Design is a pretty fantastic profession. I believe we’ve already established this. I’ve dropped mentions of it in a number of posts such as: What Does “Designing” Mean Anyway?, How do Architects contribute to Nation-building?, How Do Architects Think? – An Eye Opener, and Know The Difference: How Architects and Engineers Are Wired Differently.
So today I’ll be getting a bit more direct with this thing called Design Process – which is basically the process of designing. Doh.
As an architecture student, you’re going to be doing a lot of designing every semester. So you have to be familiar with what it typically entails, so you can reflect on how to make your methods better.
I plan to eventually get more in-depth with each of the little nuances that comprise each step, so I thought a little primer would be a good starting point for today.
Without further ado, here are some of the basic things you should know about Design Process, in the context of architecture school.
1. Design is both a process and an outcome.
When you’re envisioning and developing your architectural proposal, you’re designing. The end product that gets built is your design. Verb, and noun.
2. You might think that it’s a linear thing, but it’s actually cyclical.
Design process has a start and an “end”, so you might think it’s a straightforward gig. But it’s really a step by step process that has you revisiting previous steps rather frequently, creating little circles in your path.
3. It starts with a Design Problem.
You can’t have a design process if you don’t know exactly what it is you’re designing. So define your design problem. It can be as complex as “Design a mansion for a dog lover that has an underground prison”, or something simple like “Design a door knob that someone with no arms and legs can operate”.
4. Getting into it empty-handed is like entering a snake pit blind-folded.
Before you start to design, you need to gather all the information you can. Standards, laws, context and climate, etc. – each project will have their own unique needs. Ignore those needs and your design is doomed from the start.
5. The Architectural Program is your best friend.
You won’t be able to remember everything. After research, architects will gather and organize all the important info for a project and create a document called an architectural program. Basically it’s your companion when you design. Forgot the minimum width of the corridor for your occupant load? Bzzt, refer to your code check section. Don’t remember where the wind blows on site? Bzzt, backtrack to the Site Analysis part. Forgot if the client’s son prefers robot toys or Barbies? Bzzt, it’s all in your User Info chapter.
6. Put yourself into the shoes of your users.
It’s important to know who your client is – whether imagined or real. And I mean really know who they are. If you detach yourself from them, your design will end up detached as well. Simple things like color choice, largeness of space, number of cabinets and mirrors – people have their own preferences. Tailor fit your spaces, and your work will hold more integrity.
7. Know your site like the back of your hand.
Your design might work programmatically (meaning it fulfills the space needs of your client), but if there’s no way that it can fit on your site, your design might as well be plunged into the depths of the ocean. Frank Lloyd Wright stressed that the building’s harmony with the site is a prime consideration. Drainage channels, sun paths, soil profile, wind systems,
8. Brainstorming is highly beneficial.
You don’t need to limit yourself when coming up with initial ideas. Do brainstorming sessions where basically anything goes, and then weed out the outrageous and inappropriate ones later on. Some of the best most apt concepts can be found under a large pile of filth, and it all starts with letting your mind go wild. Digging through 50 wacky ideas and finding a brilliant one is much better than having 5 so-so ideas to choose from.
9. Have the discipline to throw a way a great idea that doesn’t work.
Letting go is one of the hardest but needed practices that designers have to get accustomed to. Sometimes you have this superb vision that ends up not being what the problem needs at all. Stubbornness and pride can get the best of us. If you want to find the best proposal you can for the design problem, it takes an open attitude to be able to move forward.
10. Think in 3D.
A common mistake of beginning architecture students is to make proximity matrices and bubble diagrams, plug space requirements into a floor plan on a sheet of paper, and extrude them upwards.
You don’t experience space in 2D. So close your eyes and try to picture your design as volumes. Rotate it in space and view it from different angles. Imagine the feeling of actually traversing the edges, corners, and planes. Think in section. Think in isometric. Think in perspective.
And for your exterior? Don’t forget to imagine which parts are actually visible when you experience the site. No use creating an elaborate window wall when all that can view it is the firewall on your neighbor’s property line.
11. Think in 4D.
Don’t forget that Time is the 4th tool designers are concerned about. Your buildings aren’t viewed or experienced in suspended animation. The sun goes up, the rainy season pours in, and the night sky casts its shadow. It’s always a good idea to design with a perpetually interesting experience in mind.
How will your structure be lit at night? Did you integrate a sun dial into your form which casts a precise shadow on a statue,on a specific day of the year? As your building ages, is it meant to remain looking prestine, or do you wish for the vines you planted to eventually take over the architecture and ruin-ify it?
Integrating time into your considerations is a very smart thing to do.
12. Don’t make a hodgepodge. Find your parti.
parti [pahr-tee, pahr-tee]: noun, Architecture. the basic scheme or concept of an architectural design.
We tend to try to overcomplicate our designs in our freshman year. Try and develop good sense of restraint when you’re young, so you can really practice producing a specific intent.
Sum up your design’s concept in simple terms. Maybe it’s “3-triangles in a tug of war“, or “a subtractive homage to Oscar Niemeyer”, or “a home with two walls“, or “an office where you feel alone” or “a sword that points to City Hall“.
Your parti can be formal (describing form), or experiential (describing intended experience).
If you can’t explain the essence of your design’s intent in a few simple words, then you probably don’t know what it is you’re trying to say.
13. Remember who you’re designing for.
Sometimes our pride takes over. We get consumed by our desire to make an architectural statement, or we just really really want to experiment on this new form or idea. There’s nothing wrong with trying to push the envelope, but every idea has its place in a given situation.
Like trying to force a round peg into a square hole. There’s nothing wrong with a round peg, and nothing wrong with a square hole. But trying to force fit them together is just madness, not to mention counterproductive.
If all your research and terms of reference say that your client is claustrophobic, it’s not the best time to test out this new manifesto on compartmentalization of space. Not cool, brah.
14. Justify each line with at least two good reasons.
A good rule of thumb for beginning architecture students is to pursue a design move only if you can determine two or more good reasons for it to be there.
Why did you cantilever the entire bedroom on your second floor?
“Because it looks nice and modern” is a weak reason. “Because it opens up the patio space below” is a good one. So is “because it stresses the significance of the mountain it will seem to point to”.
Why did you put a glass wall by the stairs?
“Because it looks pretty” is weak too. “Because I want the sun to warm grandpa’s feet when he walks up” is good. So is “because the orientation of the window will frame a view of the narra tree outside”.
At least two reasons.
15. Think about how you are thinking.
Good designers and architects are circular thinkers. They not only think about the task at hand, they’re also being critical of how they are approaching the task itself. Pausing for a moment in the middle of a work session and pondering on how your thought process has been thus far helps keep yourself in check. It’s called Meta-thinking.
Ask yourself. Am I doing all this Neoclassical elements just because I know it’s what studio prof wants? Or, Now that I think about it, maybe I should research a bit more on what Zen really is about and stop relying on stock knowledge? Or, am I trying to incorporate too many ideas that my original intent is now lost?
Meta-think to keep yourself in check.
16. Treat each project like it is unique.
Just because your new design project has similarities to the previous one doesn’t mean you can use the same approach as your old one – yes, even if you thought your last work was awesome.
Every project will have its own unique site context, user psyche and nuances, spirit of place (genus loci) that melds with its program. A good community center for human rights activists will be very different design than that for pre-school children, regardless if they are on the same site.
17. Think of design as a proposal, not a solution.
As much as we have a design problem and many sub-problems to cater to, your entire design will never be a complete solution. There will be the little holes you can never quite fill up completely. But that’s alright – because your design is something more.
More than being a mere answer to a problem, good design is something highly valuable – it’s a proposal of how to experience space meaningfully, purposefully and humanely. And this proposal is your own unique brain-child.
Want a case study to ponder on? Check out our post here on the Guggenheim Helsinki competition and discover the different proposals that are possible from the same Project Brief.
18. Care about what others think.
Sometimes our eyes are too caught up in our ideas that we overlook important cautions or fail to see new constructive perspectives. It’s always a good idea to consult with someone reliable to get their take on your approach.
This can be a friend, mentor, or professor. Hear them out. Understand that they aren’t always right, but consider where they are coming from and if it really holds water, consider it a contribution to making your work better.
19. Don’t care about what others think.
At the same time, there will always be a chance that you’ll consult with the wrong person. Jealousy and crab mentality can run wild in some school cultures, so it’s something to be wary about. Some people have nothing better to say, even when they themselves are struggling with their own proposal.
All in all, if someone else tries to discourage you while judging your work without even understanding it completely, just smile, nod, and continue to commit to proper process.
if you know you’re following a process with integrity, then hold your head high and press forward.
20. Consider testing your solutions along the way.
Another way to see the viability of your design as you’re developing it is to create a mock-up or simulation. Nothing makes your design hold more integrity than thoughtfully testing and re-evaluating it – even if it means doing this over and over.
Not sure if your sun-shade will protect your south wall for 6 months a year? Run a test on a stereographic 3D simulation software.
Not sure exactly how it feels to lie down on a bamboo floor? Stitch together a singular panel and spend an hour taking a nap on it.
It can definitely be time consuming (and time is a luxury you don’t always have), but it’s a valid method and learning experience nonetheless. Besides, a mock-up is the best resource for when you’re defending your work.
21. Specifications make your work more credible.
Some people stop with the broad strokes of the form, draft the plans, and stop there. If you’re really serious about crafting purposeful architecture, you’ll take it upon yourself to think about the technical considerations of your intents.
When your crit session panel asks you what material you used for your wall sidings, and how you designed your cove light, a regular student would say this.
“The walls? They can be anything, but I want them to look like wood. How I designed my cove light? … I’m not quite sure what you mean?”.
A more diligent one could say,
“I specified an acetylated wood plank, given the conditions of durability, LEED rating, and its capability to be stained according to the intented color. For the cove, I basically determined the dimensions based on the optimal spacing of the LED covelights, ensuring there would be no dim spaces between bulbs”.
22. Don’t aim to get lucky with a haphazard, showy work.
The most tragic kinds of studio works are those that are so obviously designed with one impressive perspective in mind. They’re good for a brilliant looking board, but the quality, logic and meaning of spaces themselves are disjoint, fragmented, and an afterthought.
Trying to impress with a perspective doesn’t make for great design, and this approach does nothing for developing your design process, even if it does get praise from your peers at the time.
When you get to higher levels, you’ll see how the works you thought were amazing a few years prior may have just been juvenile and trying hard.
Be process oriented. You’re only fooling yourself if you want to merely impress with shallow work. And you won’t learn.
23. The nuts and bolts show that you’re really thinking wisely.
Architecture students tend not to think about things like manufacturer sizing, terminations, and judicious restraint. Any experienced practitioner will know that when it comes to smart designing, God is truly in the details.
Why choose to put one sconce light instead of five? – to highlight only the column that was part of the building’s heritage conservation effort.
Why specify this size of tiles? Because given your corridor sizes- and you have lots of corridors – 5 tiles with grout spacing will be flush with the end, minimizing wastage and labor.
Why detail a floor reveal instead of a baseboard? Because a shadow termination feels lighter and less obtrusive when your wall and floor have the same material. And it doesn’t gather top dust like a baseboard does.
24. The most important take-home from any studio project is a better-formed design process.
More than where you are now, it’s about where you’re headed.
And the best way to ensure greater fulfillment and progress later on is to commit to following proper and more informed process for all your projects.
Designing is a journey, and your process will undoubtedly transform as you go up the echelon of design school and beyond. Each of your studio projects is a valuable opportunity in developing how you go about designing. Always aim to learn new things about yourself, and constantly practice integrating more complex design considerations slowly but surely.
Nothing beats looking back at your past works and realizing, “Wow, look at how much i’ve grown”. 🙂
25. Rules are made to be broken.
Architecture is an art, and people experiment with the so-called rules and question the canons every day. This especially true in our post-modern era, where we have all this technology and liberalism that allow us to play around with previously accepted norms.
So whether or not you choose to stick to classical ideas or join a revolution – that’s completely your call. It’s a free world.
26. Lastly, remember that there’ll come a time when you have to stop designing, and start producing.
This is a post about design process, but in architecture school, you have deadlines.
If you get too caught up in perfecting your design (not gonna happen), you’re going to end up cramming and submitting a piece of half-baked poop. Your fantabulous idea will mean nothing if it doesn’t get into the hands of your professor on the agreed time.
So stay diligent, stay smart, and keep learning. Carpe Diem.
P.S. Be prepared for maybe another list in the future, and take-off posts discussing further some of the points.