Joining the dots: Wallpaper and relationships

In this contribution to Joining the Dots, The Relationships Project Founder David Robinson reflects on the importance of visual clues in priming us to build meaningful connections that can improve the efficacy of our public services.

by David Robinson

On a trip to America in 1892 Oscar Wilde was asked by a New York journalist why he thought American society was so violent. He said, “because your wallpaper is so ugly.”

I wonder what he would have made of this notice, the only one, on the front door of a large probation office in London.

I appreciate that this is the probation office, not the local Wetherspoons, but I wonder how outcomes might change if parents, partners, children, friends were embraced rather than driven off. These significant others are, potentially at least, the change makers, the critical friends. Not all these relationships will be good or positive. Perhaps it is the experiences of the probation service here that they are uniformly bad, but whatever, they are the relationships that surround the offender day in, day out. Without attending to them, surely any other intervention will be at best under powered, at worst undermined.

I have worked with probation staff many times over the years. I have no doubt that there are good people behind these forbidding doors working hard to form relationships that will change lives. Thinking about every aspect of design will never make their work easy but it can make it easier. And design that ignores relationships or even obstructs them will almost certainly make it harder.

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz led the development of the global coffee shop chain with the simple leadership mantra “everything matters”. Just as Wilde had seen a hundred years earlier how huge buildings and brutal architecture influenced the way people treated one another, so Schultz realised that lighting, décor, even smell influences the nature of our behaviour and the quality of our relationships. With the most minimal adjustments we say you’re welcome (or you’re not), we value you, (or we don’t), what is important to you is important to us (or we don’t care).

It may be unfair but I have a image in my mind of the probation waiting room behind that door – plain grey walls, some upright chairs, perhaps in serried rows facing no one, a metal bin, maybe some more notices about the things you mustn’t do. I wonder how outcomes might be influenced by a poster on the door that said “Friends and family welcome here”. And, inside, a kettle, perhaps, a few games, even a vase of flowers.

Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

Probation offices are, by no means, the only offenders. I was in a health centre waiting room last week. When the electronic display board wasn’t calling up the next patient it displayed the same message over and over again

“The Health Centre is not responsible for your property. Take possessions with you. The centre is
NOT liable for your loss.”

Fair enough but the same would be true in a restaurant or a fashion store. It is very unlikely that either business, or indeed any other business that valued its customers, would speak so aggressively. And is that all that the people in the health centre want to say? Not even “Good Morning”?

These things may seem trivial, but they are signals. We respond to those signals, perhaps aggressively, at best defensively, we close down rather than open up. We are resistant to relating meaningfully and positively. Relationship centred design is of course about far more than furniture but context either helps or hinders. It is never neutral. Doing it thoughtfully won’t solve every problem, but it can be a quick and easy win.