they created it.
Dieter Rams: ‘Ripping away the frivolous and unnecessary
Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?
Sarah Wilson is a pioneer. Her background (journalist, television presenter, blogger, media consultant) is really diverse. She’s written tons of books exploring aspects of mental and physical health and is now focusing on sustainability, climate change and food waste. Anyone who can address the system or the cause rather than just the effect is radical, and she’s very talented at doing that.
Philosopher and founder of The School of Life, Alain de Botton, takes emotional intelligence and brings it to the masses, creating an accessible university that educates beyond the classics. His approach to the secular psychology of community is fascinating. He delivered a completely agnostic Sunday sermon where a philosopher preached at the pulpit, followed by group songs and meditation. Not only does his education platform challenge a lot of contemporary thinking, but it is served in a digestible digital format.
Jane Goodall, the world’s most renowned expert on chimpanzees – following a 55-year study of social and family interactions of these animals in the wild, we’re still applying her learnings to what we do today.
Bill Burnett and Phil Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: Build a Life That Works for You, take the design approach from a new angle, applying it to your daily life. Just like any space or product, you can design it to be just how you want it. The radicality is in the experience. We’re involved in the now and should be living beyond just trying to hit milestones.
Jane Goodall, the world’s most renowned expert on chimpanzees
What will lead the way for more radical thinking in your/our field?
The growing empowerment of the individual within the collective narrative. We’ve experienced the ‘power of the consumer’ (via blogging and social media) and its disruptive impact on parts of our economy. I think we’re living in a secondary revolution in the workplace right now – organisations are responding to the needs of the workforce; a generation ago, it was the other way around.
Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It helped me think about how to simplify and signify. For example, how the design of a door handle can indicate whether to push or pull. How often do you awkwardly push instead of pull? My brain may read the sign, but my body moves on instinct.
Intuitive design expresses its functionality and simplicity brings elegance. Strip down to the essential and beautiful. This is vital in modern life, especially in the workplace.
Everything is becoming so complex; it’s our job to make things simple again.
We need functional, beautiful and readable workplace settings. To ease mental fatigue, use must be intuitive. For example, I step into a small, enclosed space with fabric panels. There’s a soft, thick material, propped with a clear surface and upright seats, low ambient light and bright task lighting – I intuitively sense ‘focus’. The design discourages me to talk loudly or move about.
Often, creative folk (including myself) try too hard to be clever, leaving the result overdesigned. We need to be conscious not to complicate the process and the result.
Could you name two buildings/pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time, or perhaps still to this day?
Anything Ikea. It has made good design appealing to the masses, combining functional and aesthetic form. The functionality of it is amazing, clearly outlining how to build a piece of furniture in a detailed step-by-step process.
Everything is simplified, removing the superfluous, channelling pure Bauhaus idealism. At the same time, it’s accessible – not only financially but geographically. They even sell their products in a completely radical way: by catalogue. You don’t need to be digitally astute, all you need is a postbox. Their lightweight, easy-to-deliver flatpack concept uses a universal design language for the ultimate user-friendly experience.
In a very intelligent way, they build experiences, tapping into the modern dream, inviting people into spaces in a radical way by encouraging them to trust, experience and jump on the bed. This enables Ikea to express their brand by creating a world you can buy into – I think it might be the first truly immersive retail experience. Inviting famous designers (e.g. Ilse Crawford) to collaborate on their ranges makes coveted designs affordable and has trailblazed the fashion houses. Ikea is one of the first businesses to blur the boundaries of lifestyle, blending food, beverage and shopping – a true exemplar of good accessible, coherent, aspirational design.
The production lines of the industrial revolution may have been somewhat to our detriment, but they are undeniably responsible for a radical shift in the way we approach design. Moving from the individual craftsman, who is responsible for the entire creation of a piece, to the specialised team and machine approach, people began to analyse productivity. Businesses set a cap on working hours and started to explore what environments and systems made people more effective and efficient.
Gain says anything from Ikea can be considered radical, pictured is Ilse Crawford’s collaboration with Ikea
I think best with… (e.g. my hands/a pencil/ with a computer).
- Pen and paper. As a fiercely visual learner, I can’t just listen. I need to see. I need to make my own marks to think, comprehend and ideate. I’m also non-linear so dropping notes all over a page makes more sense than a typed list.
- Graph paper in landscape orientation. The grids make it easier to make the first mark – and ease the ‘fear’ of a blank page
- A black ink pen. Pencil is too editable, which encourages an erase-redo-redo-redo loop of perfectionism
I think best… (e.g. first thing in the morning/ last thing at night).
I usually wake up with a flow of thoughts and questions. I talk absentmindedly to my boyfriend while I walk around our small apartment getting ready. He’s not a morning person, so I usually end up answering my own questions within my stream of consciousness until he gets caffeinated: win-win.
I think best when… (e.g. in a gallery/at home/ outside/over drinks/with friends/on the bus).
When exercising. When I’m in storyboard or pitch mode, my ideas invade my spinning classes. They pop up and even the music can’t drown them out. I choose whether to let the thoughts come or fight them off by focusing on pedalling.
I used to fight it, looking for ‘work-life balance’. But now, I embrace it. The Holy Grail of work-life balance is a myth. We can’t play out a weighted game of give and take – trying to balance a check book of how much life versus how much work. Work and life are the same thing, the boundaries have blurred – I aim for wellbeing and equilibrium. Sometimes work interrupts spinning, sometimes spinning takes up work time. Luckily, flexibility, autonomy and trust allows that to happen.
The book that helped helped Gain ‘to think about how to simplify and signify
The thought that keeps me up at night is…
Any tasks I haven’t written down.
The thought that gets me out of bed daily is…
What’s for breakfast.
Do you like to think with or think against?
I like to debate against – especially if I think with. I like to test ideas by trying out different sides of a solution or story. I’ll play the devil’s advocate to the extreme. This can be misconstrued as stubborn or argumentative, but it’s driven by pure curiosity.
If you weren’t a designer/architect, where would your way of thinking have led you?
I’d love to have one foot back in academics and another in public speaking.
Describe radical thinking in three words.
Rethink the extreme.
What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across today or this week?
I was walking through Trafalgar Square and I noticed that traffic light symbol had changed. It was no longer the conventional solitary green man, but a mixed female and male symbol. I did a double-take. It felt like such a strong, radical statement, but was so subtle at the same time – challenging gender norms as you cross the street.