how does an architect design? part 1…sketching ideas

7 May 2011

People are often amazed at how we as architects design; perhaps because they can’t do it. That’s ok, because I can’t do most things others can do. That is why I am an architect (answered that in a previous post). There may be a magic or mystique to design from their point of view, especially when we come up with designs from scratch. That may be true, but it is also work, repetition, searching and at times serendipity. Nevertheless, as a continuation of my post from the career fair discussion (architecture inspires) I will share some of the process that I shared with these students. If you are not an architect, hopefully you will briefly see behind the curtain and gain a larger appreciation of the time and skill it takes to design.

This is merely a glimpse into the initial design process and not intended to follow the entire documentation process to the end. There is no singular answer to how an architect designs, especially at the beginning of a project. Nevertheless, we will focus on what I feel is the most misunderstood part; the initial process of generating and exploring ideas. For me architecture starts with ideas.  Ideas come from many sources, but architects are educated in a variety of diverse subjects from spatial design, history, structures, environmental studies, composition, and a host of other technical subjects. Therefore it is more than intuition or a mechanical process, but a result from a collection of education and experience within the bounds of creativity. It goes far beyond taste and what we like; it is about what each project could be.

Architects express ideas through sketching. It is our way of communicating and exploring. The first sketches are often awful, but it gets it out of our heads. Without ideas, there is no architecture. Architecture is more than space planning and arranging a program.  Ideas are generated and influenced by many sources (read the last post). In some ways, the ideas are reactions to the fixed or known aspects of the site, program and client. However, to get past that into the wonder of opportunities is where it gets to be fun. In conjunction with or apart from analytical work, we as architects must sketch and sketch a lot.

Sketching must continue and more ideas are tested and explored. Scroll through the slideshow to see some examples.

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Since architecture is all about space, we often build physical and digital models to see and test our ideas. We think of them as 3d sketches.

This process continues to work to refine, test, reinvent and redo. I have often teased that architects need small pencils and large erasers.

One critical skill is the architect must be able to think in three dimensions…always.

Once a series of sketches and ideas become developed into scalar building elements, the process evolves into more precision. We’ll explore that in a future post.

Now for those of you who doodle in your notebook, on your placemat (fancy restaurants-huh?) or in a sketch book like I do, did you realize you were expressing your ideas? It is all about ideas, what do you think?

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22 Responses to “how does an architect design? part 1…sketching ideas”

  1. magdarc Says:

    I am not an architect.. yet :) but sketching is probably the most important part of my designing process. I tend to have images in my head of specific moments within the project but I tend not to have a ready snapshot of the whole building. Sketching allows me to bring out the imagined moments and than link them together. Its like putting pieces of a puzzle together and without sketching it would be impossible to achieve. Its funny how often I start with a specific idea of what I want to achieve and that I end up reshaping it, redrawing and rethinking so much that it no longer looks like the initial imagery but it has the basic feel of it.

  2. cbeck Says:

    It was really awesome to see your process here. I wish I had the creativity and foresight to do this.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Thanks for reading and the kind words. I was simply hoping to shed light on design and sketching being more work and experience than mystery.

  3. Jeremiah Says:

    I love the addition of physical models in your post. This has become a lost art in architecture – scale models. While the computer is a wonderful tool, just like sketching, there is a intimate connection when you can pick up a model with your hands and turn it, flip it, spit on it, whatever. There is something visceral about it that is lost with the computer.
    If I get the dream teaching job I’m looking for my students will be required to build study models and final models as part of their core curriculum.
    Great post as always, Lee. I may even steal this as my own topic. :-)
    Cheers.

  4. naveed baloch Says:

    i am the final year student of architecture…
    and i am doing thesis on racecourse & i m on the stage of initial designing but i m nt gettng that how i express my ideas on paper…
    i m stuck in conceptual phase…
    kindly help me out….

  5. alef Says:

    i am also archirecture first year student but i have a problem to express my ideas in architectural ways like you, can you help me.

    • leecalisti Says:

      this does not allow for an easy answer. having taught students for 10 years, it takes practice, desire and work. if you can find good mentors near you that might work best. however, ask your fellow classmates if what you put on paper equals what you say verbally. try to simply connect a thought and the representation of that thought for now. with practice it will improve, but be patient.

  6. Edgar Brown Says:

    I am new a follower of yours. So, I apologize for making a response to this earlier topic. But, as with anything to do with sketching, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I love seeing the creations done between mind and hand. As a young man working in an architectural office, I so much wanted to be able to sketch like those architects I worked with. Your article just reinforces that feeling. My first job was doing grunt work (i.e. leroy-lettering, kroy machine, filing). But, I got a chance to be apart of a design team that created preliminary drwgs for potential projects. That’s where my skills began to develop. Anyway, thanks for comments and I look forward to following you in the future.

    • leecalisti Says:

      Sounds like you understand the patience one needs to be in this business. It seems to be working for you. I can’t talk or think without sketching. It’s just who we are.


  7. I’m also an architect, but I design interactive systems instead of buildings ;-) We follow a methodology called User Centred Design. It’s a well documented process and an ISO Standard (ISO 9241-210). I’m curious to know if building architects have something similar – a process or methodology they follow?

    • leecalisti Says:

      Hilary, thanks for your comments. I don’t know much about the process you reference other than architects do design around each user. The connection to the end user varies but the goal is obviously to satisfy the end user. I see architecture as bigger than that in which architects ought to consider more than the strict set of users for a building. Many in the future may use it in a different fashion and certainly the community in which is sits is affected by it even if occupants never enter the building.

      I don’t mean to offend you but I have strong, perhaps narrow opinions on how the title architect ought to be used. It’s no disrespect to the knowledge, education and training you have for your industry nor a slight to the value you provide in your field. I just believe it’s misleading. This is a conversation, dare I say debate, that is easily found online and in social media. I’m not interested in arguing or becoming unfriendly or avoiding the conversation. However, I feel so compelled by the respect I have for my profession and the long hard path to get to where I am legally permitted to call myself “architect” that I state my opinion openly about matters like this. I don’t believe my comments will change your opinion, but I also believe we don’t see the changes we desire because we are too busy or too afraid to state what we are passionate about when it comes to our work.

      Back to the subject of methodology. I could state that most architects have a fairly similar path of design where we describe how we “get there.” Yet I am not one for following a set of prescribed methods strictly. I am a thinker and work hard to be a listener. I also teach architecture students and we do teach them to develop a rich design process. There are no lists or standards with names, numbers or titles. It’s just the path to being an architect is not a linear one nor is our design process. I will say what is mostly standard in my process is after learning, listening and a lot of thinking, it usually starts with a #2 pencil and a sketchbook, thus the point of this post.

      Please feel free to continue to follow and read and of course join the conversation. Despite my stated opinions, I respect you and your field. I couldn’t do it myself – perhaps I’m not smart enough. Thanks for your work.


      • Thanks for your quick reply! In my research, I did find a few architecture firms that explicitly follow a human-centred process – that the design work is grounded on usage scenarios (present and future), is iterated from rough to refined (sketch to blueprint), and that the people it’s intended for are involved in the design process (starts with listening). It sounds like you do something similar, but informally.

        I share your issue with system, usability and business architects impinging on the job title of real-world architects. I gather the use of ‘architect’ comes from the analogy of ‘blueprinting’ system designs to be built by software engineers to blueprinting physical designs to be built by real-world engineers (real-world engineers may have the same issue with ‘software engineers’).

        We live in the digital realm, and we don’t necessarily need to follow a specific educational path or work towards a legal designation. And I’m sure calling ourselves architects and engineers confuses the hell out of ‘non digital-natives’.

        Personally, while my job title is usability architect (and I used this when posing my question to show why I’d be interested in your design process), I generally call myself a designer.

      • leecalisti Says:

        Yes, I follow the path you described, but as you stated it’s informal–meaning there is no written plan or formal structure documented by some entity that stipulates how to do it. I have never seen anything formal in my 23 years of experience, but I would think with a large firm designing large buildings with many programmatic concerns, that a formal process might be needed to keep track of all of the owner’s needs, requirements, etc. I do have my clients submit written wish lists or programs when I can get them to do that. Otherwise, I write it up and seek their approval.

        If you stick around and read more of my blog you’ll learn more about me and hopefully more about how architects think. We are a quirky bunch but my goal is to have others learn to appreciate us by understanding the things we think about. We are in a difficult field with a very specific path to getting a license. Moreover, it’s a difficult one that not everyone survives or succeeds. Even among ourselves we debate the issue of the title architect. It goes between those with a license and those without. In most jurisdictions or states, it is illegal to call oneself an architect or use the term architecture in their business name unless the principal or owner is a licensed or registered architect. Many of those who have not taken or passed the licensing exam would like to use the title architect as a general title instead of being called an intern or graduate architect (the current phrase). Others would like to call themselves more than a designer. It seems that the one thing we can agree about (unlicensed and licensed architects alike) it that we’d rather fight among ourselves about the use of the title, but agree we’d prefer people outside the building construction design industry not to use it. So no more IT architects, software architects, political architects or other casual use of the term. I am passionate about it, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where titles are used to my liking. That is within and without of my industry. I can’t spend all of my time fighting that like Don Quixote.

        I think where you and I can agree is on the design process and that’s where I’d rather have the conversation. How does one conceive of an idea and how does that idea develop into a thing, building, object, tool, widget, whatever that people can use and love using it. Whether I design a skyscraper or a spoon, I will likely start the same way. You’ve just read about it.

  8. omarbrocons Says:

    I’m a contractor and I work with my architect partner…love the way they make a sketch of the design


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