How To Design Cities For The People Who Live In Them [PSFK London]
We speak with one of the founding partners of Billings Jackson Design about how to create human-centered structures on a large scale.
We are looking forward to our return to London later this autumn. On 10th October, the team behind PSFK.com will host a morning of ideas and inter-mingling in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. This informal and relaxed event connects readers and local creative professionals together over a series of short talks by inspirational speakers.
One of these speakers will be Eoin Billings. As the Director and Founding Partner of Billings Jackson Design, he is responsible for delivering high quality architectural project work and for developing commercially successful products that can be implemented on a human level.
We spoke to Eoin about the ethos behind his work, the Billings Jackson projects that have helped define that ethos, and what it is like to design solely for city dwellers.
Can you talk about your philosophy behind the work you do?
It’s very straightforward. We work to enhance people’s experience of the places they live in and to do that, we use practical problem-solving techniques – designing something that is fit for purpose, economic to produce, robust in use, of course. But more importantly, we work from the perspective of the people who will experience it, making sure it is easy to use, tactile to touch, pleasing to look at. It doesn’t matter if the object is a bus station or a light switch. The principle is the same.
Our philosophy embraces the notion that design should be informed by every party who is in one way or another a stakeholder in the outcome; each will have their own particular interests whether it’s the aesthetic, the functionality, the cost, the materials and so on. Because we move freely between architecture and manufacturing, we are able to address these interests holistically, not compromising one for another.
We called our first PSFK talk in 2011 “Industrial Design: ID for the City”. This wasn’t just a cute play on words – what we do is very much about identity and draws from a deep understanding of places at the human scale. Cities at the most granular level are the people that live and work in them. We work to give physical expression to urban societies in the fabric of their streets.
When we are designing products for manufacturers, our starting point is again to interrogate the brief by getting to know the people that make up the firm. This involves mining deep into every part of the operation from technical capacity through sales and marketing to establish trust and develop products that truly express the firm’s values.
Our expertise in intellectual property law allows us to identify and capture IP opportunities for the client as we solve problems during a project; our strategic IP/branding approach offers added value to our client’s product portfolio, which extends far beyond the delivery of the product itself. Each designer likes to think of themself as innovative but innovation to us is not merely invention: it’s the commercial exploitation of good ideas, and IP is central to achieving that.
In order to develop the work you do for cities, you have to stand back and look at what they represent to the constituents. Can you talk about this process a little and the reasons why?
We have to work from the perspective of the city’s ever-changing population. From materials to information systems, it is these elements that provoke an emotional response because people interact with them. So at the simplest level, an uncluttered streetscape with coordinated furniture elements of high material quality is seen to boost civic pride with a corresponding drop in vandalism and graffiti.
At the same time, this improved street is easier to negotiate, less disorientating, less alienating, ‘friendlier’. This is why it’s so important that our designs take their cues from the locality. And with advances in manufacturing, the one-size-fits-all, catalogue approach to designing for the street makes no sense to us. It need cost no more to tailor a response to its location and the sociological benefits are enormous.
What recent project defines your practice and the direction you are going?
The New York City wayfinding system, designed by a team led by wayfinding specialists CityID, perfectly encapsulates our current philosophy for urban design. As a project it was a non-hierarchical collaboration between design consultants at the top of their game and a city authority committed to nothing less than excellence. And it has been welcomed universally by the people it was designed for as social media testifies.
I have to mention a product too because it’s very important to us that we have the twin strands of product and project work going on, as the disciplines inform each other. We launched an incredibly simple, modest and elegant LED light fitting for Trilux last year called Coriflex. It is the perfect expression of the technical brilliance and lack of ego of its manufacturing firm and is breaking all sales projections because of it.