What makes good design?

A major ICE survey report provides an insight into members’ understanding of ‘good’ design and the cultural shift needed to help them deliver it.

Some 900 ICE members were surveyed about their awareness and understanding of what makes good design.
Some 900 ICE members were surveyed about their awareness and understanding of what makes good design.

As ICE President Rachel Skinner points out in her foreword to the Institution of Civil Engineers’ new What Makes Good Design? report, good design in the built environment begins in the instant that an idea is born. In practice, however, it is too often assumed that good design simply relates to the appearance and function of a piece of infrastructure, or how it fits into its wider systems.

In February 2020, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published a set of four design principles for new infrastructure projects. These were:

  • Climate: Infrastructure must help to set the trajectory for the UK to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or sooner and be capable of adapting to climate change.
  • People: Projects should be human scale, instinctive to use and seek opportunities to improve the quality of life for people who live and work nearby.
  • Places: Schemes should provide a sense of identity for communities, supporting the natural and built environment and enriching ecosystems.
  • Value: This should be added beyond the main purpose of infrastructure, solving problems well and achieving multiple benefits.

In September 2020, ICE, in collaboration with the NIC Design Group, surveyed ICE members to establish how relevant they believed the four principles to be to their work, and to discover more about how they perceived their own role in the development of good design. Some 900 UK-based ICE members responded.

While their responses were being analysed, the Government announced that it had adopted the NIC’s recommendations on design made in the National Infrastructure Assessment, highlighting its call for a design champion to be appointed on every infrastructure project.

Findings and next steps

This report contains the survey results. One key finding was that about 60% of respondents thought climate issues were not given enough importance in design. Another was that while respondents broadly supported the view that wherever they were in the project lifecycle they had a responsibility to influence design, they believed the skills to achieve this were lacking at every level.

Based on the findings, and input from the NIC Design Group, ICE has identified recommendations to pursue both for itself and in collaboration with other bodies.

Among these, the climate needs to be higher up the agenda for all institution activities to help create the right environment to support the implementation of low carbon solutions.

More widely, best practice examples of design for climate, people, places and value need to be showcased to help the profession to upskill and for all people involved in a project to identify as ‘designers’ wherever they are in its lifecycle. From this, design champions can naturally emerge.

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