design process

design process

This is probably one of the most misunderstood parts of being an architect. Too often misinformed people erroneously believe that architects, designers and the like merely sit down at a blank sheet of paper or  a blank screen and start to draw in the upper left corner and finish in the lower right. It’s a linear process and its a matter of just drawing lines. How hard could it be right? I’m starting to believe that education is not the panacea for architecture’s future. People just don’t want to know; they don’t avail themselves to even try to understand. Perhaps the eternally optimistic and idealistic me is just having a bad day.

After discussing this with our First year students and showing them a few graphics of a design process, it made me begin to sketch one prior to going to sleep over a few evenings. So in my usual sketch fashion I set out and began to think about my own process. Like most architects and designers I found that it is far from linear and a rat’s nest of divergent thoughts, tasks and activities. I’m sure if I had to do this again, it would be vastly different. If you look hard, you can follow the arrows. You can probably even do it better.

Because of my tag line of my blog, the aspect I want to emphasize here is the part of the process where I wrote “think, ponder, consider.” After the week I’ve had I realize that everyone is an expert and armchair quarterbacks are more prevalent that weirdoes at Wal-Mart. Yet what is most often misunderstood or not appreciated is how we think about things. Any aspect of a building, especially renovation and addition projects must weave a series of complex elements into one integrated whole. Sure there are multiple solutions for each of the components that independently seem simpler than the solution presented. However, when you have to put them all together, it “ain’t so simple.”

What is your process? How do you conceive your work? Do you think, ponder and consider before making a mark on the page? I’d be curious to find out.

design process

15 thoughts on “design process

  1. Your points are all so valid. This is why I have problems working with BIM.
    I have to keep going back and forth hundreds of times before arriving at a tentative solution. The problem with BIM is that you have to already figure out construction details when you are still considering elevation and massing concepts. I very often have to trash the 3d elements I “tentatively ”
    design and draw and place my 2d lines, after i figure out the details somewhere down the line.

  2. william finnerty says:

    lee, your diagram (beautiful btw) reminds me of the book ‘Universal Traveller’ (koberg/bagnall $5.45!) i was lucky enough to be introduced to in 1977. both portray the continual circular process of propose, evaluate, select and review from the large picture to the smallest detail thruought the design and build process. each new element is judged in light of the inital concept and design goals. the is how the design grows and formulates (not by formula!)

    i agree most of the public believes we have a giant digital rolodex of solutions stored away in which we can simply input the conditions and out pops the design. the ultimate integrity of design depends on this organic process and not an assembly of our favorite parts. this is also what makes it so interesting to us b/c we don’t necessarily know where this process will lead us!

  3. That is a lovely diagram, and I agree with you 100%. I’ve always found that my research process relies heavily on precedence studies and iteration. I look at other projects that have similar sites or similar programs or interesting materials etc. Eventually I form a concept or series of ideas that dictate every architectural decision I must make. I’ve always thought the best architecture does not allow for anything to happen arbitrarily.

    Sometimes the hardest part of the process is to ditch all the work you’ve done and start over just to see what will happen or to make sure you’ve developed the best project you can. I had a professor who once told me that, “A project is never finished, only due.”

    Regardless, I always end up with massive piles of trace paper before I even touch a computer. I guess I was taught to be sort of old-fashioned in that sense.

  4. I also like your diagram and agree with you. As I work with existing buildings I find that as well as Gather and Research I must Measure. Then I can Think. I tell my clients I have to let my left and right brain talk to each other.
    I do have lots of solutions – to specific issues which may not apply to the current situation.
    Letting go of the project, ‘allowing’ the contractor and client control and ownership (which insures a better job) is the hard part. It helps that I have visited ‘my’ spaces in later years and seen them loved and well used.

  5. I love your diagram, and it’s a perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words (even though there are some words in it!). When people ask me what my design process is, I generally say I like to noodle it around and look at a task from all different sides. I go back and forth – research, visit the site, take photos and measurements, sketch ideas, do more research, etc.

    And I think the previous commentor is exactly right – a project is never finished. I always feel like I could make it better if I had more time to work on it, but at some point you have to call it done …

  6. Process is absolutely key; while the randomness of thought can sometimes be a wonderful series of revelations, it can also feel like a roller coaster run amuck. In many ways it comes back to being self-aware as a person and knowing the types of thinking patterns that usually lead to success and those that more often than not create dead ends. This of course will be different for everybody. When I teach freshman and sophomore level design courses at Berkeley College I am usually far more concerned with process than product, and try to give the students more than one way to proceed. In fact, it’s good for them to try several different design processes so they can begin to get a grasp of how an iterative thinking system works, and what parts of it resonate with them vs. what parts are confounding. I reference The Universal Traveler frequently-still to this day a very powerful way of explaining the creative thinking process.

  7. Bill Thauer says:

    Lee – Just came upon your blog. Terrific!

    Your design process graphic is excellent. Was googling to find simple way of explaining what I do to a client. Yours is it… I’ll link to him. You have the emphasis in just the right places…

    BTW, I’m a designer, and the PROCESS is what I really love. Most of my work is now in graphics and photography, but actually studied architecture (UMich) and worked in the field for a few y ears, before gradually transitioning to graphics.

    Your sketch really needs to be only slightly modified (just a bit of terminology) to work for graphics, and other design disciplines (industrial, landscape arch, interiors, engineering, etc). I will be linking all my future clients… The ‘cloud’ is what really got me…

    1. Bill, thanks for lending a graphic designer’s point of view. I love graphic design and photography and see many parallels in our fields with design, composition, clients, and conceptual thinking. I appreciate the kind words and am honored you’d link to my site.

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