Perhaps it's the new found lucidity that comes with leaving the classroom but I only recently noticed just how many projects are set/suggested in D&T as a result of having limited space. I can only presume then that there are a dearth of iPhone docks and birdhouses and as for the worldwide coffee table shortage...I wonder how many of the projects made really do have such a prescriptive brief or how many of the outcomes actually address the limited space rather than just ending up being vanity projects with 'cool' features. After doing so many projects with this bias I wonder if it's just fate or if I was subconsciously attracted to my current role. What I do know is that I enjoy the challenge of designing for limited spaces...but why?
Let's put the need into perspective even if the purpose is a little vague (in school based projects anyway). The world is getting smaller, not in mass or circumference, but in the amount of space available for the ever growing population. As a result, real estate is getting smaller (just ask anyone with a flat in London) yet we still have an ever growing pile of stuff to try and fit in these shrinking spaces.
Secondly, there is the utility aspect and the one that I address on a day to day basis. Owning a motor home is quite frankly a luxury yet, for all you pay, it will never be as big as a house. So here you have this dichotomy where the motor home can cost more than your house but you only have a limited space to fit most of the rooms and appliances of the home; kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living area etc. So, in a situation like this, space is at a premium but so is the price tag so you have to be very clever and use every spare inch of space.
When I did space saving projects at school I explained to students the three main ways of saving space;
1. Storage: storing items that would otherwise take up space (bookcase, magazine rack etc.)
2. Portability: folding or storing away when not in use (this covers expanding/modular products etc.)
3. Multi-Purpose: being able to perform the job of several items (dining/work table with built in light, USB chargers, drinks holder...you get the idea)
Of course there are variations and combinations but that's about it really and often more than one are utilised in order to maximise the space available.
So, each area of a motor home serves more than one purpose, has items that expand or fold away and has areas for storing all the clothes, utensils and other items required. In the world of camping and caravanning, the need for space saving is even greater. Ergonomics in passenger aircraft, buses and trains all need to maximise the use of space but what was the last project you did that 'had' to save space as opposed to it simply being stipulated in the task or that it seemed like a 'clever and innovative idea'
To put into perspective how pointless this approach can sometimes be, I once saw a space saving birdhouse and a space saving desk so big that it didn't even fit through the door never mind the limited space beyond. In the former it was merely a clever design feature despite the garden being huge with no need to save space while the latter simply didn't address the brief at all while the student was happily throwing together a desk I suspect he had in mind for his own (much larger) room at home...
Utilitarian furniture and products are just that but often the innovations necessary for those products to function in a limited space are used to inspire (or just improve the perceived design value of) products that simply don't need to save space. I am hoping that the new GCSE syllabi will see an end to, not just to generic birdhouses, iPod docks and coffee tables, but also projects which take innovations such as space saving solutions and use them simply to gain higher marks even if the product itself simply doesn't need them. The subject needs to encourage genuine innovation in the design of new and exciting products not a Frankenstein like mix of all the good bits seen in other products simply to access higher marks be that space saving, modularity, expandability or whatever. These are all important functions in their own right and relevant to specific design tasks and situations, just don't feel you need to throw them into an otherwise uninspiring project simply to add a bit of interest.
Paul has taught a range of creative and technical subjects specialising in design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools, including stints as head of D&T and head of a creative arts faculty. He continues to work within D&T as a consultant but is currently taking a break from teaching to explore design in industry.