Keep it Simple – The Art of Good Design

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Monday, March 21st, 2016
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The Art of Good Design
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There is a very well known saying used by designers: ‘keep it simple.’ Over the years, I have seen the proof of this on many occasions.

Is it still applicable at this time of unprecedented advancement in technology?

The shopping basket of new materials, equipment and technological systems has never been greater, and designers have a ‘lolly shop’ in front of them which makes it very tempting to use as much as possible to make their next design stand out from what has been done in the past.

The design process

When thinking about the design process, there are a number of key factors which should be considered. First, there is the need to establish what the end outcome is – what is the client’s end requirement/aspiration?

Secondly, the design should be broken down into a number of discrete elements, each with a form /function.

Lastly, consider the best way to achieve the function required form each of the elements, utilising knowledge and availability of materials, plant and systems.

The last step is the step that determines whether the final design will be simple or complex.

Ask yourself, how does nature do it?

When thinking about design, I believe nature is a great inspiration and teacher in helping us to achieve strong outcomes using simple processes. Whilst design in nature can appear complex, it is generally composed of a combination of relatively simple elements, which when combined provide the incredible elements we see in the natural world.

Here are a few examples on how to simplify design while meeting various objectives:

Consider evaporative cooling instead of refrigerated air conditioning

One of my favourite simplification applications is the use of evaporative cooling as a relatively simple and cost effective means of improving thermal comfort in relatively dry climates. Evaporative cooling utilises nature’s process of evaporation of water from a liquid form to a vapour. This means of providing a cooling effect was discovered a long time ago and was known to the Egyptians, who used water soaked sheets to convert hot air breezes to cooled air flowing through their buildings.

On a recent project undertaken by our design team, the client brief requested cooling and heating to be provided to trade teaching areas of a tertiary education building. The budget, however, was limited and a quick review indicated that if refrigerated air conditioning were to be provided, only a very limited number of areas could be upgraded. In addition, the building would likely have required upgrading of its electrical infrastructure as well as building works to address infiltration air paths (poor sealing) and provide better air tightness of the spaces.

An alternative proposal of providing high pressure atomisation sprays with spot cooling fans in combination with radiant heaters, was proposed for the majority of trade teaching areas. Whilst not completely eliminated, refrigerated air conditioning was limited to smaller, better sealed higher density class areas. In some locations, the air conditioning was provided as a local spot cooler for a defined work zone rather than designing a larger system to cater for the entire space.

The simplified solution allowed the university to provide a much greater application of cooling and heating to areas which previously had no service, and the installation will provide reduced energy costs and a lower carbon footprint for the life of the plant.

Passive cooling

Another great example of a simple system found in nature is the passive cooling effect. This is created by the movement of air across warmer surfaces to remove heat. Physics dictates that warmer air will rise and cooler air will drop to lower levels. In addition, pressures caused by wind will push air from a high pressure zone to a lower pressure zone.

The use of passive cooling as a non-powered means of providing ventilation and cooling is being used more and more frequently by designers to achieve low energy building solutions. Whilst the concept is relatively simple by nature, its application in the real world can become quite complex in larger buildings. Some of the simplest designs were established by architects and engineers in the era before refrigerated air conditioning was the norm. However, the majority of these systems relied on manual operation by the building occupant based on their perceived comfort level.

In modern day buildings, the application of automatic control is considered important in delivering functionality of a building. Automated systems comprise sensors to monitor temperatures both within and outside the building, actuators to drive open and close building windows and openings, and other sensors such as rain, solar or wind sensors. The result is that a relatively simple concept can become a complex system which requires many inputs and which potentially has many things which may go wrong.

Therefore, when looking at applying automated natural ventilation to a building, the designer should consider simplifying the number of systems which need to operate and also where the best application will be throughout the building. The extent of the automated natural ventilation system should be reduced to specific areas or zones which require less complexity to implement the system.

passive colling

Intelligent lighting control

When intelligent digital control lighting systems became the next best thing to hit the lighting market some eight to 10 years ago, there was a rush by the lighting industry engineers to apply this smart technology wherever they could get an opportunity. Whilst in theory these systems were meant to provide long-term effort free control of the building lighting, their control hardware and software (at the time) was complex and it required specialist contractors to commission the system and to fix operational issues.

In reality, many of these installations left building managers and owners with a system they did not understand the workings of and which cost a lot of money to maintain and keep in good working order. This resulted in many systems being bypassed in favour of manual control or simple time clock control. I have been to many buildings where this has been the case, and the rush to apply this technology has now subsided and designers are more considerate about potential application of these systems.

The problem here is that whilst the lighting control systems introduced to the market at the time were smart and powerful, they were complex in design, had many components which often did not operate as required, and did not allow the building manager to operate the system and fault find with ease. In a lot of cases, the better long-term design solution might have been to provide a more simplistic zoned lighting set up using conventional switching and timers.

intelligent lighting

Architectural design

Architectural design is more than just functional, it also needs to express a vision and to obtain subjective responses from people who live near, frequent or occupy the building. Whilst I have great respect for the vision and expression architects aim to achieve with their designs, engineers can often be faced with the dilemma of having to make their building services and structural designs fit with the architecture by applying overly complex elements. The same applies to the building trades, who may face having to construct complex building construction elements and details.

This can lead to issues with the longer term performance and functionality of the building elements as the complex elements may not perform as well as simpler, more tried and proven elements. I have seen many buildings which have had ongoing poor performance during their operational life which, upon review, can be attributed to the complexity of details in facades, building joints, air/water sealing and unnecessarily complex services which struggle to provide correct control and performance, are prone to faults and are expensive to maintain.

In this case, the art of good design is achieved by the architect working closely with the broader design team to bring together the complex architectural design by ensuring it can be achieved via a series of simple elements and avoiding highly complex details. The goal here is to achieve not only the architectural vision but to also achieve good long term reliability and performance.

Exceptions to the rule

Whilst the above examples indicate to me that that the rule of ‘keeping it simple’ still applies in today’s world of technological advancement, there are exceptions where complexity still seems to be the norm and the successful outcome. The thing that comes immediately to mind is the higly successful Microsoft Windows operating system.

In some cases, the particular design challenge may require complexity at the sake of simplicity to provide high levels of performance. The compromise will likely be reliability, stability and the ability of the system to provide long-term performance without degradation. A Formula 1 racing car or jet fighter also come to mind, however in most cases building designs do not need an F1 performance but rather reliable and efficient long term performance.

The key to keeping it simple

In my experience a few simple rules apply to keep your design as simple as it can be yet fit for purpose and able to provide good long term outcomes.

  • Think of the end user and the life cycle of the system/element
  • Break down the process and then rebuild it using simple elements
  • Try and remove complex elements which you think are a risk to the reliability of the system
  • Try and mimic the processes and elements already worked out by nature
  • Get a second opinion/peer review
  • Don’t let your ego get in the way!

Good luck with your next design challenge!

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