My first degree was in Architecture and I think it was during those 3 years that my mind finally woke up from the slumber it had been in for years. A lot of that was due to the inspiration teaching in my first year from Peter Jewkes, Peter Townsend and Adrian Gale.
During that first year we did many fun and crazy design projects (dropping eggs, building shelters, getting drunk). One was to design a tree house by building a model of it onto a model tree (a twig). A day or so into the project and the studio is covered in twigs, cardboard, balsa wood, glue and hyperactive teenage kids playing loud punk music. The teachers were going from one student to another offering advice and suggestions.
Suddenly Adrian stood up and got everyone’s attention. The music died and we all stopped with bits of tree house glued to our fingers.
“I’ve just realised that I’ve not talked to you about staircases” said Adrian, and walked back and fore in deep thought before standing in the corner looking up at the ceiling for a few moments (we were to discover that this was his normal lecturing pose). Then he started to talk about staircases. Everything about them. More than any of us had ever thought of before.
Was your staircase a grand ceremonial one (glittering ball gowns and 1930s music) or a companionway (sailors rushing to action stations)? What was the length and height of each step and was that like climbing or strolling, or a really annoying half step meaning the same leg raised your body each time? When your hand touched the handrail, did it just caress the top, sliding finger tips down it, or did it grasp the whole thing for security. Was the handrail so thin that your fingers met each other when you held on, or was it so fat that you could not get a grip? Just what was the whole experience of using the staircase like?
Adrian lectured for 30 or 40 minutes, entirely off the cuff, and I’ve never thought of a staircase in the same way again.
Our products are like staircases; they have a basic function, but to focus on only that is to deny the greater meaning of the product and what it conveys to its users and others. Getting intimate with your product, and watching others do so too, is the only way that we can find out about that.