27th November 2014

Knowledge Type

Case study Research paper


, Mosaic Project Services

Major Project

Sydney Opera House

Of Interest To

Academia Consultants Contractors Leadership teams Private sector clients Public sector clients

Understanding Design: The challenge of informed consent


agnieszka-kowalczyk-DFHfqEU2_iU-unsplashHow much of a design do engineering clients really understand? A simple design document for one group of design professionals can be virtually impenetrable to other professionals, and more importantly their clients.

The need to communicate effectively is vital when an engineer wants to lead a group of ‘others’ in developing a design solution. You cannot lead people if they don’t understand you; ‘blind trust’ may work if the solution is straightforward. When problems arise, uninformed trust evaporates; informed consent from committed followers is more enduring, and people are likely to support any efforts to work through to a solution to the problem.

This paper will use the evolution of the design of the Sydney Opera House roof as a case study to highlight the different perspectives on design information, starting with the free-form curves envisaged by Jørn Utzon to the mathematical (and buildable) curves developed by Ove Arup as segments of a sphere (such as an orange). The metaphor of the segments of ‘orange peel’ that helped make the
curves possible was also used to explain the concept of the sails to the public and politicians. With the advent of integrated design and Building Information Modelling (BIM) on one side, and the emergence of social networking and ‘instant protest movements’ on the other, the importance of communicating complex design information to the clients and wider public will become an increasingly important component of a successful engineering project.

This paper suggests that the effective use of similes and metaphors to help people understand what is really involved in a project can convert uninformed protesters (frightened by what they don’t understand) into informed supporters. This applies to ‘client committees’ as well as to the wider public.