Speaking at Space Furniture in Sydney, Kevin McCloud shared insights on the history and practice of design that involves reflection, resisting compromise, inspiring excellence and creating surprise. Here more space brings you some of the highlights from the night...  

I think it was Oscar Peterson who said that there are only two types of music, good music and bad music. The thing about design is that that doesn't really fly because there is design which actually looks extraordinarily beautiful but which is utterly uncomfortable – many of the classics of the 20th century that came out of the Bauhaus – and of course some of the most comfortable things we have sat on are our grandmother's sofa. I am also aware that what might be great design today could be seen as monstrous and evil tomorrow. The incandescent lightbulb shortly to be banished from the planet was in its time an absolute wonder. Now it is being replaced by LEDs and the entire notion of lighting and what it is and how it is produced is being redesigned. There is that thing about design, and it's about designers as much as anything else, those who have ever tried it know it is a bit of a disease.

A designer is someone who isn't quite fully functional. We all wake up in the morning and if we are really lucky we get that urge to change the world. A designer wakes up every single day of their lives with that drive. Their job is to try and make the world better. Putting it very very simply, without design the world would be not just a poorer place and not just a cruder place, but a barren place. It is design and design process that has ordered humanity and which drives us to make our environment better. Without design we would all be living in caves and we would all be sitting here naked and grunting. So, I am going to try and explain first of all what I think design is.

What is design?

We had a conversation on the way here in the car about whether or not it would be justified for Levi's to to produce a sofa. Actually a denim sofa would be quite sensible with the pockets inside and if it got dirty you just hose it down, and it would shrink and leak blue dye all over your clothes. But the idea of brand, that is a company which seeks to promote its name, ideas and values across a market, no matter what product it makes, is not the same as design. What you see in this showroom is design because what you see is 40 companies who are makers and manufacturers and they employ craftsmen and designers. This is design process.

Design is about trying to improve things and it is a really efficient method that has been around for about 12,000 years. Design allows human beings to make something, prototype it, try it out, see if it breaks when you throw it across the room, rebuild it, try it again, keep going with the prototype, and eventually it will go into production if you are lucky. It's about trying to arrive at the most perfect solution possible. It's a process that resists compromise, which allows for excellence and says no to mediocrity.

Actually design is something that we all do. Designers and architects, creatives, do it much faster because they have gone to university and they have particularly appropriate minds using both their left and right hemispheres which allow them to think much faster and cover things with more creative solutions. That's the great advantage of working with professionals. You or I might use the power of design in our daily lives by choosing a tie. When you choose a tie there is a moment of crisis every morning. Is it going to work? Will it be appropriate for that meeting? So, I am also going to suggest that when we are planning a dinner party that you are also using the power of design. You plan the menu, the place settings, cook the food, people turn up, it all goes wrong and people get horribly drunk. So what do you do? You revise your menu and you serve less wine early on and you improve it until you arrive at the perfect design.

Vitruvius, Palladio and Plato

As long as 2,000 years ago in Rome, Vitruvius decided very cleverly that design was down to three things – firmness, commodity and delight. He didn't say these will be lasting properties testament to his brilliance, he just said these will be important. The thing is that since then architects and designers constantly return to Vitruvius. Firmness relates to solidity, robustness and durability. The way to make things to last and to be more permanent. Commodity really means to be comfortable, and delight is the thing that is quite hard to measure as it is an entirely personal response.

There is much in classical architecture that Vitruvius applied that still holds true. Andrea Palladio was an architect working in Venice in the 1500s who designed the Villa Pisani, still standing, which is a beautiful building and exquisite to the eye. It is interesting to see that Palladio invented the built-in kitchen 500 years before the Germans did around 1914. He was building sinks and cupboards into his interiors very early on. Extremely functional with high ceilings, large doors, big windows and well proportioned rooms, Palladio used the Golden Section as an operating principle and built according to Vitruvian rules.

Bringing it right forward now, I wonder whether firmness, commodity and delight equals cool. Is cool the catchall phrase for something that is beautifully designed. I don't think it does. I think it's a bit of a slang term that gets us off the hook if you like. I think in a way that coolness is something that now we associate with the more visual, rather than the well made or the more commodious.

So, can design be universal?

Looking right back before Vitruvius and before Palladio to Plato. He had this idea that somewhere in the universe existed the perfect chair and the perfect table. Plato was obsessed with the idea of universal, the idea that everything mankind produced was somehow a poor imitation of something somewhere else in a parallel universe and utterly cristiline perfect. I would say judging by the number of chairs produced over the last century we sill have a fair way to go. Why do I say that? I say that because I don't believe what Plato was on about at all. I say that because I am 6 foot 2 and a half and every time I sit in the brilliant classic Charles Eames recliner it seems to be about 15% too small for me. This is the problem, there is no universal chair, there is no universal spoon, handle, car, sofa, bed, tap or sink. Perhaps a universal paper clip but that's all.

Designing delight

Delight is a complex thing. Apple with their designer Jonathan Ive has exploited not just fantastic usability and intuitive software but something else as well, a design language which is resonated through the 20th century. Whether we realise it or not, everyone in this room is design literate. We also have an intuitive background memory and associative memory from since we were tiny. Design too can time travel and the clever thing about the iphone and the 'i' everything is that it plays on that intuitive background knowledge that we all have, that we don't quite recognise but it is there. It's a design language that with the 'i' things started in the mid-1960s really, so we are talking 40, 50, 60 years of accumulated design trends and ideas which have been encapsulated in this one object. Like it or not, when we consider the emotional value of things and what they mean to us, what we are really evaluating is in terms of our own histories and the associated meaning of shapes, ideas, colours, patterns and textures.

Architecture can also time travel

When we plan and build cities, and when we furnish a home, we take on stuff and we recontextualise it and reinvent it. What we are doing is adding new layers and sometimes those layers are physical – paint or brick – and sometimes they are layers of meaning we add to things. It's lovely to think of a well made object, a beautifully crafted piece actually improving with age – the leather getting better and more patterned. It's lovely to think of homes, buildings, cities and towns doing the same thing. They also become more complex places that make us more satisfied. We love richness and texture, we love complexity, visual complexity especially, it's very satisfying. It sort of explains why big new shiny cities look kind of cool, but they are not necessarily satisfying places to be because it's just like reading the last chapter of a really great novel. Old buildings, if you like, are like novels and you can imagine each phase of their lives as another chapter. Every time you go back to an old building and you rip out the French doors, take out the windows or replace the floorboards, as you are thinking that you are turning it into your home that is contemporary and useable and personal. What you are doing, if you are not careful, is tearing pages out of the story on that place and in doing that it doesn't make sense anymore. What is lovely, is when we add extra layers, new chapters reinvented in a way that is gentle and far less interventive. I think with buildings generally speaking, many of us get this right. I think with cities it nearly always goes wrong. I don't know many cities in the world that feel truly enriched by the layers of its story. One principle exception is Rome. London isn't bad.

Story telling

Everything has its own story, its own mythology and set of ideas. For each one of us that mythology, that story, is going to be different. The thing is that the narratives in things are what gives them meaning. In our lives, the way we collect things and build our homes and put together the stories, gives our lives meaning and indeed collectively makes a big story. When I walk into homes that look like showroom windows I ask myself, where is the personality of the people. When I walk into homes that have things which have been handed down, mixed with bought stuff, or maybe they have made or commissioned a piece, you get that eclectic mix of stuff which is autobiographical, that makes homes so much more interesting. It is the story of our lives. We all have that piece which we had as a student, or was given to us, and we can't quite bring ourselves to get rid of it and nor should we, because it contributes to who we are.

Kevin McCloud presented his talk at Space Furniture Sydney on 19 October, 2011, to an audience of Australian Financial Review subscribers.