The Design Process

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by Daniel Silvernail

The design process has been called the most misunderstood part of being an architect. It requires passion and a dedication almost approaching love to arrive at an excellent design, yet the creative process must almost always be done within a definitive timeline and for a finite professional fee.

Certainly, as design professionals we have tools and techniques that lend structure to this process – the criteria matrix, typology matrices, and the like. Yet the design process, the creative act, is not so straightforward as that. It is, in point of fact, far from linear: more often than not the architect must venture resolutely into realms of spaghetti-like mazes where divergent thoughts, tasks, and activities thrive.

To do it “right” means taking in all the client’s myriad programmatic needs, physical and emotional, their nascent raw concepts, ideas, goals and desires, and capturing them by some rational means into precise drawings describing, in meticulous detail, the intent and means of constructing a physical object embodying those needs.

For any design problem there are infinite solutions, some better than others, and all having varying degrees of merit: to sift through them all could consume any designer’s lifetime. Given infinite possibilities, the design process is thus by it’s very nature an intangible search for meaning. Yet the client’s design budget and production schedule are both very concrete and very tangible. It’s perhaps for this very reason that the practical constraint known as the “deadline” was invented.

In 1969, Charles Eames was interviewed by Madame L’Amic of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs as part of a design exhibition showing at the Louvre that year. The following excerpt exemplifies Eames’ disciplined approach to the design process:

L’Amic: What is your definition of design?
Eames:  A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.

L’Amic: What are the boundaries of design?
Eames: What are the boundaries of problems?

L’Amic:  Does the creation of design admit constraint?
Eames:  Design depends largely on constraints.

L’Amic:  What constraints?
Eames:  The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible (and) his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, size, strength, balance, surface, time: each problem has its own peculiar list.

Charles Eames’ conceptual diagram of the design process, displayed at the 1969 exhibition “What Is Design” at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris.

Charles Eames’ conceptual diagram of the design process, displayed at the 1969 exhibition “What Is Design” at the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris.

In Eames’ diagram attending the exhibit we can see his mapping of the interests of the design office, the client, and those of the public. The diagram communicates that it is within the overlap where all three interests meet that the designer can work with conviction and enthusiasm (read passion).

His diagram also conveys that the design process is by its very nature an inherently “messy” business. Eames’ diagram is in it’s own unselfconscious way quite deliberately “wiggly”, mapping rational concepts to the wandering lines of an oft-times irrational process.

We architects do not generally like to show off the squiggly lines, fits-and-starts, design cul-de-sacs, whole design schemes tossed out towards the furtherance of the production schedule. Perhaps we should always do so, for same is at the very core of the process, despite (or perhaps better, because of ) the necessary reality of production budgets and deadlines. These are among the constraints Eames capably articulates in his diagram.

Every successful design, each successful work is infused with the design architect’s personal and unique approach to the design process, his recognition of the complexities and contradictions of the process, and his disciplined conviction and sincere passion in support of the realization of the design.

For the successful architect every design is an amalgam infused, by design, with the mystique of alchemy.

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