The philosophy of the Design Quality Framework

What is ‘aesthetics’ about?

When we think about buying a house, we look at it and notice how the windows are proportioned; when we try on clothes we judge how they look on us; when drive around we might notice a changed in place character; when we plant a garden we consider the position, height and colour of the vegetation. We are born with an ability to judge the aesthetics of the environment around us.

We appreciate art, music and architecture by following the patterns in an object or space. For example, in music we notice changes in tone or key, changes in speed and rhythm. We follow a similar process to understand the environment around us, we notice changes in light, temperature and colour. When a pattern is easy to follow and understand, more people find this pattern pleasant. On the other hand, sometimes we might find that a piece of music or a place are not pleasant to start with but once we learnt their pattern we become familiar with them and we start to like it. This often happens with modern or ground-braking architecture.

Design criteria selection

Like music, architecture and urban design also have sets of principles for spatial composition, which are largely constructed around mathematical correlations, such as the ratio, which is based in the pattern of a logarithmic spiral. Those who are trained will know how to use these principles to create spatial objects and places. The British planning system however, does not stipulate that applicants must be trained to submit a planning application. The criteria in the DQF guides should help those without the adequate level of technical training by clearly explaining the core principles that Nottingham expects to be followed by design.

There isn’t a unique set of criteria that we could use to make an aesthetic judgement. In fact, as soon as we can establish some criteria we realise all the aspects we have left behind. The criteria selected for the DQF guides responds to the results of a series of audits and studies of design quality in Nottingham between 2013 and 2018, which revealed areas of strengths and weaknesses. Future audits might result in new criteria being added to the guides. This is why it is necessary to have separate guides that can be edited individually whilst they all form part of the DQF.

Taste vs technical adequacy

Within the aesthetics debate, ‘pleasure’ is a psychological sensation and not a rigorous assessment of criteria. This is why it is important to differentiate technical competence to aesthetical preference. The latter is the result of the object itself plus the psychology and conditions of the observer at the time of making that observation; and the observer is heavily influenced by cultural, social and personal experiences. A musical piece might follow some composition principles but there might be some who do not find pleasure in the listening, this does not mean the piece is not technically correct. Alternatively, two people might hear a piece of music in two different ways and yet both might enjoy it.

The design quality appraisal tools of the DQF do not measure how ‘appealing’ a design might be. That is a subjective analysis that remains within the individual observer. The DQF appraisal tools look at the technical quality in relation to a key set of design principles that are important for Nottingham, which have been grounded in design theory for a long time.

Ensuring design freedom

An artist tends to express through the application of certain prescription or formula, often self-defined. However, artists will also use traditional tools like ‘guidelines of perspective’ to help them achieve their artistic expressions. A musician will use a similar process with scales, rhythms and harmonies that follow mathematical patterns. An architect or urban designer will also follow certain prescription that they consider to be adequate for the time and place of their design. The creative process of designing or composing is achieved by a combination of application of well-known tools and personal expression.

The criteria of the DQF guides does not limit creativity but it sets a small number of design concepts and tools in the form of set prescriptions. These shall help designers contextualise their proposals to the Nottingham setting. Like two cooks following a recipe, two designers following the DQF criteria will most certainly arrive at different design solutions. Different people at different time will achieve dissimilar designs because they have their own notions of reality, socio-cultural backgrounds and personal experiences.