A new meaning to drop dead good-looking

'Good design' can seriously damage your health, says Jonathan Glancey
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I have been reading two books on design. The first is a preview copy of Terence Conran on Design (published by Conran Octopus, 24 October), a good-looking and thoughtful analysis of what constitutes good design by a man who, more than many others, should know. Image after image in Conran's inspirational tome reminds the reader why what we like to call "good design" is so profoundly satisfying. In the Conran view of the world, there is more than enough creative talent to frame our lives in visual and tactile excellence.

The other book, Visual Stress by Arnold Wilkins, a Cambridge psychiatrist (Oxford University Press, 1995), shown to me by a friend, looked drab and uninteresting in comparison with Conran's feast for the eyes. Yet open those hard blue covers, plough a steady furrow through graphs, charts, diagrams and the minutiae of academic research, and here is a book that plays brilliant devil's advocate to Conran's. What Wilkins reveals is that some of what purports to be "good design" is injurious to our visual, mental and even physical wellbeing. Here is one of those books that you read in the bath and feel like jumping out and exclaiming "Eureka!". Here, at last, is reliable evidence to support personal prejudices and half- formed hypotheses.

To put you in Wilkins's picture, you need only step on to the escalator at a London Underground station or a major shopping mall, and peer down the shimmering shaft. Does the combination of dazzling fluorescent light pulsing on stainless steel stair treads make you feel dizzy, light-headed, odd or panicky? Many people will answer yes to at least one of these responses. Swirling patterns perceived by those with sensitive sight have been recorded by doctors, psychiatrists and other researchers since the opening of London Underground's Victoria line in 1969. The patterns, occasioned by the striped pattern of the escalator stair treads and exacerbated by their shininess and the fluorescent light shining down on them, are known to cause headaches and various forms of "visual stress", and can induce migraine attacks and epileptic fits in those prone to these disturbing maladies.

In spite of research carried out over the best part of 30 years, such escalator shafts have proliferated. Pictures of these have often been used in books promoting good modern design because they look sleek, clean and functional. Yet if one of their functions is to make people uncomfortable, and even ill, then they can only be considered "good design" in some abstract, drawing-board way.

Striped and certain types of swirling patterns, as Wilkins proves, can cause severe visual disturbance. He cites the famous case of curators in a national gallery complaining of headaches and dizziness during a major show of paintings by Bridget Riley in 1971. Rileys are indeed difficult for many people to look at. Much the same difficulty is faced by those looking down an escalator shaft or sitting under regularly spaced fluorescent light fittings in the suspended and gridded ceilings of open-plan offices. Those not so susceptible to visual stress may experience some of the disturbances that Wilkins cites when, for example, driving along a classic French avenue with bright sunlight flickering between regularly planted trees. The effect is like that of a stroboscope flickering in a nightclub, and like a stroboscope can cause temporary memory lapses, throbbing headaches, migraine and epileptic fits.

Wilkins refers, without naming names, to fashionable office fit-outs produced by trendy but reputable designers that have had much the same effect as Op Art paintings. Some of these would have graced the pages of design magazines and been written up in glowing terms. But then in the Fifties, architects and designers began to be mightily impressed by the visual rigour of the open-plan office, never thinking that certain arrangements of fluorescent light fittings would cause discomfort and even illness in those who toiled beneath them.

What is remarkable is that such designs continue to proliferate. It may be, of course, that as books like Wilkins's are only very recent, designers and architects have yet to recognise the full impact of the interiors they shape. The very idea that we can be commissioning interiors that trigger epileptic fits does seem extraordinary.

Nevertheless, you now know - assuming, like me, that some of Wilkins's findings come as a revelation - that some of the interiors you find horrid really are bad for you. Our instincts tell us that there is something wrong with acres of relentless fluorescent-lit office space, and we are right. Film directors and photographers who use such spaces to depict scenes and feelings of alienation have an innate understanding that something is wrong with them. Again, their instincts are right.

Wilkins's research does not stop at the visual disturbance caused by striped patterns in offices and Underground stations. He also cites railings and even the herringbone pattern of bricks that urban landscape designers insist on using as pavement in newly, and often misguidedly, pedestrianised streets.

An increasing number of office workers are optingto work at home whenever possible. This is not simply because they want to sit with the dog under their bare feet, but because, as Visual Stress discloses, they feel wobbly and uncomfortable at work. This is not a reflection on their colleagues, but on the design of their offices. What most of us want, Wilkins's research suggests, are offices in which we have a degree of privacy, light and shade, daylight and few striped patterns - whether deliberate or unintended.

Office design is not the only offender. Shopping malls and superstores, which make unmitigated use of vast, bright, open spaces, cause feelings of agoraphobia, to an extent prompted by visual stress. I have to admit to reading many of Wilkins's findings with a degree of perverse pleasure. Every type of space I dislike - superstores, shopping malls, fluorescent- lit offices - comes in for a bashing. The great thing is that my prejudices (or instincts) appear to be backed by science and the medical profession.

Wilkins has a number of short-term, self-help solutions for people who suffer from visual stress. These include the covering of one eye when descending a shiny metal escalator shaft; but why should you have to be appear mad, or doing a Lord Nelson impersonation, when there is no need for shiny metal escalator treads? A design solution is staring us in both eyes: matt black treads and low-level uplighting. In the days of wooden treads and soft uplighting, escalators were not especially daunting, unless you were the actor Gerald Harper playing Adam Adamant in the camp Sixties television series of that name.

What appears to be good design on drawing boards, computer screens and in the pages of magazines may well be bad for us. Perhaps what this proves is that good design should never be measured in terms of appearance alone. It is our all-encompassing experience of architect-designed spaces that should concern us. Once we have agreed that an escalator shaft should not be designed to challenge our eyes in the same manner as a Bridget Riley canvas, then, and only then, can we afford to let the visual imagination loose in public spaces.

Comments