If you were tasked with defining the design process – you could take it in a lot of different directions and you’re going to have a lot of options. Andrew and I are going to attempt to tackle this topic and discuss how we go about solving the tasks set before us when creating architecture. Welcome to Episode 101: The Design Process.
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Today, Andrew and I are talking about the design process – which at first blush might be one of the most open-ended topics in the history of topics. Making a determination on what the “design process” means to us was the first step in understanding how our conversation was going to go.
Problem-Solving without Inspiration jump to 1:55
So here is a starting point – at least for me – on what the design process can mean: It is basically a systematic, and typically linear problem-solving process that is formulaic and allows creative people a methodology to going about their business without needing “inspiration.” Most examples I’ve found, or those that I was essentially taught are 4 or 5 steps that yield a result …. Which does not mean that it is the best result or the one that you want or expect.
Plan -> Mock Up -> Build -> Measure
Motive of Design -> Pre-Design Phase -> Requirements -> Design Phase -> Product -> Post Design phase
All of these sorts of models have a built-in check to make sure that through the creative act, concepts don’t veer off course. The problem with these sorts of models is that we don’t always design or create to necessarily solve a problem. What if I want to design a new Life of an Architect Podcast logo? Obviously, there will be objectives and things I want to achieve, but those things aren’t necessarily associated with a problem.
These two models – and there are a lot of variations on this methodology, most of which are applicable but not specific to the practice architecture – align themselves fairly close to that most architects organize their process around: programming/schematic design/design development/construction observation … with smaller and complete cycles taking place through each step of this process. I have discussed various aspects of this process in blog posts over the past few years, not with any big picture in mind but more as a response to questions I was receiving at the time. Every single project starts the same way and in general, they all follow the same process of: Discovery – Exploration – Presentation – Modification – and then Execution.
Let’s get into it …
Discovery jump to 13:14
This is essentially the programming phase and it generally starts with a few meetings to understand the what’s and how’s of a project based on the needs and desires of the clients. When we start the process of collecting information, we start by asking a lot of questions – and we use a questionnaire to jump-start this part of the process. (see the smashed together image above for a sample of questions…)
- Begin at the beginning by asking questions and collecting responses– interestingly, people don’t always know what they want, or at least there are varying degrees of agreement between the “stakeholders” that will eventually live in the house in the future. Part of this process identifies what one person values and when it is disproportionate to what their partner values.
- Understanding the motivation behind the actual answer– we want everything to work in concert together. This is truly the embodiment of when a thing is greater than the sum of its parts. This frequently means that we ask questions that go well beyond how many bedrooms and bathrooms someone wants. How do you live – How do you want to use the spaces – Will the house support your actual lifestyle?
- Understanding what rooms are the most important for your life–to follow up on that last point focused on the idea of “what you want” versus “what you think you want” versus “what you actually need”.
These are the things that make fundamental differences when we go about the process of creating a program and understanding each person’s priorities. In order to design a successful project, especially a residential project, you need to develop a relationship with your client that goes beyond functionality based solely on needs. Yes, there will probably be bedrooms and bathrooms, a kitchen, some living areas, and sometimes the odd side room, etc. but it’s important to understand how each client will want to use the spaces in order to give them what they want, which does not necessarily mean what they are asking for …
Part of the role of an architect is to be an interpreter and translator – to listen to what the client is saying and then to digest, interpret, reformat, and then present that information back to them. The goal is to ultimately protect the client from themselves (another major role) and to scrape away all the nasty bits of conflicting thoughts and imagery they have been assembling into a clearer and more representative picture of what they are after.
Exploration jump to 26:46
We’ve gone through the data-collection period and now that we have answers to our initial questions and it’s now time to start exploring possible solutions. This happens in different ways – we prepare plans, we collect inspirational imagery, and we typically go through a red dot green dot exercise with those images. We do massing studies, site evaluation, square footage takeoffs using a room matrix (which captures all those spaces that everybody needs but people don’t generally think to include on their list of needed spaces)
We also discuss the red dot / Green Dot process of identifying inspiration images – an exercise where we collect inspiration images to help facilitate our conversation. This is a slightly different process than simply reviewing the images that the owner has collected and presented. These days, the owner will frequently show up with knocked-out Pinterest pages that they have been pinning for years. This is always helpful and we will get the owners to provide comments about why these particular images were tagged, but the challenge starts when a) one person in the process does not like the images pinned by the other, and b) the process of image collection has been going on for so long that the images are all over the place and it is difficult to articulate a singular vision.
Presentation jump to 32:34
Presentation is just a catchy way to say we prepare drawings and documents for the purpose of communicating the results of our discovery and the ideas we are developing. Understandably not everyone reads drawings well so we use a variety of techniques to present our information. Diagrams, 3D renderings, photographs, physical models – whatever it takes to help facilitate an informed conversation.
If I have any anxiety about this process, this is the point in the process when it would take place. Despite it never happening, all I want is for people to be happy with what we have put together, recognize that we did listen to their comments and that we have assembled all our ideas regarding the process so far into a course of action … but I still have not been able to shake the dread of what happens if someone really dislikes the direction we are attempting to go? So far in 30 years, it hasn’t happened but it doesn’t stop me from having some anxiety about it.
Modification jump to 38:17
After we have presented our initial thoughts and ideas, and the clients have had a chance to internalize and provide feedback, we take all the information we have received and organize a strategy to execute any possible or needed modifications. While it happens more than I would have thought, we don’t expect to get everything 100% right out of the gate. This frequently has to do with understanding the priorities of our stakeholders. One of the things that always drives me a little batty is when I hear architects say that they have “developed three schemes to present today … here is the first option.” Blah!!
We are supposed to be providing a service based on our experience and training and while there are always different ways to develop solutions and those are typically different more times than not simply based on how the priorities have been established. A different arrangement of priorities should create a different solution – and a lot of time clients don’t really understand their own priorities until they’ve had a chance to react to the work we are presenting to them. We rarely have to start over when there is a shuffling of priorities, normally it is a few modifications that are just a part of the overall solution.
I’ll even go so far as to say that modifications don’t just happen because the stakeholders have a different opinion or different priorities than the ones we’ve made. As the project develops, we might make a modification because of some construction tolerances we want to create, or a material we want to use and how it fits into the construction assembly. Sometimes we’ve just had some time to take a pause and with a fresh set of eyes, we see something that is not what we think it should be and we make design redlines (which are internal and just between architectural team members.)
Execution jump to 47:59
This means exactly what you think it means … finalizing all the previous stages into a final product. There is execution at every one of these levels and whatever scale you want to break this list of steps down into, execution is the last one that happens before you go back to the level of Discovery – Exploration – Presentation – Modification – and then Execution once again. I don’t feel the need to elaborate on this part of the process in great detail since it feels specific to which step you are in and is self-explanatory.
What’s the Rank jump to 51:15
Andrew and I are still trying to feel our way through this new end-of-the-episode segment. We both feel like it has promise but I will confess that we actually recorded this segment twice. We originally ranked “hair color” but after having a chance to sleep on it, I felt bad and didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings for something that can not be controlled and yet remains aesthetically superficial. So I asked Andrew if we could record a replacement and we came up with …
How would you Rank the Top 5 condiments??
A condiment is defined as a sauce type element that is applied after the food is prepared to enhance the flavor … Andrew defined this as a liquid-based so that we don’t introduce spices (like salt and pepper)
Bob’s Top 5 Condiments = Mayonaise / Mustard / BBQ sauce / Ketchup (not catsup, for those of you that are broken …) / Ranch Dressing
Andrew’s Top 5 Condiments = Mustard / Sriracha / Mayonaise (kewpie mayo specifically) / BBQ Sauce / Ranch Dressing
It was actually hard for us both to come up with 5 since I don’t actually use a lot of sauced-based condiments. We had to debate if things like “salsa” could be considered a condiment. What about soy sauce? Andrew originally had salsa as his #3 but we eliminated salsa as a condiment, which I now think was a mistake … salsa is now my unofficial #2-5 ranked condiment.
EP 101: Design Process
The design process for each person is different even though there will always be some similarities between processes. For me, I typically sketch through my ideas – a process that has remained steadfast over the entirety of my career – but over the past 2 years due to work-from-home requirements associated with the coronavirus, I have moved closer to an all-digital process. I would be kidding myself if I didn’t at least acknowledge that this modification had some impact on my workflow. It was during this time period when I was isolated and didn’t have my normal creative process to rely upon, I started thinking about my own design process and I assembled my own sequence process of Discovery – Exploration – Presentation – Modification – and then Execution. While I am quite sure that those five items have always been present in some capacity, I didn’t focus on that exact process and see that it had value for those times when I was just starting at a blank piece of paper and was wondering where I should begin. Hopefully, today’s conversation has given you something to think about and you can find some order to your own process.
Cheers, and good luck!
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