Designer vs. User Perception

Todays’ topic is about something that has kept me thinking for a while, the contrast between what we can conceive as a designer and what is perceived by the user in reality. On a conceptual level, elements are thought to look or function a certain way, but when it materializes in physical space the interaction with the user can turn out to be a different story.

For instance, let's speak about bathroom design. In areas I use daily at work, there are a couple of bathrooms that probably started with a very minimalistic, white inspiration. Something that looks like the photographs below, which appeal as a very pure and attractive space. But what happens in reality?

NEVER, EVER design a totally white bathroom unless you are willing to dedicate your life to cleaning, or can pay some special self-cleaning and antibacterial technology materials. I can see for myself there are people constantly cleaning these areas but they simply do not sustain.

Sometimes we tend to idealize design, and forget fundamental aspects of the daily usage.

Perhaps it seemed like a wonderful idea at the beginning, but in reality it can be a nightmare. Therefore, we must always think of crucial aspects such as:

  • Who uses the space and how?
  • How many people will be experiencing this area?
  • How do you need to maintain it?

To illustrate with another example, I will comment on the Vienna University of Economics Library, designed by none other than Zaha Hadid Architects. I have seen the photographs of this space a lot of times and I think it looks amazing, but I was shocked when my best friend (Andreina Pernia, also an architect), who had the opportunity to visit the building, told me that people complained about aspects of the space. 

WU Vienna University of Economics Library building

WU Vienna University of Economics Library building

Campus inside shot of the Library and Learning Center on the Campus of the Vienna University of Economics

Campus inside shot of the Library and Learning Center on the Campus of the Vienna University of Economics

From what she could perceive, in winter, when there is a lot of snow surrounding the building, people enter the hall and encounter a slippery floor, making it quite risky, and the ice carried in their shoes made the floor turn into a mess. Besides this, the perfect white handrails that we can see in the photographs (which look stunning), suffer from stains caused by the fingerprints of the visitor's hands.

It is a matter of details. And if this happens to an architecture team such as the brilliant Zaha Hadid's, we should be concerned too. We simply cannot pretend we will live inside a render visualization, it does not occur that way.

At least for a moment in phases of the design process, we must stop thinking like designers and think like humans instead.

Clearly saying that we must balance function with form and aesthetics is no novelty, but yet, this is sometimes not fully though about. Architecture and design related fields are very creative professions, but precisely because of that, they can tend to move a way from reality, of what works and what is feasible.

We can modify, transform and retouch everything through Photoshop: hide imperfections, force a perspective and do whatever you desire, but that does not work in reality.  We must make a big effort to try to be sincere about the possible results, to move away from the utopia (that can be such a moving inspiration in the beginning) and in the process adjust it to the reality so it can work.

The comparison below is something I found funny but at the same time, it is so true. Let's try to be real about renders. Perhaps we can adjust small details, or insert more expensive materials or furniture than what will be applied in the end (it is not our fault that the client wants a 90% cheaper finish), but there is no way in reality human perception can see the building pictured in the first image.

As a closure, I also want to speak about the whole purpose of this analysis (and the others I communicate through this medium). I believe that as designers we must analyze and serve as critics of our industry, not for the act of judging, but to identify areas where we can act as a component of change and improvement. There is so much to be done, and it should always have the following premise:

Design should be at the service of people, not the other way around.