The Creative Process for an Architect

November 6, 2013 — 26 Comments

People frequently ask “Where does the inspiration come from during your creative process?” … enough so that I thought I would try to answer that question in the form of a post. When I’m staring at a blank piece of paper, how do I start? Where do I get my inspiration??

To answer a question about creativity, I think most people need to take a step back and  think about their creative process. Most people tend to focus on the “creative” part of the equation when they really should be focusing on the “process” part. It is a process … it takes time, and despite the fact that legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto said “You can’t chew pencils and spit ideas”, being creative is work and you shouldn’t expect to sit down and be struck with genius … at least not all the time.

I tend to break my own creative process into three different and distinct categories:

Distraction noun \di-ˈstrak-shən\ : something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention : something that amuses or entertains you so that you do not think about problems, work, etc.

Inspiration noun \in(t)-spə-ˈrā-shən\ : something that makes someone want to do something or that gives someone an idea about what to do or create : a force or influence that inspires someone

Creation noun \krē-ˈā-shən\ : the act of making or producing something that did not exist before : the act of creating something


Pretty straight-forward but I don’t really know which one to use when the ideas aren’t flowing .. so let’s start with the easiest one – Distraction.

Distraction - Pencils in the ceiling

Throwing pencils into the ceiling is about as juvenile as distractions come but it seems to work for me. I’ll never have that big of a pencil collection stabbed into the ceiling because I like my pencils too much … I eventually go and retrieve them before too long.

Distraction - toys 02 black and white

This is ‘CubeBot‘ and it is one of the few toys I have around my work space. CubeBot came into existence when I bought him for an office gift exchange and I recommended to one of my office mates that he should select my present – thinking he would like it. Despite his initial trepidation, he took the gift and CubeBot immediately came to live up at the office. Eventually I had to buy my own CubeBot because my friend HATED when he would come into the office and find that “someone” had messed with HIS CubeBot. The bottom right hand picture is what I found one day when I came into the office [sad face], someone was tired of my antics.

It was a great distraction while it lasted.


Next, let’s move on to ‘Inspiration’.

Distraction - books and magazines

Seeing something that you like, and then taking the time to understand why you like it, is a very rewarding process that frequently affects the way you ultimately see a thing. There is no shortage of books and magazines in my office – and I am deluged with new design magazines and trade periodicals daily. While the information is sometimes outdated by the time I see it, the process of critically looking at what other designers are doing is very inspirational.


Finally there is ‘Creation.’

Life of an Architect Bob Borson

There is a story behind why I started this website – and it is summarized by saying I needed a creative diversion. In the beginning – back in early 2010 – things were somewhat slow at the office and I needed a creative outlet … and Life of an Architect was born. I am constantly amazed by the amount of effort required to maintain this site. Just coming up with the topics is a challenge in and of itself but the real challenge is how I have had to learn a million new things in order to fill out some idea of concept for an article and then execute it in a way that reflects the point I am trying to convey and still maintains some “bob personality” along with it. Maybe it doesn’t sound hard but it is – at least it’s hard for me.

To date, this site has existed a total of 1,396 days – that’s almost 4 years – and I have written 551 articles, prepared 4,359 images and graphics, and made 3 terrible videos. They aren’t all winners but I had to start with a blank screen when I created each one. This sometimes involved research, teaching myself new skills … and most importantly, it forced me to evaluate why I think about something the way I do so I could try to explain my position/ reasoning to others. At times it feels like the worst kind of homework (the “voluntary” kind) but even 4 years later, it still fills a creative void. On ‘Life of an Architect’ I can do whatever I decide to do, I can explore my own interests, and I can chase any rabbit I want down the rabbit hole.

The very definition of creativity is the act of making or producing something that did not exist before – I can’t think of an example easier to point at than this entire web site. If you ever wanted a reason why you should start your own website – for professional or personal reasons – if you’re an architect, there only needs to be one reason – creativity.

So that’s a look at my own creative process – or at least, how I jump-start my creative process. Sometimes it means not doing anything, while at other times, it means that the act of constantly trying to be creative actually helps me when I need to be creative.


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  • Harshang Kale

    Great article Bob.
    Great as always 🙂

  • Kamau Munderu

    On inspiration, I have found internet as a source of inspiration too.

  • Sushma Gupta

    Its a very nice post. I have read it, and also found many useful and important information’s from this article. Thanks for posting.Keep sharing.

  • 03306028

    In my experience, creative inspiration is never convenient. In another lifetime I was a programmer who spent long nights diving to the bottom of more coffee pots than anyone would consider healthy, trying to solve design problems into the wee hours of the morning. All of this was against ridiculous deadlines dictated by the empty promises of the sales department. (It didn’t hurt that I was young, single, and had nothing better to do.)

    I can’t tell you how many times 3 or 4 AM would roll around and I would throw my hands up and head home. Nine times out of ten, as soon as I got in the shower and stopped actively thinking about what I was working on, blammo: there’s the solution.

    I think the lesson here is sometimes it’s important to take a break and give it a rest. I prefer, however, to think that the shower in my old apartment was magic.

    • I do some of my best creative thinking while standing in the shower. Luckily for me, the two ladies in my house like their showers in the evening so I am free to stand in the shower for as long as I wish without fear of using up all the hot water.

      I also never was a coffee drinker so that was never a crutch for me to rely on. When I got tired, I had to go to bed – no artificial stimulants to force the process onward. I highly recommend the magic shower over coffee

  • Today for me, it was a roll of trace, a site plan, and 40 minutes. It’s funny how a design scheme that I spent the whole week thinking about turned out to be the weakest one out of the bunch (they all still need development, but I can already see it). Work tends to get better with iteration because you learn each time you design a solution.

    I like that you acknowledge distraction as a part of the creative process. It’s easy to get so stuck in one string of design thinking that sitting at a desk and staring at the work becomes fruitless.

    On a side note, all three videos have been great – please do more of them! 🙂

    • so you’re the person who has watched all three videos …

      by the way, I think distraction is the best part of the creative process

  • maria

    i really love your site here…you are an amazing person..i study architecture now its my first year and i find your work(which i appreciate very much) very helpful……:) soo thank you and keep up good work

    • Hi Maria,

      You are very kind, I hope to keep the bar set at least as high as I have it now. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.


  • Scott Taylor

    Cubebot is still going to weekly therapy sessions since that last incident. 🙁

    • the “pooping in his pants” incident?

  • Tim Glass

    I was dealing with this problem recently. I needed to design a house and was staring at a blank screen with plenty of constraints and possibilities running through my mind, but no idea where to begin. But I love how you wrote, “It is a process…”. So very true. So my own process started with starting. I had to get something into the screen – walls, anywhere and any length – just to get going. And from there I knew I could refine, and I have – down to a 3219 S.F. floor plan that works.

    I’m a big fan of your candidness, Bob. Thanks for sharing your work and your life with us!

    • Thanks Tim.

      The person who was the head designer in my last firm used to explain how every now and then you have to start over, that sometimes we’ve worked out one part of the solution that we love so much that we are hesitant to get rid of it when something else isn’t working. As a designer, the ability to throw one really good thing out so that you can develop two good things is important … and a hard skill to learn.

      That’s why I think it’s a process – a process that seemingly never ends.

  • Larry Schwering

    Yes it may be hard and even difficult, but there are thousands of people out there, myself included, that enjoy your creativity. Keep up the good work!

    • very kind – although I’m wondering if the well can ever run dry, like maybe I’m using up my creativity writing posts rather than constantly exercising my creative muscles. (like I’ve got muscles…)

  • Roxanne Button

    That all sounds very familiar – except that I don’t have a Cubebot, but might have to get one. I do work out of my house, however, which provides me with endless distractions (but no pencils in the ceiling). I have a fourth category…panic. It’s that phase you enter when you have spent a lot of time being distracted, haven’t come up with a decent idea, and you’ve got a client meeting in an hour 😉

    • panic is certainly a creative motivator, there’s no denying it …

      so is booze 😉

      • Roxanne Button

        Indeed, and that is one more advantage of working out of your house – easy access to the wine fridge.

        • I hear vodka is odorless …

          • Robert Moore

            Heineken Drafting Fluid!

          • nathan

            On one all-night freehand drawing session the fourth pot of coffee gave me some wicked jittery lines. A bottle of wine cured the jitters but ended up turning them into larger “undulations”. My takeaway was panic OR booze, not both.

          • that’s solid advice

  • Kerry Hogue

    dang, my first boss did not teach me the throw-pencil-in-ceiling skill. i feel deprived. I did learn to twirl my brush though……

    • I wasn’t shown the pencil-in-the-ceiling technique either but I learned it anyways. It’s that sort of initiative that has allowed me to reach my current level

  • Jess Hopkin

    After seeing Cubebot on this site I had to go buy one myself, I have a micro one =) and my brother messed around with mine so much he now has one too