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What is design?

The word ‘design’ means different things to different people. To some, a designed object will be a slick and smart-looking object – it has aesthetic appeal. To others it will be a thing that performs everything it is called upon to do – it has functional efficiency. To yet others it may be something that represents good value for money. In truth, all the above statements are valid. A long and rigorous process has to be gone through to achieve the desired end results and that process is design. Let us illustrate this through two examples.

Imagine a town with a river flowing through it, cutting it into two. Let us further assume that the only mode of crossing the river currently available is by boat, which is highly restrictive and inconvenient to the communities. If you are asked to improve the situation, how will you go about it? You will first think of speedier alternatives to boat crossing, e.g. a bridge or a tunnel. Locating the new crossing or crossings (in design you should not close off options too early) will need many considerations – e.g. the existing network of roads on both sides, the ground conditions, the resulting length of crossing (cost implications), and so on. You might analyse the total impact of two or three alternatives.
What is design?

Having chosen an ideal location, preliminary surveys (topographical, soil, traffic and so on) will be commissioned. Preliminary details will then be prepared, together with a budget. With such major construction, obtaining planning consent could be a fraught process. The scheme could affect some people adversely or will be perceived to do so by some sections of the community. The planning process provides for hearing all objections. You will, therefore, have the task of presenting the case for the scheme, highlighting such issues as economic, environmental and employment benefits. You will also need to counter the technical arguments of the objectors. After successfully negotiating the planning process, you must prepare detailed proposals for constructing the crossing. At every stage a number of options will need to be considered, e.g. materials to be used (steel, concrete, etc) and their form (number of spans, suspension, cable stayed, beam and slab). When the design is optimised, detailed drawings are prepared to enable tenders to be invited. When a contractor is appointed, you will need to supply detailed drawings and specifications so that the product you had in mind is actually constructed. This whole process of delivering to a client a product that had its genesis in the form of vague requirements is design. The details will vary from project to project.

Take another example: that of building a hospital for a Health Authority which has decided on the type (general or specialist) of the hospital and the number of patients to be catered for. Here the designer will need to consider the best location, taking into account the centres of population the hospital seeks to serve and infrastructure facilities such as road access, public transport, utilities, waste disposal, etc. Space requirements for the various departments will need to be addressed, as well as the relationship of the various spaces. Hospitals are heavily serviced and consideration must be given to heating and ventilation of spaces, supply of medical gases, emergency alarms, call bells, operating theatre requirements and so on. There will also be issues such as boiler plant location, safe storage of medical gases, disposal of medical wastes, central laundry, patient lifts, fire and security precautions, communications within and without the hospital. Externally, vehicle circulation will need careful planning with allowance for ambulances, cars, public transport, and pedestrian traffic. The buildings and surroundings will need to be as pleasant as possible.
As in the previous example, at every stage a number of alternatives will need to be considered and choices will need to be made. The load-carrying skeleton of the building, i.e. the structure, will have to be designed taking note of the constraints imposed by other requirements for the efficient functioning of the hospital. These will include the location of column supports and the effect of the circulation of services, which may need holes through the structure. As before, detailed drawings will need to be supplied for tender and then for construction. The contractor who works to the drawings will expect them to have been co-ordinated between the various disciplines, bearing in mind the particular aspects of the brief so that everything fits. That is the mark of a good design.
What is design?

From these examples it can be seen that the genesis of the design process lies in some basic and simple requirement of a client, such as a river crossing or a hospital. The final form of the facility is the result of design. The impact of design does not end with construction. Ease or otherwise of operability, inspectability and maintainability, are all inherent in the chosen design and these have huge implications for the client and users.

Another feature of design that should have come across in these examples is that most design is multifaceted, requiring the skills of many disciplines, such as civil/structural engineering, services engineering and architecture. Designers thus work in teams. The lead role in the team is usually dictated by the nature of the scheme, e.g. a civil engineer for the river crossing example and an architect for the hospital. We can summarise some attributes of a good design:
  • fulfilment of all client’s requirements
  • functional efficiency
  • value for money
  • sensible balance between capital and maintenance costs
  • buildability, maintainability and openability
  • aesthetically pleasing.
Practical design is usually a compromise between all of these. Every client will attach different weighting to the above-noted features. From the above, we can provide a possible definition for design. Design is an optimisation process of all aspects of a client’s brief. It requires the integration of all the requirements to produce a whole that is efficient, economic and aesthetically acceptable.
Optimisation implies an iterative approach. Integration of various requirements demands collaborative work. Emphasis on the ‘whole’ requires an awareness beyond one’s own specialism. Being efficient, economic and aesthetically pleasing, all at once, implies compromises and a trade-off between different requirements. The examples would also have illustrated the steps in any project, which can be summarised as follows:
  • briefing
  • project investigations
  • sketch designs
  • planning consent
  • detailed design
  • working drawings
  • tender
  • construction/commission.
So how does one become a good designer? Here are a few tips:
  • good education and training in the chosen discipline
  • general awareness of the workings of other allied disciplines
  • keeping up to date by following technical journals, books and participating in the activities of professional institutions and other learned bodies, generally maintaining technical curiosity throughout your life
  • developing communication skills, including oral, written, drawn and electronic.
It can thus be seen that design is not all to do with the calculation of stresses and strains, nor does it have precise, fixed outcomes. It is a much more holistic, creative and satisfying pursuit.

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