Good Design Rules!

Design is my theme and I’d like to ask you to consider the subject from the perspective of four different quotes that I shall introduce to you shortly. For me, there is a difference between matters of design, which I think it is possible to assess using objective criteria – design rules, if you like – and matters of taste, for which there’s really no accounting! We often talk about our favourite books, music, food, colours, cars, holiday destinations and so on but when it comes to favourites, these are matters of personal taste. Good design might in some cases have led to something being a favourite, and, indeed a favourite of many, but taste and design are not the same thing.

Before I start, I should make clear that I really writing this for fellow civic society members. I’m not an architect or designer but, like many lay people who volunteer their time to serve on the committees of civic societies, I often find myself drawn into debates about good design. For civic society readers, it is the design of the built environment that will be your main priority, but when it comes to design, some rules are universal in their application.

Let me frame this article by reference to four quotes I’ve selected (not quite a random) from the internet:

Quote 1: “Form ever follows function, and this is the law” Louis Sullivan

Sullivan (1856-1924) was an American architect sometimes referred to as “father of skyscrapers”. The design of any item should take account of its function – there is no point in designing something, no matter how beautiful, if it doesn’t work well. The stylish shoes that give you bunions; the smart alarm clock that is so quiet when it goes off that you have to be awake already to hear it; the  boutique hotel room so over-designed that you can’t find the light switch – I could go on….. The same considerations must surely apply to buildings and to public spaces. Is a building ‘legible’ – as you walk up to it, can you tell where the entrance is? Is its purpose obvious – or do you have to work out what it is from the written signs? Are streets safe for pedestrians as well as vehicles to use? Do buildings have active and interesting street fronts that make them pleasant places to walk by? Are public spaces laid out in such a way that they invite people to tarry and wander, or are they unpleasant places that make you want to scurry through as fast as you can?

Quote 2: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Eliel Saarinen

People often criticize new buildings because the design doesn’t “fit in”. The concern here is that the new development takes no account of context. I remember someone telling me (although I can’t remember who it was) that when the designs for St Pancras Station in London were first put forward, there were people who complained the new building wouldn’t fit in. Arguably, it still doesn’t but it is majestic enough not to need to fit in: it makes a statement of its own that is aesthetically appealing and a delight to see. There will be times when new buildings will work better if they blend in, but there will be occasions when gateway, or landmark, buildings are required to stand out, to make a statement and to shout about local distinctiveness. Which is right will depend on … er … context.   

Quote 3: “Decisions on artwork by committee end up being made on the premise of not turning people off rather than turning people on.” Paul Attwood

For ‘artwork’ in the above quote, you can also read ‘design’. The planning sub-committee of my own society met a while back to look at a new proposal. We were happy enough with the concept but it was rather ‘safe’. We felt that for what was quite a prominent site in the city centre, something a bit more exciting would be better. We went to see the architect and explained how we thought the design could be improved. He listened patiently then reached for a folder from which he removed his original drawings for the site. Guess what, they were almost exactly what we were looking for! We asked why he’d toned down his original scheme for the rather bland design that had been submitted for planning. He said he had compromised because his clients had made some changes and then the council’s planning officers had asked for further changes to be made.

In effect the vision of the architect had been watered down by a committee of first the clients and then the planning officers. This must have been frustrating for the architect but it also short-changed the people of Wakefield who are perhaps more willing to embrace bold new designs than the planners allow. As a civic society, we sometimes have to campaign for innovative design, something that might just upset the applecart, and developers and planners, as well as members of the public, are sometimes surprised about how adventurous we’re prepared to be.

Quote 4: “We are all designers, the difference is that only a few of us do it full-time.” Sabo Tercero

And this probably sums up why we, both as individuals and organisations, are so often dissatisfied with the new developments going on around us. Rather like when it comes to questions of how to run the county, we all have a view – and we all think we could do better!

When I lead guided walks around Wakefield, the design of the Hepworth gallery often crops up. Some people love it, others hate it. Having met the architect, David Chipperfield, and heard him speak about the design and how he arrived at it, I think it is quite an exceptional piece of architecture and one that is perfect for its purpose.

When people criticise it, I offer to give them a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to draw me the gallery they would have designed. It would have to allow light into rooms that could be controlled to avoid direct sunlight falling on some rather valuable artworks. It would have to provide hanging space for paintings and floor space for sculpture and circulation space. You’d have to avoid lots of pillars as they obstruct sight lines, prevent free movement and make it more difficult to place and exhibit work. Rooms and openings would have to be high to allow for larger works. And you want people to flow through the gallery without having to double back on themselves to reach the exit. Oh, and if you are going to build it next to a river that sometimes overflows its banks, take account of the potential for flooding in your design. Finally, have some regard to context, please, whether that be the adjacent buildings – do you want to stand out or blend in – or topography and landscape – do you level the ground or work within its contours?

Interestingly, no one has yet accepted my challenge! But what if they did? Would they come up with anything radically different, bearing in mind there would also be budget limitations to work within? In fact, if I press people a bit harder about what they don’t like about the Hepworth, it often boils down to the colour of the external walls: they don’t like grey! (“Which colour would you paint it then?”) In other words, we’ve distilled the argument down to one of personal taste rather than whether the gallery is a good design, which is where I came in.

Design is a fascinating subject: for an easy-to-read but thought-provoking study, I’d like to conclude by recommending a book by Matthew Frederick – 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

All Civic Societies need an ‘Elevator Pitch’

So, imagine the scenario. You have a chance encounter with someone who could help change your society’s fortunes for the better. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your society. You have their attention, they’re looking you in the eye, they’re ready to listen but you don’t have long. Fluff this moment and you’re history. What do you say that will capture their attention and make them want to learn more? This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ is vital.

Coined in the USA (hence elevator rather than lift), the idea behind the term is that, to succeed in business, you need to be able to encapsulate in no more than a few sentences who you are, what you do, and, most importantly, why the conversation should continue. As a lift journey can last as little as 30 seconds and even in the tallest buildings is likely to last no longer than around two minutes, you have to be cogent, articulate, and to the point. With luck, you’ll engage the attention of the person to whom you are speaking and they will be curious enough to want to learn more, to continue the conversation over coffee when you step outside that lift.

This sort of scenario isn’t that uncommon. OK, it might not happen in a lift, but it could happen at a business event, a networking opportunity, or just in the street where you bump into someone, and it can happen at any time. You need your elevator pitch ready and to be willing to use it at the drop of a hat.

When I first became president at Wakefield Civic Society, I had to represent the Society at all sorts of meetings and stakeholder events. Often, having introduced myself as the president of the Society, I’d be confronted with the question “What’s that then?” and it was clear that many people outside the Society’s own membership had never heard of us. Being asked this question so frequently really made me think about what the Society did and how best to describe it in the proverbial nutshell. Much to my surprise, and consternation, it was actually quite difficult to summarise the essence of the Society, its values and its activities in just two or three sentences, partly because, at base, the Society’s activities are centred on a number of different concepts.

Reflecting on the question and how to answer it also started me thinking about why anyone would actually be interested in what we do. How do you sell an idea and captivate an audience so that other people can see the value in what you do to the point where they actually want to engage with it and support your work?

I began by writing down the sort of things we do in bullet points, starting with the charitable aims described in the Society’s constitution. Like most civic societies, our principal interest is in the built environment. Our aims say that we exist to “promote high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield, to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the city and its surroundings, to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest and to pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature”.

That’s quite a mouthful! And if we go back to the elevator pitch, it won’t work because it’s actually a list of things: connected yes, but each part of that list conveys a different idea of what we do – and what if the person you are speaking to isn’t interested in architecture, planning or preservation and development? Even if they do express an interest, these terms have a wide range of possible interpretations and spin-off implications so it would be easy to get side-tracked while narrowing down the points on which you want to focus.

In the end, I decided to think about the value we add to the city and to find something which would (or should!) grab the attention of anyone with an interest in Wakefield. This is what I came up with: Wakefield Civic Society is an organisation dedicated to making Wakefield a better place in which to live, work or relax – or do business.

You may or may not like this – but it’s easy to say (and remember) and, sometimes with slight variations to wording, can be used in printed documents, on line and in presentations. In other words, the phrase has become part of our brand.

When I tell people this is what we are about, it piques their interest and, if they really do care about Wakefield, they quite naturally want to know more about us. Using this phrase tends to open up a different sort of conversation from the sort I used to have when I spoke of our charitable objects related to architecture, planning and design.

You might not think of your charity as a business but when it comes to marketing and branding, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a few ideas!

Do members add value for civic societies?

Members

Let me be provocative (again)…..

Members, eh? Who needs ’em? No, seriously, who really needs members?

If you’ve read my article on how we can measure the success of a civic society, you’ll know that I have questioned the idea that membership numbers should be used as an indicator of a successful civic society: we tend to think that the more members a society has, the more successful it must be and most if not all civic societies probably spend some time and effort in trying to recruit and retain members.

In my previous article, I posited that it is actually reputation and trust that really count: how others see you, and whether or not they trust your judgement and advice are the real markers of a successful society. If you agree with me, then the natural conclusion is that the size of membership is not really that important. In fact, dare I suggest that your members are holding you back? Let me explain.

As I said in my article, at Wakefield Civic Society we organise 30 to 40 events and activities per year, sometimes more. We do that because our members enjoy the events and, if the members are happy, they are more likely to renew their membership year after year. On top of that, a lively programme of events is a great way of attracting new members. In other words, our desire to recruit and retain members determines how we operate: we are a membership-based organisation so therefore we run events for members.

While often hugely enjoyable, these events take a good deal or work to organise and to run but only around a fifth of our membership turn out for them and sometimes attendance is even less which means we are going to a lot of trouble to put on events for a smallish subset of the membership. As well as effort, these events also cost us money – we subsidise at least some of the events we put on from our membership subscription income as part of our charitable mission. Having said that, our members (or at least those who attend) tell us that they enjoy the events and, if I’m honest, I enjoy hosting them!

However, our charitable objects as a civic society are:
(a) To encourage high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield.
(b) To stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the City and its surroundings.
(c) To encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest.
(d) To pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature.

Nowhere in the charitable objects is there any mention of our being a membership organisation (this comes later on in the Society’s constitution) and we could arguably deliver our charitable objects without the need to recruit lots of members. All we really need is enough people to form a committee.

What I’m getting at here is that the society could meet its charitable purposes with just a handful of really committed people serving as a sort of ‘think tank’. Say we had around ten people willing to serve. They would need a mix of skills and local knowledge, including some experience of design, planning and architecture but, with the right mix, they could review planning applications, offer advice, write position papers and even organise the occasional public event, exhibition or lecture.

They would still need money, of course, but not so much. There are certain things you just can’t get away from paying for (such as insurance!). However, there are other ways of raising money than membership subscriptions – donations, grants and sponsorships, for example – but the ten people or so willing to serve on the committee could also offer to pay some of the costs out of their own pockets (anything to make it easier!). I suspect that many civic society committee members already do this to some extent – spending money that they don’t necessarily claim back on the work of their society.

I remember one year when we organised an annual dinner at Wakefield which made a surplus of around £200 – a tidy sum that was paid into our general funds. The dinner had been very hard work and there were some sleepless nights: we’d signed a contract with the venue to pay for a set number of places but then the bookings were very slow to come in and it was touch and go as to whether the event would break even, let alone generate a surplus as a fund-raising event, so it was relief all round when we achieved the result we did. In fact, we were in celebratory mood until one of the committee pointed out that if each of the committee (20 strong at the time) had paid £10 each directly to the Society, we’d have achieved the same result without the stress or the fuss. This was rather deflating but was a point well made, especially when you realise that we had each paid around £25 for our tickets to attend the dinner!

The learning point here, of course, is that our desire to put on an event for the members had taken a toll in time, effort and stress to achieve a result that could have been achieved without any of the fuss and hassle.

Before we all rush to dispense with our members though, we need to remember that we all have our written constitutions to follow and that, for those civic societies which are also charities, care would have to be taken to ensure that the charitable aims were still delivered. While it might even be worth considering doing away with the charitable status – it removes the need for all those pesky compliance issues, after all! – there are advantages to being a charity that should not lightly be tossed aside. These include the impact on fund-raising activities when some donors will only consider giving to charities and, of course, the ability to claim Gift Aid.

Now, I’m aware that some very small civic societies might already be the position of having a total membership of just a handful of people – and they might even feel that they are failing. They look at other societies with larger memberships and spend hours worrying over how to recruit more members of their own, almost to the point that the search for new members becomes a millstone around their necks when, according to my argument here, they should be celebrating the fact that they don’t have to spend time and effort servicing a large membership! Surely, that thought alone should be positively liberating!

I know that having members can be rewarding and there are many positives about being a membership organisation. Members provide income and, to a degree, credibility. They can help to spread the news about what the society is doing and what it stands for. They can act as eyes and ears, reporting back to the society on threats to the buildings and public realm in the area. Members will also usually form the pool from which your future committee members will emerge. Running events brings people together and helps strengthen community links; friendships are developed and networks enhanced. I personally have had a great deal of fun from being in charge of an active membership organisation – but it has been exhausting.

So, there we have it: let’s pause and re-think how our civic societies should operate. Do we really need to be large membership-based organisations running events primarily to keep our members entertained? Can we meet our charitable purposes in other ways – and if we can, do we really want to change the model?

Provocative enough?

Measuring Success: what makes a civic society ‘successful’?

As I travel around the region (and even further afield) giving talks about the civic society movement, I always stress the importance the work that civic societies do. When I give talks about the work of my own society – Wakefield Civic Society – I talk about it in glowing terms as one of the most successful civic societies in the country! Now, that might sound boastful and you may or may not agree with it, but it’s something I believe to be true. But what do we mean when we talk about successful civic societies? What makes them successful and is it possible to measure their success objectively?

One of the advantages of being on the YHACS committee is that I do get to visit other civic societies and, over the years, I may well have met people from just about all our member societies as well as others from outside the region. Wherever I go, though, there’s always one question that gets asked: “How many members do you have?” To be fair, I’m as likely to ask it of you as you are to ask it of me about Wakefield Civic Society. Our fascination with membership numbers does suggest that, rightly or wrongly, size is seen as one of the key markers for success – the bigger the society’s membership, the more successful it must be.

But is that the best measure of success and, if we are to use membership numbers as a measure of success, should we put it into context by comparing the membership numbers with total population? Let’s look at three civic societies, not that far apart geographically.

At the time of writing (2017), Wakefield Civic Society has a membership of around 250, which is very reasonable for a civic society. However, the city of Wakefield has a resident population of around 80,000 so, in broad terms, our membership represents just 0.3% of the population.

Meanwhile, Addingham Civic Society has around 360 members, which is very impressive for a village and, with a resident population of 3,800, it means that nearly 10% of the population are members of the society.

Then there’s Leeds Civic Trust with a membership of 485 out of a population of 450,000, so the membership amounts a little over 0.1% of the population.

On this basis, Leeds, which looks the biggest of the three at first glance, is less successful than Wakefield, but Wakefield is less successful than Addingham. Yes, in percentage terms, Addingham is the most successful of the three societies.

But before we award that trophy, what happens if we use a different metric? What if we don’t use membership numbers, but instead look at overall annual income: in 2016, Leeds had an income of over £200,000; Wakefield just over £12,000 and Addingham around £3,000. Here then, Leeds comes out top and Addingham comes out bottom. As can be seen, income doesn’t necessarily relate directly to membership numbers: it’s more complicated than that. Income comes from many sources, not just membership subscriptions, and subscription levels (and types) will have an impact on the income generated: those societies with an established corporate membership scheme, for example, will probably raise more in membership subscriptions overall than those societies that don’t have one and, when averaged out across the membership, the average take per member is likely to be higher too.

Money isn’t everything, however, and societies might only set out to raise the money they need to cover the things they want to do so perhaps we should measure success by the number of activities that a society organises during the year? Now, I don’t have comparison figures to hand to be able to declare a winner in this category but I’m confident that my own society, Wakefield, would score well. With our talks programme, our excursions and visits, our guided walks and blue plaque unveilings and not forgetting our very popular monthly Dining Club, we probably average close to three events per month – 30 to 40 per year – and sometimes more; quite an achievement for an organisation run entirely by a handful of volunteers.

Of course, a large proportion of the events we run at Wakefield are targeted at attracting new members (while also retaining existing ones) – and it’s not surprising that larger societies run more events, so maybe it would be a little unfair to measure the success or otherwise of a society based purely on the number of events they run. We need some understanding of context, particularly if we are ranking societies against each other: horses for courses and all that.

We could look at projects, by which I mean those practical projects that lead to physical improvements to the public realm (such a litter picking, tree planting, repairing amenities, conservation projects to bring old buildings back into use, and so on). These projects are tangible, often highly visible and benefit local communities directly. I know some civic societies that have done terrific work in restoring, repainting, replanting, etc. My own society did lots of this practical stuff back in the 1960s and 70s (although I wasn’t there at the time and can take no credit): there are photos in the Society’s archives showing our members cleaning off graffiti, picking up litter, and planting trees. However, times have changed. There are now many more agencies and organisations that routinely undertake this work so that often all it takes is a phone call or email to the right person or organisation to prompt some sort of response and the Society doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting. But does a lack of practical projects indicate an unsuccessful society? Not necessarily!

So, if we are not going to use membership numbers, overall income, number of events, or number of projects as our overarching measure of a successful society, what are we left with?

Well, how about influence and impact? A successful society will undoubtedly interact with a wide number of stakeholders – decision makers within local and possibly national government, property owners and local businesses as well as local residents. And these interactions will be used by the society to convey messages about planning, heritage and design that will influence stakeholders in their thinking so that the society can point to outcomes and claim it was these interventions that led to the result achieved – in other words, the actions of the society had an impact on the result. However, demonstrating cause and effect in these situations can be very difficult unless credit is given publicly: sometimes, an outcome that chimes with the society’s aspirations may be no more than lucky chance or pure coincidence. We might claim ‘it was us that did it’, but can we prove it?

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there’s no easy way of measuring the overall success or otherwise of a civic society. The successful ones will be firing on all cylinders – doing lots of different things, or perhaps just a few big things, but doing them all really well. Context is important but so is reputation. How do your members regard what you do? What do people outside your membership think of you? (Have they even heard of you?) Do people come to you for advice? Are you the first place people come to for information and support when they need it? Do they trust your judgement?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then no matter how many members you have, how much money you have, or how many events and projects you are running, to be held in high regard by others and to be trusted as ‘honest brokers’ is perhaps one of the true markers of a successful civic society.

Discuss.

New Charity Governance Code – what are the implications for civic societies?

Last year, the Charity Commission consulted on a proposed code of governance. This has now been published and is available on-line at https://www.charitygovernancecode.org/en.

While the new Code is at the moment just guidance, it is based on current legal requirements and recommended practice. It is set out under 7 principles (see above taken from their website) and introduces the notion of ‘apply or explain’ – in other words, charities should apply the code’s principles wherever they can but explain those instances where, for whatever reason, they cannot apply the recommendations of the Code.

Much that is in the Code will be familiar already, this is evolution not revolution, but there are some interesting new recommendations about recruitment and retention of trustees – i.e., your committee members – which will have far-reaching implications for many societies. Not least of these is the recommendation that trustees serve for a maximum of 9 years.

Now, I’m writing this as someone who has served as a trustee on the committee of Wakefield Civic Society for nearly 28 years and who has been president/chair of the Society for nearly 16 years at the time of writing. On top of that, I have been a trustee of the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies (YHACS) for coming up for 16 years and chair of the Association for nearly 7 years. The Wakefield Civic Society committee has 5 members who have been in office for over 9 years and the YHACS committee 3. I suspect that many civic societies (and other community groups for that matter) will be in the similar position of having long-serving committee trustees. I wonder what would happen if the 9-year rule was to be made mandatory?

I’m fairly sure that the Charity Commission is not intending that there should be a mass clear-out of charity stalwarts whose tireless energies and enthusiasm keeps so many small charities running. To mandate that would cause huge problems and possibly lead to the closure of some charities unable to find willing volunteers to take on the vacated roles.

However, I can understand the thinking about the new recommendation; indeed, when I advocated changing the YHACS constitution at the end of 2016 so as to set a six-year time limit on the role of YHACS chair, I had seen the writing on the wall, or at least on various internet pages in which the thinking on charity governance had been widely discussed.

There are benefits and problems associated with having long-serving trustees. Benefits include building experience, local knowledge and contacts – all very useful facets of being an effective trustee. Problems, on the other hand, are trustees being so-closely identified with the charity and their roles within the organisation that others perceive trustee selection, particularly for key officer posts, as something of a closed-shop or done deal. This can be an effective barrier to the recruitment of new trustees – people don’t want to challenge a long-standing post holder for fear of causing upset of embarrassment or because they don’t think the charity would back a newcomer against an existing and no doubt respected candidate.

There’s another problem of allowing someone to serve more or less indefinitely and that is complacency. We’re all so relieved that someone has agreed to serve that we can breathe easy, thankful that the post is filled. While ever there is someone willing to have a go, let them get on with it! Don’t rock the boat! etc., etc. The trouble then is that when these long-serving committee members do want to step down, there are no processes in place, or no candidates in waiting, to allow for a transition, and the results can be fatal to the survival of the charity. A number of civic societies in our own region have folded in recent years because they cannot find people willing to serve on their committees.

Another problem, of course, is that if your committee is predominantly ‘white, middle class and retired’, there’s a good chance your membership will come from this social group as well. Your committee will mirror your membership and vice versa.

The new Charity Code of Governance points us in the direction we need to be thinking about (at section 5.7 on Board [for which read Committee] Effectiveness):

5.7 Overseeing appointments
5.7.1 There is a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure to appoint new trustees to the board, which includes advertising vacancies widely.
5.7.2 The search for new trustees is carried out, and appointments or nominations for election are made, on merit, against objective criteria and considering the benefits of diversity. The board regularly looks at what skills it has and needs, and this affects how new trustees are found.
5.7.3 Trustees are appointed for an agreed length of time, subject to any applicable constitutional or statutory provisions relating to election and re-election. If a trustee has served for more than nine years, their reappointment is subject to a particularly rigorous review and takes into account the need for progressive refreshing of the board explained in the trustees’ annual report

You can see from this that applying the rule of ‘Buggin’s turn’ won’t wash in future, nor will allowing someone to run and run be acceptable either – there will only be so many occasions that you can explain away why your society failed to find a new chair or trustee and so allowed someone to continue to clock up the mileage.

As I said above, this is not yet mandatory, but I do think we all need to start thinking about the implications of the new code and its recommendations. Even if the 9-year rule isn’t yet a requirement, it is probably in the best interests of your charity to act as if the recommendation is likely to become mandatory at some point and to start thinking now about how you can improve the processes for recruitment of trustees.