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Presumptive Design

As a self-professed codger, curmudgeon, and contrarian, I am increasingly disturbed that so many “designed solutions” of built environments have very little to do with design thinking, understanding users’ requirements, or meeting a specific goal. They are mostly just presumptive designs. By that I mean, the design meets a single or set of underlying assumption(s) most often based on rather tenuous logic.

Presumptive design has dominated approaches to workplaces for more than a decade, resulting in so-called designed solutions that include smaller and smaller individual space, more openness, and less enclosure. In truth, this meets one primary goal: reducing the cost per occupant of these workplaces.

Sadly, a common justification for such designs is built on what I call “The Calculus of Collaboration”:

       We, as an organization, need to be more innovative.
       We can be more innovative if we collaborate more.
       We need to do something to encourage collaboration.
       Collaboration will happen if we increase “social friction.”
       Social friction happens when people encounter one another more often.
       If we lower walls, people will see one another.
       If they see one another more easily, they will communicate more.
       If they communicate more, they will collaborate.
       If they collaborate, they will innovate.
       So….let’s increase density, decrease enclosure, and hope collaboration happens and innovation results.

The problem with this approach to designed solutions is an almost total lack of evidence to show it actually works. In fact, growing evidence suggests it will yield exactly the opposite of the presumed result: People will withdraw, use headsets, and communicate less.

Workplaces aren’t the only spaces where presumptive design solutions are common. Jos Boys, noted British architect, in her excellent book Towards Creative Learning Spaces: Re-Thinking the Architecture of Post-Compulsory Education (2011) observes:

[A] set of new design “types” is already coming into such common usage as to potentially be the new norm. This raises several questions that are not yet being asked. How do such innovative learning spaces connect ideas about physical space to intended effects on learning? What new typologies are being offered as more appropriate environments for post-compulsory education? Are these new kinds of environments enhancing learning as predicted?

The key point here is that current concepts about designing for learning – such as flexibility and/or metaphors of informality and playfulness – are deeply flawed conceptually. They are based on underlying commonsense assumptions, usually linked to an un-thought-through reference to behaviorism, which assumes a transparent, direct and obvious relationship both between design intention and lived reality; and between the representational qualities of a space and the practices which occupy it.

Many other examples can be found of designed solutions based on tenuous “commonsense” presumptions. But as Voltaire observed, “Common sense is not so common.”

As a profession based on the fundamental goal of accommodating the needs of the end user, ergonomics must use what we know and the tools we employ to combat presumptive design with solid, evidence-based approaches.

That’s how I see it from where I sit. Of course I could be wrong.

About the Guest Author: A researcher, educator, author, entrepreneur, and consultant, Tim Springer, PhD, is Chairman and Founder of the Human Environmental Research Organization (HERO). Tim served as department chair of Human Environment & Design at Michigan State University and has consulted for more than 35 years with businesses large and small on issues of environment, behavior, and ergonomics. He is now semiretired, living in the greater Chicago area.

Image Credit: WeWork

One thought on “Presumptive Design”

  1. Practical piece – I was fascinated by the details – Does someone know if my business might find a template IRS 706 form to work with ?

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