design process :: out loud


As an architect, far more important than style and making things pretty is a rich process of conceiving and developing good design solutions.

I believe I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to have many nice projects designed and built largely based on process. I’ve developed (actually it’s an ongoing) a process that endeavors to be transparent and participatory. For those that are already getting off track in their mind, client vetting is assumed as part of this, but we’ll assume we have an interested client to begin with in this discussion.

Many events contributed to my thinking, but it largely came together outside of work. One night before bed, I had a rush of thoughts that I scribbled in my sketchbook (that I keep next to my bed). My son happened to be in my room perplexed as he watched. His reaction was far more interesting than what I was doing. I knew it would lead to a post sooner or later.

These were my thoughts that night.

Allow time to ruminate – Before I even make a mark on paper or anywhere with respect to a new project, I need time to think about it. I need to work through the questions (from research) and get to the core issues in my mind. Once the design progresses to a meeting with a client, I believe final decisions should rarely be made at that moment. Allow a few days to go by; it’s almost certain that someone on the team will have another idea or viewpoint about what was presented and will want an opportunity to revisit the presentation.

Multiple ideas are the only way to test an idea. Alternates (and in turn iterations) are the architect’s friend. Rarely is the first idea good or of any value, but all ideas can inform. In other words, don’t throw them away too quickly because you assume the client won’t go for it. The stronger ideas will stand apart from the weaker ones. Choose the best but diverse three options and present them clearly to your client. They’ll be able to see it.

desk sketches 01

Engage with the users – Listen for critical concerns or what is most important to them. Next, address the critical concerns first. It’s amazing how much latitude is subsequently given when the client’s primary concerns are addressed.

Explain the thought process – I prefer working sessions over formal presentations. This allows others to experience that architects think differently. For instance, something I aim to do is to link the visual to the functional or operational/perceptual aspects of a project. What frustrates me is when people think architects merely decorate or solely make functional things pretty. Perhaps many do, but it’s important to me that the way things appear have a connection to how they work. If our clients can understand how the visual responses are integrally connected to the programmatic needs, it’s likely they’ll go along with our proposals. Empty decorations will rarely work because there is no reason they can’t be changed or eliminated because they’re thought to be gratuitous or unnecessary.

Allow others to express reaction – Whether within one’s office among colleagues, or during working sessions with clients, contractors, etc., allow others to talk and ramble as they react to what they see. If the architect jumps in too quickly to explain the how and why, it might stifle someone from finishing a thought. There’s always time for the designer to chime in at the end. Read the visceral reactions and make judgments from there.


Invite multiple viewpoints – This means asking for it and allowing others to go beyond the “I love it” reaction that many architects seek to hear. Don’t ask if they like it, ask if it solves their needs or addresses their requirements. Opposing or differing views challenge one’s thinking, even if they differ significantly. Good ideas might emerge through the initial frustration. If the client gets off track, a good architect can lead the client back to better solutions, even if there’s temporary digression. Sometimes the fun parts are edited out.

Lead to consensus – Ask questions over making demands. It’s hard to be offended over a question. Questions invite a spirit of teamwork and group decision making. No one wants an architect to present a single idea as an all or nothing proposition. At the end of working sessions, summarize by asking questions like “are we in agreement” or “am I correct in this conclusion?” This allows everyone to know they’ve had a stake in the process.

Move forward with confidence, but be ready for more twists and turns in the road.

design process :: out loud

4 thoughts on “design process :: out loud

  1. I agree totally and your design process and utilize a similar approach. I believe that the client is an integral part of the brief as much as the topography of the plot; although we do have starchitect’s saying the following; ” I don’t know why people hire architects and then tell them what to do.” – Frank Gehry.

    1. Thanks Jose. As for Frank, the context of that is somewhat different than my comments. I don’t want a client to hold my elbow and make me draw, but I do want and need them to be a part of the process.

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