What is the Nature of Design?

Principles, Processes, and the Purview of the Architect

Design is a widely-misunderstood discipline. In fact, the design profession itself often accepts and promotes a vague and misleading definition of Design. This critical question is 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.


As If!

Design’s Willful Optimism

Design is not a what if? But an as if! It’s not a question, but an answer. Each design is a story told as if our wishes had come true. The designer commits to inhabiting an alternate reality, describing it to him or herself and to the client as if it were real, as if all the criteria were satisfied – and as if it were a good idea!

To make this commitment to an idea requires a particular optimism. Optimism that the problem can and will be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, even delight! When someone hires a designer, they are clearly nurturing a serious optimism of their own. At the very least, they have a problem to solve, a business plan to execute, or an opportunity on which to act. The client’s optimism—hopefully well-founded—is a crucial component of their willingness to take a risk. In a great many cases, the client’s optimism extends far beyond a simple contractual obligation or ROI. Quite possibly they have a statement to make, a vision to make manifest, a dream to fulfill.

But how do we as designers justify our optimism? How can we back up the promises we make? We must have well-deserved confidence in our powers of perception, our knowledge, preparation and experience as well as a broad and well-honed capability. Optimism alone won’t see us through.

Shopping and dining along the boardwalk, Wai Kai, Oahu.

Design is used to evaluate all sorts of what ifs, but it’s not actually a what if itself. We evaluate the design (the as if) against the criteria (the what if). Let’s make up an example:

“What if I built a carwash here?” The carwash is the what if. The proposed carwash is the as if, the design. “Look! It’s as if you built a carwash here!” Of course we soon learn that this what if is too simplistic to bring any sort of useful response. “Then you’d have a carwash there.” That’s about all we can say without first asking more questions. If your what if is too ambiguous, the as if will be just as vague. Let’s improve the specificity of our what-if, so we can better evaluate the as-if response.

“What if we built a carwash here? One just like Joe’s Carwash on 38th Street?” All of a sudden we have a design we can evaluate – well, not quite yet. We will have to adapt Joe’s to our site. That might be easy or it might not. Maybe our site is too small, or without the proper access, or restricted by zoning to another use. But let’s pretend our site is almost exactly like Joe’s site. Now we can evaluate the design (but not necessarily the wisdom of the business plan.)

“Gosh, it’s a lot like Joe’s Carwash.” With this solution, what else can we say? We can only evaluate our design against the level of criteria we have defined. “OK, what if you built a carwash pretty much like Joe’s but with twice the throughput?” “What if you built a carwash with twice Joe’s throughput, and with a gift shop and gourmet café – and you made it look like a giant dinosaur? You see where this is going.

What if, what if, what if? This might start to wear you down after a while. But the designer must remain enthusiastic and optimistic through a million what ifs. How can one maintain this optimism through a million revisions, revising, rethinking and re-proposing a design every time an additional criterion is added?

Arden Park summer
A lovely summer’s day in Arden Park. Canoe, tube, play, barbeque … relax!

The first answer to this question is that before design even begins, an enormous proportion of the most important criteria should already be defined. This is known as programming. The most effective designers flush out all the criteria they possibly can before they begin generating design proposals. This enhances their optimism that the solutions they propose will substantially satisfy the criteria, eliminating any really long trips back to the drawing board. Thorough programming is the designer’s first great challenge.

The second answer is that additional criteria are inevitable, and are often brought up and fine-tuned by the evolving design itself. The most effective designers ask these what ifs as soon as they come up, and they describe the resulting as ifs so that the client can answer efficiently and knowledgeably. Generating clear and appropriate proposals is the designer’s second great challenge.

A middle-eastern flavored hotel in a mountain? Hmm, might look something like this…

How are clients expected to answer unless they can understand the implications of the latest as if? This is the designer’s third great challenge- to make those implications clear to the client. You might also have guessed that, yes, a designer has first had to make them clear to themselves.