Archives for posts with tag: technology



You can tell a lot about a place and its culture from its seating. In this article I explore…

  • What environments for sitting in, says to us about individual’s rights and societies expectations and culture?
  • How the design of seating in the public and private realm shapes how we feel?
  • Compare approaches to function and form when planning seating solutions

Picture some atmospheric seating in a favourite spot outdoors. I wonder where your imagination took you? To a solid hewn stone bench atop a castle or riverside location; an ornately carved metal bench curved round a shaded tree trunk, or a wooden bench carved from a single tree slice? Or did you envisage something grand and huge, rustic and quaint or fantastical? Whether you’ve travelled near or far you’re sure to have encountered an array of seating solutions created from a myriad of materials. Whether they’ve ‘planted’ themselves in your archives of ‘noticings’ and memories, will I suspect come down to their successful marriage between form and function.

So what do we understand by function? For Donald Norman, as well as providing ‘delight and fun’ (2002: vii) things should be designed to be legible, that is, clear in their function. Gibson’s concept of affordance goes further, understanding the power of environments as agents in a two-way process, suggesting potential uses for individuals, but also depending upon an individual’s lens, shaped by the individual’s perception of usefulness. So to a child, the kerb may suggest ‘sit-on-able’ (Heft, 2010: 19) qualities but to an adult this is much less likely due to the disconnect between leg length and the affordance of a low step or kerb as a seat. Key to James Gibson and Harry Heft’s ideas of affordance of environments is the sense that ‘affordances are relational properties of the environment taken with reference to a specific individual’ (Heft, 2010:17).

Taken literally a seat is something to be sat on, but it should not be separated from its wider cultural and emotional affordances. Like the design of the other aspects of street furniture which shape and define our experience of the environment, the type of seating that we provide and its generosity of design, materials or size, can go a long way to providing an indicator of the value placed on people lingering in a space; the sense of safety (or otherwise) conveyed; and whether the environment is for individuals or groups.

If the raison d-etre of seating is to be sat on, what then of seats when they are empty? Reminiscent of debates about whether a tree really falls if there’s no-one there to witness or hear it, how does the design and materials of seating solutions impact upon children’s and adult’s enjoyment or experience of them when not being used as intended? And in order to garner maximum value from resources, should we be expecting seating and street furniture generally to be multi functional so as when not being used it becomes a sculpture, barrier or visual divide?

This riverside seating design actively engages people to stop, sit, lounge and socialise whilst taking in the views. The generous size and robust construction and materials suggest their ability to withstand real and varied use, be it alfresco eating, smooching couples or groups sat on the seat backs. Their nod to a sofa gives permission for people to relax, enjoy and treat them as if at home, while the bright playful colours shout out ‘use me!’ The designer has cleverly used scale not just to increase their versatility and use but as importantly, I feel, to create a surreal Alice in Wonderland-like quality, as these over-sized chairs have the effect of potentially making adults feel more playful and child-like.

The generous size and robust construction of this design invites a laid back or group interaction, suggesting to the viewer that not only is this place safe but it’s a good place to linger and relax.

IMG_8785 long picnic bench Essex uny

Compare this to a metal bench in a park near a children’s play area, the lack of back and demarcation into generous yet separate seating areas encourages a temporary form of sitting, the type characterised by perching on the edge of your seat as you wait for something or pause to watch the world go by. I wonder what was in the brief, ‘provide robust seating which encourages parents to pause without providing a space for sleeping or anti-social behaviour’ and whether in planning to prevent the ‘abuse’ of the benches, we have metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bath water as we’ve minimised adult’s comfort and therefore likeliness to linger longer while children enjoy the important business of play?

The thinking behind the seating choice and location is further muddied by this curving modern design. In many ways more inviting and open to be used flexibly by adults and children, its’ position, with back turned to the very same play area is confusing and ill-conceived. Why would we want to be encouraging parents not to visually appreciate the shared joy of children’s adventures and mastery? Or if intended for child-less passers-by, why would you choose to take in the limited view of green grass with the noises of a playground immediately behind? There is a lack of harmony between the public and private realm, creating what might be described as a ‘Norman bench’ not through its links to this historical era, but after Donald Norman, and his conclusion that ‘far too many items in the world are designed, constructed, and foisted upon us with no understanding – or even care- for how we will use them’ (vii2002: vii).

In contrast, some benches, the kinds with lots of dividers (like those annoying seats at airports), and hard and uncomfortable materials, make it abundantly clear that people are not welcome to linger. Indeed, lingering in places like these is in danger of being redefined as loitering. Comfort is not the aim because passers-by are not to be encouraged to get too comfortable. The result of such designs is to give a clear message about what is and what isn’t considered societally acceptable. Some utilitarian and poorly maintained designs can even instill a fear and feeling of the space not being safe.

stone seats

In contrast the need for plentiful seating at this river fronted location next to a busy metro stop and transport node has inspired these satisfyingly solid blocks of granite. Each block seats 4, in the lip shaped spaces, but with the potential for cross-legged sprawling too, managing to suggest multiple users without enforcing this (as the metal dividing bars of the above bench do). The roughly hewn straight sides contrast with the smoothly shaped rounded seat tops, adding textural interest and visual contrast from the way they respond to reflections and shadows. Serving as sculptural pieces when empty they have also been designed as a visual barrier to, and reminder to pedestrians of their shared use of space with trams and cars.

IMG_8383 bench with legs Budapest

A skilled designer can introduce a sense of playfulness and movement into anything. Take this, on the face of it, simple bench, but look closer and its ‘walking legs’ inject humour and surprise, elevating this fantastic piece of Budapest street furniture to something which has the power to change how we feel. Sometimes architectural moments like these are happy accidents but more usually, intentionality is key. Just as it is essential that our interactions and the environments we plan for children are infused with intentionality, described as ‘seeding the child’s learning environment (Siraj Blatchford, J. & Brock, L. so too the success and impact of the environments that we provide and experience are shaped by our aspirations and underlying culture. With life moving at an ever faster technological pace, why not join me to pause a while. Are you sitting comfortably?

To contact me or find out more about my books, research and the resources and services I offer go to,uk

Thanks to Pexels for the headline image. All other images copyright of Sue Gascoyne


Sue’s inspirations and background

Sue Gascoyne is a qualified Town and Country planner with a focus on design, conservation and architecture.

Sue is also a qualified Creative Arts & Play Therapist – an area which has given her an insight into the impact of environments on children’s emotional, behavioural and cognitive wellbeing.

As an Early education researcher, with a specialism in sensory engagement, environments and new materialism Sue has an interest in not just the affordance of environments but how these actively shape human’s actions and experiences as agents in intra actions.


When I was at school, research for homework involved pouring through books, not just because it was fun and enriching but because there was no world wide web to answer questions for us. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a fabulously enabling tool for information finding and sharing, but I firmly believe that it is not a substitute for books.

Whilst out dog walking one weekend we came upon three boxes of dumped books left next to the river. Why anyone would feel the need to fly tip books is beyond me, when charity shops proliferate every high street providing a free outlet for people’s cast offs. Sorting through the now slightly water damaged books we discovered some real gems which we decided to take home and give a new lease of life. Once cleaned and left to dry by the radiator my 8 year old son began leafing through the books. One in particular caught his eye. Called Modern Technology it featured page after page of carefully drawn picture and nugget of facts on vehicles and construction contraptions. The best bit was the fact that the book was published in 1971 so the ‘modern’ technology solutions were themselves a talking point.  In some instances technology had moved so quickly that it was as though we now inhabit a futuristic world. In others, the book had surprising foresight, such as talking about how hybrid cars would be a pollution solution in the future.  A series of facts about traffic accidents also sparked a flurry of questions. With approximately 500 road traffic injuries cited in the UK the obvious question was how does that compare to today? A quick search on the internet provided the answer, a trebling in the number of accidents in 40 years and a discussion about why this might be.

The page about engines similarly elicited a quest for fact finding. Still clutching the book my son looked on the internet to compare engines today with the ‘modern’ and historical ones in the book.  Another page of images showed the evolution of the wheel which inspired a whole host of wheel drawing as 8 year olds do. Far from becoming redundant, this slightly dated encyclopaedia has actually taken on greater interest than perhaps it had when new. It helped of course that he could relate it to his daddy who would have been 3 years old when the book was published. This created interest and a talking point as my husband and I reminisced about life when we were younger. I fear it also confirmed in his young mind just how long ago that was!

As Oscar Wilde famously said “ If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again there is no use in reading it at all” and for this collection of discarded books this is certainly true as they have found a new lease of life and light bulb to ignite in the hands of a certain boy.