Design Process Diagram
Design Process

Design Thinking: How to Think Like an Architect

As an architect it is important to start with an understanding of a problem then seek solutions. This is called ‘problem seeking’ and often comprises the initial pre-design phase in architecture. The design process can be broken down into several steps:

  1. Research
  2. Problem Definition
  3. Developing Alternatives
  4. Evaluating Alternatives
  5. Selection
  6. Communication
Research

Research

For complex problems research is essential. Often designers solve one problem only to realize that it created a whole host of other issues. We see this most pronounced in medicine where one drug may treat an illness but has many serious side effects. This is also true for environmental design where a solution may seem appropriate, but over time may cause other significant problems to develop.

In research the question statement drives everything. You will not find solutions to questions you do not ask. How questions are posed is of supreme importance. If we ask a question where the solution is implied, the answer will always be skewed. Flaws in the premise create flaws in the solution.

When it comes to design problems that are encountered in complex environments it is important to start with an integrated approach that accepts all points of view as being needed for a complete understanding of a problem. If any of the points of view are rejected, it will create incomplete research and incomplete solutions. One of the problems in architecture is either no research or limited research underlines the design. When this is done, designers jump to a solution without understanding all the variables involved.

Problem Definition

Problem Definition

Problem definition is identifying the specific limits of the problem to be solved. The various parts of the problem are analyzed to determine needs, constraints, and resources. The designer can then set up specific design objectives. How a problem is defined often presupposes as solution. This must be avoided, and a broad open problem definition is needed. For example, the problem may be meeting the functional requirements of a certain institution. Are functional requirements the only problem to be solved, or are their other issues that must be addressed? Often within the problem statement architects identify who the stakeholders are, and what are their different needs and goals. In many cases stakeholders have vastly different needs and desires. Often there are institutional needs and goals, and ‘user’ needs, and goals and these two groups may have vastly different perspectives on what makes up a good environment.

One way to create a complete problem statement is to use an interdisciplinary approach where various experts are included in the problem definition. Creating a diverse team with different specialties of knowledge always helps to develop a fresh perspective on a problem. Architects may partner with scientists, engineers, sociologist, psychologists, artists, and other diverse fields to search for a problem statement.

Changing scale is another technique for problem definition. If the issue occurs at the scale of the individual, then looking at the scale of the institution may offer a fresh perspective. If the problem is at the scale of the institution, looking at the scale of the society may offer a new way to define the problem. Similarly, if the problem is at the scale of a building looking at the scale of the city may offer a solution. If there are problems with the city, regional, or global solutions may be proposed.

Developing Alternatives

Developing Alternatives

The designer examines existing and new solutions and develops several viable alternatives. With complex problems many solutions can be proposed, some better than others. Some solutions will be more elegant and some less so. It is important to explore a full range of options before settling on one or combining them into a group of solutions. Often a designer focuses on one solution without properly exploring alternatives. They become wedded to their favorite design without exploring other possibilities. Typically, when exploring alternatives at least three options should be developed. When architects present alternate schemes, this becomes an important tool to gauge the goals and objectives of the project. Often the stated goal is not really what is important. It may be discovered more important goals exist.

Attachment to one alternative teaches us about our biases. We may like a certain alternative simply because of our innate biases. In this case we must explore these biases to see how they are dictating our behavior. Design often becomes philosophical.

Evaluating Alternatives

Evaluating Alternatives

Evaluating design alternatives is the development of criteria that is adopted based on design objectives. Alternatives are compared to the initial criteria to determine which solution best addresses the original problem definition. Often when evaluating design alternatives new insights are gained as to what constitutes a good design. The evaluation criteria may have been inadequate to evaluate the complexity of the design, and new criteria must be developed.

Selection

Selection

Selection is based on the results of the evaluation where one alternative is selected. If no one alternative is clearly superior, then two or more solutions can be combined. The chosen solution is usually modified to include successful parts of the other solutions. The selection often sheds a light on the wants, needs, and desires of the client, or the larger social structure evaluating the solution.

Communication

Communication

The final solution to the problem must be described in such a way as to make it usable for the next stage of the design process. Architects use renderings, plans, and graphic material to visualize solutions. In recent years digital 3D renderings and other techniques have greatly increase the ability to visually communicate solutions.

Architects no longer work as individuals, but as the complexity of the problem increases so too must the team of professionals. The challenge of communication is to motivate, share goals, and to bring to the fullest impact of each team member’s expertise to the problem. The architect must also communicate to non-professional members of the public and user groups. The architect’s language and communications skills must be non-technical and inclusive.

There are many good models for the design process and this six-step process is but one. The most important thing to remember is that thinking like an architect is not based on personal expression, but rather a problem-seeking and problem-solving process. Final solutions are syntheses of many factors and forces that draw synergy from each other.

--

--

--

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Facebook Pages Feature

eCommerce & The Lean UX Process

Q&A: An Eco-centric Approach to Architecture

Aesthetics of Interactions

5 Web Design Trends to rule 2017

51–262 Effective/Ineffective Design

The greatest video tool of all time is in your pockets

Selected Writings

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jaime Roberts

Jaime Roberts

Architect writing about environmental design in an age of climate change.

More from Medium

Remuneration in design — an idealist’s perspective

JD 101 | Ep 3: How to give feedback in design review | 5 tips

Instead of saying: “I like it”. Try this: “I do appreciate your massive interviews with clients to identify this pain point. We never know about it without your conversation with them. The interview reveals a lot of insightful information not only your ongoing project but also “

Prototyping Q&A with Deborah Carter

Motion and Product for Visual Interaction in 2022