Icing on the cake can belie a badly made cakeBeautiful icing can be a joy to behold, but how good is the cake underneath?

Unlike icing on the cake, design should start with the cake itself

People love icing on the cake.  They love eating it.  What’s more, they love watching tv shows about it, even.

But sustainable design is more than icing.

Sometimes people think that good sustainable design is achieved easily through a few buzz words or tag lines.  They think all you need is some greenery on the walls.  Or some solar panels on the roof.  Even some recycled timber benchtops.

Sorry, but that’s just icing on the cake.

When it comes to building, icing on the cake is sometimes called facadism.  Baa humbug.

Since winning our Good Design Award, I have been reflecting more and more on what makes a good design.

My Dad bought a book years ago on good design.  As a result of his and my mum’s influence, good design is something I have thought about all my life.  Many people just accept poor design.  As they experience products, services, and buildings in their daily lives, they never stop to think that it could have been designed better.

Badly designed lift buttons

For example, you go into a lift, and you want to close or open the lift doors.  Where is the button?  Which way do the arrows go?  Which way do the doors go?


Does that mean the doors open or close?

What about this?

|><|  What does this mean?

Or this, perhaps.  <||>.

Maybe this?  >||<.

I bet if you did a survey, you’d get different answers to the ‘meanings’ of the lift buttons.

In my view, lift instructions are often a clear example of poor design.

How many people are filled with anxiety as they stand there choosing which button to press?  How many people have missed the lifts because the person inside couldn’t quickly press the “open” button?

Good design goes all the way through

Good design should be easy to use.  Something that makes immediate sense.  Not something that creates problems.

This is the kind of stuff I think about all the time.  (Thanks Mum and Dad.)  Maybe now you, dear readers, will never look at lift buttons the same way again!

The thing is, when we experience poor design, we tend to blame ourselves, or just accept it as it is.  We don’t think that things could be better.

And when we are employing a designer, we don’t think to ask them for something better.  We just expect that they know what they are doing.

Fair enough, you might say we should expect our ‘designers’ to get it right.  But the lift button example shows that they don’t.  And poor design is repeated over and over and over again.  Because designers copy each other. They are scared to break the “cake” mould.  And we all accept it.

No, it’s not fair enough.

Buildings need more than icing

And when it comes to buildings, whose comfort levels affect us all, and whose energy use impacts on climate change, it’s definitely not fair to keep on repeating problems.

Designers need to lift their game.  They need to design better – and offer it to the consumer.

This means that designers should say: “Here is a comfortable building which uses little energy.”  Not, “here is a trendy looking building which will impress everybody who looks at it.  If you want double glazed windows they will cost more.”

And not, “if you add solar panels you can reduce your power bills (but the building itself is full of drafts and still needs a lot of heating or cooling machinery to stay comfortable).”

That’s the icing on the cake approach to design.  In other words, it’s the approach that says: get a badly made, dry, tasteless cake, and cover it with icing.

In other words, designers, sadly, use icing to hide the problems of the cake itself.

But you can’t do that with buildings.  Or, at least, you shouldn’t.

Why don’t solar panels solve the problem?

Solar panels do not help us if our buildings are badly designed.  They just hide things.  Unfortunately designers and developers use solar panels to pretend that the building is well designed.

People do not understand that a well designed building does not use much power.

What’s more, a good building will be comfortable without much power.  

Bake a better cake

Let’s encourage each other as designers and consumers to lift our game.  Leave the icing off the cake.  Make a really good cake.  And if you do, you might not need icing at all!

As consumers we need to ask different questions, like: “Can I please have a comfortable building that is healthy, stable in temperature, draft and mould free, and doesn’t cost much to run?”  Not, “I like those granite benchtops, and can you make this building as big as possible?”

Unfortunately, granite benchtops are just icing.  They don’t bring comfort, and they do not make for a well designed building.

That’s why good design has to be about sustainability, usability, innovation, and (apparent) simplicity.  Good design might not be decorative.  But it should work.  Just like the good cake, which is perfectly moist, wonderfully tasty, and even healthy for you.


Superpod® is a new approach to life and living

If you want to change the way you design, purchase and live in buildings, we can help you. If you want comfort and health instead of mould, drafts, high power bills, being too hot and too cold, we can help. If you want your building to be really sustainable, rather than just tacking on a few solar panels, we can help.

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