Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:16 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Lord Gavron Lord Gavron Labour 4:16 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, and offer him my gratitude. He talked in a very erudite manner about the change in culture required in our attitudes to design. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Foster. It is almost impossible to discuss design in this country without quoting the noble Lord, but seeing him sitting in the Chamber rather inhibits my doing so. His was a most accomplished and remarkable speech.

The planning of our splendid new Royal Opera House building took more than 20 years. Several times during that period we seemed to be ready to build but when we got our quotations the price had gone up so much since the previous time that we had to stop again and raise more money. Eventually we realised it was now or never. There was still a funding gap, but we had to go ahead. We called in that brilliantly creative property developer, Sir Stuart Lipton, described by the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, as hard-headed. I agree. Sir Stuart took one look at our plans. He took one look and said, "Cut out the lowest two levels". We had been going down 60 feet. The bottom 30 feet would have cost us much more than all the other space in the building. It also involved the risk of further entanglement with London Underground and with various hitherto unknown archaeological sites—even at 30 feet we found a Saxon village—and we would have endangered our 1858 foundations. So we took his advice. To make up for the lost basements, we had to use some office space that we had hoped to let. However, the overall financial saving pretty well closed our funding gap. Our project had been saved, not by a designer, but by an expert briefer of designers.

When I recently visited one of our renowned teaching hospitals for a health check, I stopped briefly at the main signboard. An elderly woman was staring at it in a bemused way. "What does that mean?", she said pointing at a sign saying "Renal Medicine". I told her. "And that?" she asked of "Podiatrics". "And that?" she asked of "Haematology". I just about knew what they were. "These signs aren't for us", she said. "They're for the doctors and nurses. If they were for us they would be in proper English; you know: 'Kidneys', 'Feet' and 'Blood'". I agreed. "What's that one?", she asked. She was looking at "Colo-rectal". I pointed at the relevant part of my anatomy. "That's me", she said, and began to march off but she stopped and spoke again. She said, "It should have said, 'Bums'". I believe that our designers of hospital signage should probably take their briefing from her.

Coming from a background in printing and publishing, I feel that I should mention the importance of typography and graphic design in our daily lives. As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, everything has to be designed: every book and every sheet of paper. The design affects not just the aesthetics but also the function of the printed product. Noble Lords may not realise it, but the speed at which one can read, absorb and remember information depends largely on its design. There is incontrovertible evidence that a well-designed textbook can be effectively read at almost twice the speed of a badly designed textbook. We all know about the pain of reading text that some designer has decided should be printed in small white type on a black background that comes off on your hands.

The design of the many printed forms and booklets issued by public sector organisations is variable. All express clearly the needs of the issuing body. The bad ones go no further. Good design takes the customer into account. There is great variation in the public's sensory capacities and relevant knowledge. Technical terms and small print, for example, can make form filling a nightmare for some people, especially older people.

Like many of my noble friends, I recently had the opportunity to discuss with someone in the Audit Commission its much talked about report on PFI schools. It is obvious that private contractors are interested in maximising their profit on each contract. In one case, a contractor, to save money, put a tin roof on an assembly hall. When it rained, not a word could be heard. That is not the fault of the Government, nor of the contractors, nor even of the architect. The specification was at fault, and the briefer who drew it up.

In conclusion I return to my main theme: we must use designers for everything we make. In the UK we produce great designers, as we have heard. According to the Design Council they earned huge fees from abroad last year. Good design gives pleasure and is highly cost effective. But in order to achieve good design we need good briefing of designers. The people who brief designers in the public sector have a great effect on our daily lives. They need to be numerate, clear thinking, decisive, and have long term vision. They need to behave as if spending their own money. I commend to the Minister that they need to be fully and properly trained for their job.