What is the Nature of Design?

Long distance overview of Danzhou Cultural Tourism Zone, Hainan, China.

Principles, Processes, and the Purview of the Architect

Of course the cute answer is that it’s my new book, finally and freshly off the press and boat. More importantly, it is a discussion too often passed over in favor of a superficial and misleading mythology about design, designers and the design process.

I would argue that we should view Architecture (and architects) in a less heroic light than is usual, to understand it as subject to myriad forces beyond the control or purview of the architect. We seem to enjoy the fables of those creative titans who saw visions so clearly that they single-mindedly strode with unwavering purpose toward their goal, lo smiting those who wouldst oppose them. We hold high the fortitude of a Howard Roark who, rather than see his pure creation sullied through poor execution, would blow it up.

Whenever architects or their critics write or speak about architects, the tale is told as though the architect was acting alone, and that somehow the entire program, design and project were the designer’s conceptions. But whenever we look even slightly more deeply into any design, we find instead an extremely large component of influence, imitation and most importantly, client initiative.

Initial thumbnail sketch of riverfront restaurants with residential towers beyond.
Initial thumbnail sketch of riverfront with residential towers beyond, Libreville, Gabon.

A more realistic perspective shows us that individual buildings or projects can only do so much for the fate of mankind. A more realistic perspective shows us that a building may be the most visible element in a client’s project, but that it is not the only piece. A more realistic perspective asks us why, if the client decides to act on an opportunity or need by acquiring the site, securing the money, defining the program, and owning or operating the entire project upon completion, it makes sense that the societal and stylistic opinions of the architect should be unimpeachable.

Second, I would like to make the point that, more than anything else, practice and virtuosity are the elements required to be a designer. This knowledge and skill should be put at the service of one’s client, and not exercised to advance one’s own agenda. In this regard, I want to understand why a great proportion of practicing architects lack many of the basic means with which to perform most effectively as designers. Not only are so many inadequately prepared to design a particular project, they’re unprepared to design in general. By this, I mean that the ability to thoroughly and transparently evaluate one’s own work, and to clearly represent it to others for their evaluation, is far too rare in a profession where that ability constitutes the profession’s central process.

Refinement of initial sketch with addressing scale and exploring character.
Refinement of initial sketch addressing scale and exploring character.

Third, we must understand what defines design. Design is not art. Design is not an art. Design reflects criteria and design responds to criteria. Design is not an act of creation, but an act of translation and orchestration. Art may be created for art’s sake, but a design is nothing if not viewed in terms of its specific criteria. To take this idea one step further, it can be stated that if a design is not judged, or if there are no criteria by which to judge it, then it is not design. These criteria come from various sources, and there may exist some ambiguity or conflict in them. However, establishing the prime criteria is not impossibly difficult, as it originates with the client. The client is the creator of the design problem.

Characterizing the designer as an artist may seem like a compliment, but in fact it belittles both his or her responsibility and the client’s criteria ‑ the very reason design exists. The criteria for art belong to the artist and so their satisfaction is a matter of satisfying the artist. In contrast, design’s central act is the well-considered reconciliation of many criteria, from many sources, whose inherent conflicts require compromise. Many of these conflicts generate the most interesting, integrating and defining characteristics of a project. Many architects, not to mention many of those who recount the exploits of architects, would lead their clients and the public to believe that their proposals are pure and fully conceived visions that came to them by virtue of little beyond their own genius. Yet design is not the creation of some perfect object, but rather the optimization of potential—coupled with skillful mitigation of compromise—in the orchestration of simultaneous responses to myriad criteria.

Promenade Fluvial
Development of riverfront reflecting mid-rise, mixed-use residential replacing high rises.

To solve a particular problem requires a markedly non-specific capability – one that is so broad, yet deep, that it can be employed to address whatever questions may arise. Each design problem is unique (if it’s not, it’s not a problem – it’s already been solved) and its solution will require a unique combination of wisdom and technique, neither of which occur without great conscious and continuous development by the designer. To recognize and prepare as best one can for this never-ending procession of demands is to understand the fundamental nature of design.

—MSL

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