“What’s the Difference?” Design PHILOSOPHIES, Design CONCEPTS, and Design CONSIDERATIONS (Q&A #6)

Let’s face it, we all tend to get confused with the different architectural jargon that comes with the territory. And the earlier we make clear sense of it all, the earlier we’ll be producing guided, cohesive work.

I was browsing through a local Architecture Board Exam review group on Facebook the other day, when I noticed a post by Allan, a young and hungry architecture freshman.

He was asking for assistance in clarifying a few terms that he needed to integrate in his current project’s process – namely Design PROCESS, Design CONCEPTS, and Design CONSIDERATIONS.

True enough, it’s easy to understand his dilemma. Chances are, your professors will have you include your take on these three little devils as to how they relate to your project. And understanding the difference as a new designer can be confusing. Heck, I used to mix them up a lot for a good amount of my freshman life.

As you might already have inferred, I gave him my two cents and decided to make a more comprehensive post, for the benefit of many others that might have the same questions.

Without further ado, let’s dissect each of these 3 important terms, and then see how we can understand them better with an easily digestible example. 


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Design PHILOSOPHY: “What do you believe in?”

When you’re asked to give your design philosophy, it’s not so much about the specific project you’re doing but about what you believe architecture should be.

It’s more about you and the core themes that describe your design process, and not the exact project itself.

For instance.

Design Philosophy 1: "Architecture must be pure soul, devoid from needless baggage, and stripped down to its bare essentials".

This design philosophy is one of an architect who believes that a certain purity, universality, and poetic yet simple functionality characterizes good design. You could infer that his process is one that exudes a sort of artful minimalism.

On the other hand, another architect might have a very different belief.

Design Philosophy 2: Architecture should be a vibrant canvas of human experience and history, an expressionist manifestation of the complexity of human creativity and curiosity.

You might imagine that this guy is a maximalist (ornament, complexity, fear of boring silence in space), in stark contrast to the minimalist tendencies of the first guy. You can’t blame them – they believe in different things.

And don’t think that design philosophies have to be highfalutin, complex, and understandable only with the aid of a scientific calculator.

You can actually keep it pretty simple.

Design Philosophy 3: Architecture should be curvy because curves are cool looking. Ohh yeaaaah.

It’s just that, well, some philosophies can be perceived to exude more depth and maturity than others.

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Design CONCEPT: “How did you choose to approach this specific project?”

The keywords here are approach and specific project.

A design philosophy is more general and belief-oriented, while a design concept is more context-specific and application-oriented. The two are closely related, because the design concept stems from the design philosophy.

You could think of the two as parts of a tree – the philosophy as the roots and the concept as the branches and leaves.

You don’t actually see the roots, but it is the foundation that brings about the concepts – the more concrete manifestations that rise above the surface for us to perceive in its physical form.

Going back to the example we created earlier:

Design Philosophy 1: "Architecture must be pure soul, devoid from needless baggage, and stripped down to its bare essentials".

Say this architect was tasked to design an office building. Based on his philosophy, the specific approach he might choose for the project might be along the lines of:

Design Concept 1: "Informed simplicity of a work environment - creating a functionally comprehensive architecture with as little planes and walls as possible".

You’ll find again, that the two are harmonious to each other. Notice how the philosophy is more general and the concept is more specific?

See too how the philosophy describes the essence of the design process while the concept speaks of the actual architectural elements and movements themselves.


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Design CONSIDERATIONS: “What are the things you gave importance to while you were designing?” 

Design isn’t something pulled out of thin air. As I mentioned in previous posts, there are so many requirements, needs, wants and courtesies you have to consider when you do your design movements.

Hence the term design consideration.

When your professor has you list down your project’s key design considerations, he is asking you “what are the major issues and circumstances you thought long and hard about for this work?”

You see, as much as we want our designs to be perfect, architects can’t cover all the bases in a single design. There are always trade offs when you focus on one aspect of architecture.

Trying to express all possible ideas and controls in one piece of work is like trying to absorb and interpret the infinite information of the tesseract – not gonna happen, bud.

In an nutshell, you’re going to have an enormous list of design considerations for every project. Some of them are perpetual, like being compliant to building codes, but others are more unique to a project’s site ad user culture.

But in the end, there are always issues you thought longer and harder about, and are prioritizing in your design responses. These are your major design considerations for a certain project.

Going back to our example of designing an office building – taking off from the direction of architect 1:

Design Philosophy 1: "Architecture must be pure soul, devoid from needless baggage, and stripped down to its bare essentials".
Design Concept 1: "Informed simplicity of a work environment - creating a functionally comprehensive architecture with as little planes and walls as possible".

From the concept, we can see the spirit of what architect 1’s office building design will prioritize. Moving forward, it’s likely that his major design considerations for the project will be along the lines of the following:

Design Considerations 1:

Circulation and Workflow - the design must synthesize the varying interactions and activities to create a spatial flow that is efficient and productive, simple yet sublime. 

Accessibility - the design must provide an equal experience for all people from all walks of life. It should be sensitive to safety and operability regardless of age, gender, and disability. 

Well-Being - the design must be an inspiring and therapeutic environment to ease the stresses of workload. It should provide means to induce judicious natural lighting and ventilation, provide beautiful vistas and access to greenery, and be wary of spatially caused defects like claustrophobia. 

Energy-Efficiency - the design must synthesize context, climate, and technology to provide means to reduce daily operational costs. It should harness the benefits of proper orientation, resource harvesting and recycling, as well as circumvent needless heating or cooling. 

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These 4 major items of focus will be the core showcase of the proposal. And since the architect himself declares them, he had better be sure to tackle each and every one of them thoughtfully in the resultant design.

Think about it – Let’s bring it back to an academic setting. Imagine you were architect 1, presenting your office building design to a panel of jurors. You can be sure that they expect to see all four major design considerations aptly responded to.

If your final design forgets to, say, consider energy efficiency (whether by oversight or you hoped no one would notice), be prepared to receive an onslaught of critique for the glaring absence.

So be wary – you should be able to deliver on your promises. Don’t get lost in the process – always be guided by your core design considerations.


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A final word on design philosophies, design concepts, and the final design – they must connect.

The reason why we go step-by-step from philosophy, concept, to consideration is because we want our work of architecture to be cohesive. We want it to have integrity, and so we follow this guiding chain.

But sometimes, beginning designers tend to forget to look back at the chain, getting lost in new ideas that come and go, and by the time the final work is fleshed out, there is no connection to any of the prior resolutions.

Don’t fall into that trap. Never forget to revisit your core commitments for the project.

Here’s another example to demonstrate how a good process will yield a cohesive end product. It’s a good bit of info you can refresh yourself with in case you need some guidance for a future project.

Imagine you were given a plate to “Design a house on a site where there are many trees, and the topography is a rolling hill.

Let’s say your DESIGN PHILOSOPHY as an architect is “Architecture must connect with the site, and seemingly sprout from it“.

When you approach this SPECIFIC project, you might decide your DESIGN CONCEPT for the house would be “a house that melds with the landscape, becoming a harmonious extension of it“.

Based on this concept, you should make sure that ALL aspects of your design CONNECT to your concept.

When you plan out your spaces, you’ll orient your architecture so that it is planned AROUND the existing trees, with many floor levels that FOLLOW the slope of the land.

When you form your roof, maybe it will be a ROOF GARDEN that again follows the slope of the land.

When you pick your FINISH, you’ll use NATURAL STONE or WOOD floors, walls, ceilings, etc. so that the house blends with its surroundings.

When you pick your FURNITURE, you’ll pick tables made of, say, kamagong, and sculpted stone ledges that seem to rise from the floor. You won’t specify shiny metal or synthetic plastic, which could become glaringly out of place.

When you envision your LIGHTING concept, you might decide to recess your lights or hide them in coves, because exposing them contrasts with the landscape and doesn’t look natural.

Bottom Line: The Design Concept is the guiding framework for ALL aspects of your design. So in the end, you want all the nuances (and not just forms) of your final output to relate to this guiding framework.

Follow a correct chain of thinking, and you’ll do just fine. 🙂 No to confusion, folks.


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Did you like what you just read? There’s more where that came from.


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