BD Magazine Article May 2009

This article was published in BD Magazine in May 2009 under the title "Seek and ye shall find with latest archiving technology". The article can be found on the BD site here. Our articles are often related to subjects discussed in our forum events.


A central theme in design is reconsidering what went before, and recreating it in a new guise. Erik Gunnar Asplund, architect of the famed Gothenburg City Hall extension in Sweden, was known for hiding the drawings for his previous projects under his desk, so that his staff would have to reinvent afresh for every project. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that in the modern practice information re-use is a key asset.

When a designer considers the articulation of a structural steel joint, the finish on an ironmongery fitting or the palette of colours on a presentation, it is invaluable to work within a context. The most useful frame of reference is typically provided by the work previously done by the practice. Nothing compares with having the original to hand for purposes of comparison but we frequently lack the ability to retrieve old digital information quickly.

There are several methods for searching the digital "dumps" that many file servers resemble. Microsoft and Apple provide their own indexing and search tools, and archiving software can help unearth information from old zip archives and moribund file and drawing formats. However, despite their technical adroitness, these tools are blunted by the sheer quantity of information the typical design practice produces, and one quickly comes to appreciate that information and knowledge are dissimilar things. But by concentrating only on information issued or published by the practice, one can help eliminate the dross from search results.

Tools such as Union Square's Workspace or NewForma can help capture information that is issued by the practice in what could be termed a sticky web. "Sticky" because the practice hangs onto it, rather than discarding it once it has been issued; and "web" because of the structured relationships the information has with the project it relates to, its originator and recipients. I contend that if such tools are properly integrated into the way a design practice operates and stores its issued information, the resulting repository of rarified data constitutes the core intellectual property of the practice. It becomes a digital exemplar of the practice itself, the "Digital Practice".

But having access to information in the Digital Practice, even if it has passed quality control checks and made it to site or page or a client's screen, isn't a guarantee that it is worth referring to when designing something new. This, presumably, is what Asplund was concerned about: that someone in the practice who was insufficiently aware of his approach would copy an inappropriate detail or device from an old scheme to a new one. A practical example would be to consider how to guide a new staff member to avoid crass plagiarism and instead negotiate the Digital Practice to find both useful information and how the practice approaches its work.

Here the Digital Practice could borrow a good deal from social media, the various interrelated web technologies concerned with publishing and sharing articles, news and comments. Social media provide individuals with a way to make their thoughts accessible to potential millions, using innovations such as personal journals or blogs. Typically these can be commented on by anyone on the Internet, which adds richness to the original commentary. Although many blogs play to niche markets, websites such as the Guardian, the BBC and BD are also embracing this sort of technology, to include the public in their news coverage. "Trackback" facilities allow blogs to refer to each other, building up a web of information, opinions and views on related subjects.

Another common tool is the "rate this" system, where content can be rated or selected as a favourite. Many websites on which things are sold, such as Amazon, provide this sort of function, but so too do video sharing sites such as YouTube and shared bookmarking services such as Digg.

RSS or Atom feeds, which summarise the latest news headlines or updates on a blog, are yet another popular instrument, which allow one to scan updated news rapidly to pick out articles of interest.

I suggest that by using some social media techniques, the Digital Practice can help keep people informed about new ideas and changes that affect them. If rating and comment streams on past issued information are permitted, they could help provide pointers on what approaches to avoid and which to follow. A member of a special interest steel-detailing group could be alerted when a project team issues a new steel package; or be notified when someone comments, blog style, on a steel package or rates it down a few notches because of a negative site report.

If the information in the Digital Practice can grow to produce a dynamic set of associations between elements based on facts, knowledge and opinion, while allowing information to be found quickly and in context, it can be seen as a way of capturing, feeding and promulgating the intellectual property of the practice. As a bonus, the new starter is less likely to make an incongruous copy of a Gothenburg window detail.

We will be running a forum at the Design Centre on 16 June 2009 from 4-6pm to discuss "Information re-use and Social Media". More information is available at /bd/.

For more information on the subjects discussed here contact

Rory Campbell-Lange
Campbell-Lange Workshop
or see