“Design dissonance” is a term we are borrowing from the world of systems design in technology. Perhaps the best definition is this: “Design dissonance occurs when a product or service sends out cognitive signals that run counter to the desired effect”.

What is being pointed to here is that design does a number of things. It should facilitate the use of whatever is being designed — of course. It should also, perhaps, un-facilitate a bad or unsafe use of what is being used. For example, the safety button on a power tool trigger makes it a little harder to use, but it makes it really hard to use it in an unsafe way, by accidentally starting it up.

The other main function of design is to contain and communicate a narrative about the things that have been designed. When we purchase an object or simply go to use it, we might have no or just very little experience with that particular object, so we look at its design in an effort to determine how it might perform.

Of course, this opens up the way for profitable miscommunications as well. A typical one is buying some products in a box, then opening up the box to discover that it is half-empty. The design of the box should have accurately described size or quantity, and instead it has been deceptive.

Between those two extremes — design that accurately describes an object, and design that misleads — is an area where design can be somewhat ambiguous. The guy who buys a simple family sedan, but chooses the option to have racing stripes on it isn’t being fooled into thinking the car is faster than it is. Rather he is expressing something that is aspirational. Either he wishes he could own a sports car instead of a family sedan, or that he could afford a faster car.

A lot of retail has a high component of the aspirational attached to it. While there is certainly a place for that, from time to time the aspirational begins to overwhelm the basic reality of whatever is being sold. The situation often seems to become one of people buying half-imaginary products for half-imaginary uses.

At least a part of the Australian bathroom industry seems to be developing toward this. In particular, looking through most of the home design magazines available on the newsstand today, it can be difficult to know what exactly it is they are describing, or, really, why. Take this sample of text from a picture caption in Real Living (ironically) magazine:

“A whirlpool bath (left) with matt black tapware sits among the urban jungle housed in an atrium. Dual sinks and round mirrors (above) provide a contrast to the grid design of the tiling. The greenery of the atrium (right) is complemented indoors with a small flowerbed of grasses that provide a handy border to hide the loo.”

It’s a bathroom with a skylight, and underneath the skylight is a glass box with a couple of plants and a bunch of rocks. This sits between the bathtub and the shower. (“Among the urban jungle”? Really? You can just imagine saying to a designer, “I desire an urban jungle to be among”.)

What is just as interesting as the words, is the way the bathroom is portrayed in images in the magazine. There are four pages of content, spread out over six pages in the magazine (due to ad pages), consisting of three double-page spreads. The images on the first of these two spreads are a little confusing and disorienting, in that they make it hard to get a sense of this bathroom. It is only on the final spread that a clear, overall picture of the bathroom is shown — making possible the rather simple description we’ve provided above.

What is clear is that the magazine is taking something of a cinematic approach to the architecture it describes. It’s not designed, as the magazine in other ways suggests it is, to provide a clear overview of what is going on with this design so as to aid other designers. Instead it is designed to dazzle the eye, to introduce a narrative experience that has to do with “jungles”, geometry, and secrets somehow concealed in a small brightly lit room that is wall-to-wall white tiles.

Often when we venture into territory such as this, we often fall back on finding some actual practitioners in the real world of whatever it is, the people who actually put things together. When it comes to bathrooms, and what people are really doing, we fell back on Klaus Tietz. Tietz was, once upon a time, a hardware retailer, but swapped over for the other side of the counter and became a specialist in bathroom renovations for the past 15 years.

His company, Bermagui Bathrooms, did most of its work in Canberra, but he has recently moved location to the south coast of New South Wales. We began our discussion by asking Tietz what recent trends he had noticed.

“Most of my clients are tending to keep things simple. Unlike glossy magazine designs, most bathrooms are quite small and the aim is to utilise the available space.

“I’m seeing spa baths are less common and in most cases, I’m removing them instead of installing them. When it comes to tiles, people are tending to use neutral colours. White wall tiles with a charcoal coloured floor tile seems to be quite popular.

“Tiling to the ceiling is preferred rather just half way up the walls. White never dates and coloured towels along with chrome tap fittings can change the theme of the bathroom quite simply.

“Also, the semi-frameless shower screen is popular over the fully framed shower screen, and where possible (provided there is enough room), an open shower with single toughened glass panel. Shower bases are less common because they can fade and scratch over time so a tiled-in shower base, with no shower hob, is the preferred option.”

Look, actual information! Things you (and your clients) can understand, and maybe use.

Finishes & Surfaces magazine then asked Tietz what changes he had seen over the past five years. He said, “I’ve noticed over the past five years that the use of a vertical mosaic feature tile strip in the middle of the shower or bathroom is now dated. A trend seems to be emerging to run the floor tiles up one wall as a feature. This also gives the illusion of a big room. White rectangular wall tiles 300mm by 600mm when run vertically can make a small bathroom look much bigger.”

This issue of the space and the appearance of space is evidently one of some concern for many of Tietz’s customers. As he points out, increasing the actual physical size of a bathroom is a major renovation, so most of his customers try to find alternatives. He explains, “There are a few ways of making the existing bathroom space look and feel larger. One of those is to change the bathroom layout/configuration, also tile colour and orientation play a big factor. Installing a sliding door cavity where possible will give more room for a larger vanity and a shower. In cases where the shower is over the bath we can remove the bath tub allowing space for a bigger shower, this can make a big difference in making the room look bigger.”

What about the classic bath/no bath debate? we asked Tietz. He replied, “Most people generally prefer to keep the bath but when we work out that on average they only use the bath four times a year, they all seem to agree that they can live without it. Unless, of course, it is a family with small children.”

One topic we were really interested in was whether people were spending up on things like shower fittings. He said, “I’m finding that if the property is an investment property, they will tend to use the cheaper brands. If the property is their own residence, they generally spend more on good quality shower fittings.

“The cheaper shower fittings tend to deteriorate much quicker especially in the coastal regions where I’m currently working. A sign of this is pitting in the plating of the cheaper chrome fittings. Spending money on a better quality fitting means it will last much longer and will keep the bathroom looking good in years to come.”

We were also interested in whether people, once a drought has passed, would continue to invest in water conservation measures. Tietz said, “Yes, people are more water conscious these days than ever before. All modern tapware now has a WELS rating (Water Efficiency Labelling Standard) which measures the water efficiency of a shower head, tap or toilet. Using a zero to six-star rating allows a quick comparison. The more stars the higher efficiency much like an energy rating of a fridge or freezer.”

Finally, with so many new waterproofing products for bathrooms on the market, we wondered if Tietz had tried anything new out. He said, “I’ve seen many attempts at waterproofing using different methods. In most cases they have failed, especially in the older bathrooms, because the products we have today were not available back then. The most important part of a bathroom renovation is the correct installation of the waterproofing system. The consequences of failure of the waterproofing membrane can be very costly. I suggest that this task should only be done by a qualified, licensed tradesperson.”

So, that is the real world of bathroom renovation. Small rooms that have to be carefully handled, white still works, dark floor tiles, possibly going up the wall, fully tiled treatments, spend more on bathroom fittings if you want them to last, and buy high water efficiency gear because people value that.