Pop up potential: striking the right balance

29 July 2015

Lots of people have written about the role of ‘pop ups’ in regeneration projects; their capacity to showcase and test possibilities and their role in transforming familiar spaces into something new, special and enticing to both existing and new users. But for us, ‘pop up’ is more about how we kick start conversations for future changes and how we go to where people already are and make it easy and interesting for people to get involved.

Everybody knows that we love a well designed prop, from our ‘pop up’ table for Kingsbury High Street to the mobile cardboard play factory we have been using to generate conversations around co-designing a playground. For us it is about the quality of the pop up, even if it is just for one day, and getting the visual just right for the context. ‘Pop up’ can be an invaluable way of enticing people into a project but equally it can easily be exclusive and prevent people from getting involved.

It is a delicate balance, which is why we realise it is so important to know the context of a project before designing this kind of intervention. Our mobile structure for our Richmond project worked well in the context of summer festivals where we needed something eye catching and large to stand out from the crowd, but would have acted as a barrier to participation in our Northwood project where we needed to design a space that invited people in for longer conversations without the distraction of something overly designed. All this means we have to put our personal taste and design ambitions to one side and produce ideas that aid participation not prohibit it.

We think people value having a beautiful pop up experience, which makes them feel ‘we care, we value your opinion and we want you to enjoy being involved in this project’. Sometimes I wonder if it is just us designers patting ourselves on the back and saying how important design is, but then you see the difference in response you get. Something beautiful like the Aberfeldy Cart of Curiosities was designed to promenade through a housing estate, around the edges of a building site and into a street market. It caught people’s attention and allowed a tangential starting point for conversations about local change where people had become fatigued of exhibitions, public meetings and formal broadcast messaging.

Perhaps the message here is that you don’t notice good design, it just feels like the right thing in the right context, even if the right thing is something completely contrasting to the existing context because you need to stand out.

– CG