Designer Talks Podcast: A conversation with Atelier Pacific’s Nic Banks FCSD

The Chartered Society of Designer’s (CSD) Designer Talks podcast asks designers, how they do it, why they do it, what makes them tick and most importantly, what design means to them. The design podcast is hosted and produced by Lefteris Heretakis aCSDf.

In our latest episode, we had a conversation with the Founding Director of Atelier Pacific, Nic Banks FCSD.  Please find the episode show notes below and be sure to listen to the full episode for more details here.


About Nic Banks FCSD

Nic initially trained as an engineer and has over 30 years of experience working on a wide range of design projects. Prior to setting up Atelier Pacific, he worked in Milan with the renowned Italian architect Michele De Lucchi and from 1992, he worked with Lord Norman Foster’s architectural and design practice in Hong Kong, where he led one of the design teams responsible for the passenger terminal building at Hong Kong’s new airport.

Nic has worked on a number of prestigious projects and has liaised with clients as diverse as Cheung Kong, Deutsche Bank, Forever 21, the Hong Kong Airport Authority, Louis Vuitton, the Taiwan High-speed Rail Authority and Victoria’s Secret

Under the name of his own practice, Nic has undertaken several fit-out and new–build projects for both commercial and private clients, as well as contributing to many important design, architectural and master-planning public-realm projects in Asia.

Nic is a full member of various professional organisations in London and Hong Kong. He has taught and presented papers at numerous educational establishments and conferences and had his work widely published and exhibited.


Why design?

Even though Nic didn’t identify as a designer at a young age, in hindsight, he realises that he was always a maker. As a young boy, he loved Airfix models, putting together model railways and creating towns and landscapes.

However, it was through higher education that Nic realised he wanted to become a designer. He initially followed in his father’s footsteps, as he was unsure what he wanted to do for a career and completed a degree in Civil and Structural Engineering at Sheffield University.

During his studies, Nic spent a summer working at Bradford Municipal Council in the drainage department. In his words, it wasn’t “the most exciting, inspirational engineering place to be”, but it did make him realise he wanted to be doing something more creative.

So, after finishing his engineering degree, Nic found a way to re-train as a designer, starting a master’s degree in Environmental Design.


Parallels between engineering and design

Nic’s unique experience of studying both engineering and design provides him with a unique point of view when approaching both disciplines. In his view, the biggest parallel is the logical thought process that’s needed to help something come together.

He considers that when design and architecture are given “bad press”, it’s usually down to the designers or architects involved not managing a project well. In Nic’s opinion, because design is an applied artistic discipline, many designers or architects struggle with timings, budgets, and other more commercial aspects of a project.

On the other hand, engineering is based on logical thinking, something Nic feels is absolutely key in the world of design and architecture but is often missing.


His most rewarding design experience

Nic’s work with Norman Foster on Hong Kong Airport is “without a doubt” his most rewarding design experience. This huge project harked back to Nic’s childhood love of Airfix models and is something he is extremely proud of.

Foster won the project to build a new terminal building back in 1992, which formed part of an infrastructure scheme to move the existing airport out of Hong Kong’s city centre. Not only did it involve islands reclaimed from the sea, but also the delivery of a Mass Transit Railway (MTR), something Nic was also involved in.

Although Nic has worked on many important projects, this one is a stand-out for him, as he explains there was a lot of “blood, sweat and tears”, but he’s still good friends with many people he worked on this special project with.


How design impacts day-to-day thinking

Although it drives his wife and kids “crazy”, being a designer slows Nic down. He explains that he’s always stopping to look at things and asking: why is that? How did that happen? How’s that fixed? How did they do that?  Nic considers this to be part and parcel of being a designer.

He recalls seeing this thought process back in the early 80s. Nic was working on a project for a big UK hotel chain, and the project lead would go into a bathroom and lie down in the bath. Why?, So she could see exactly what a customer would see when lying in a bath. This would allow her to check whether customers would see something unsightly when they’re using the space.

Nic likes to incorporate this attitude into his own life, taking time to stop and fully understand and study a situation.


Having a design process

Nic explains that although it’s rare for him to pick up a “blank piece of paper” project, as he’s usually working on something with an existing building, interior or context. When he is faced with a blank piece of paper, he experiences something akin to writer’s block.

In those situations, Nic likes to refer to De Lucchi’s design principles, to just let it flow and keep the ideas going, no matter how stupid they may seem, for Nic this is the “only way”. However, he notes that this is often easier said than done, as in the commercial world you don’t always have the time available to you. However, Nic urges designers to fight for this, as it’s important to have time to be creative and throw things out, go away and come back to ideas. He realises though, that after this, as designers it’s important to focus on the details.

Nic’s own studio, Atelier Pacific, is focused on designing for the solution. As he’s not a signature stylist or designer, all his work isn’t focused on how he likes it, but rather on the best solution. So, while he believes in the above design principles, once you have the creative ideas out there, you need to start focusing on the project’s parameters be that time, budget or planning expectations.


Should designers be expected to solve everything?

Without hesitating, Nic says yes. Expanding on this, he explains that while designers can’t physically solve everything, he believes a good designer should be able to help a client find a solution that they want. In some cases, this may even mean a designer referring work to others, if that will provide the best outcome.

Nic believes that design is a profession, and while many people may struggle with this, it should be treated as such. It’s a designer’s job to provide answers and if they can’t, to help a client find the answer another way.


The future of design

Nic considers that the design profession has struggled to retain the respect that it had historically. Building on this, he explains how in Italy, the use of the title ‘arquitecto’, is a term of respect that doesn’t exist in the Anglo-Saxon world. He notes that in Italy during the 70s and 80s, architecture was almost the only creative higher education stream, meaning most designers, be that interior, graphic industrial or fashion, often studied architecture. Meaning the term ‘arquitecto’ was generically applied to a creative person who could provide their expert opinion on something.

In Nic’s view, that level of historic respect has started to weaken, especially in the UK, he doesn’t feel it exists in the same way. Because of this, Nic feels it’s quite disheartening for designers, who have trained and studied for years, to find they don’t receive the respect and feedback they may expect in the profession.

On the other hand, Nic considers that the future of design has become much more democratic. He explains that in pop culture, we’re seeing more people become their own designers from designing their own kitchens to homes, he explains that now “everyone’s a designer”.

Where does that leave the profession? Nic’s not sure. On the positive side, he feels it challenges designers to be even better and provide a better service, however, it does make it harder for those entering the profession to distinguish themselves.