I had an interesting conversation with an architect colleague of mine last year.
It was during one of those zoom meetings where we were discussing different projects our offices were working on at the time, and also the difficulties from the pandemic.
I don’t remember how we started the conversation about design and designers, but the gist of her theory was that to be a good designer, one needs to have confidence. I thought it was an intriguing statement to make.
Instead of saying something is well-designed, she generalized the good design with seemingly unrelated human character, confidence.
It got me thinking.
Of course, while I wish to be part of the elite group of “good designers”, I decide to think about my definition of good designers. More importantly, whether I am in that coveted illustrious group.
Misguided Idea about what Design is
We have this idea that any creative works could be done out of thin air, or “should be” done in that manner by someone – spontaneously, impulsively or my personal favourite, quickly.
Whether that being the writing, painting, composing music, or in my case coming up building design.
This old argument goes back to the theory between talent and effort; many perceive the design work is not something one can work towards…but rather, it can be done by talented a few. It conjures up a image of talented artist who can just whip up a painting.
It is like the analogy of the word, confidence – some people are just confident. As if some people are just born with this highly coveted quality, and others are not.
The process of any creative work takes time, lots of time; doing research, making changes, and worst, starting from the beginning all over again.
In fact, the “finished design” work can be completely different from what I initially started with.
Instead of coming up with one brilliant design idea on a piece of napkin quickly, I find my design process to be more like a system that consisted of series of many boring to-do lists: research, note-taking, hand sketch, architecture models, changing ideas, final architecture drawings, models…the list goes on.
My system was developed during my architecture school years.
While trying to come up with
brilliant any design ideas for my studio class assignment, and realizing I had nothing to show for the presentation following morning (only the white blank sketchbook, brand new untouched brown boards intended for architecture models), I realized I only had a few hours left before facing the professors.
I concluded that I did not have the luxury to think about the designs…had to produce something, anything!
After going through a number of these desperations, I developed a system to start working rather than thinking; the design ideas have to come out of my head and somehow be seen on the works I produced.
It was not a design unless it can be understood by others.
Design is communication
Where are the drawings and models for your project?
The year was 1990. It was my freshman year design studio class at Cornell University, and the professor asked THE question to one of my classmates.
At that exact moment, all of us in the class woke up and looked at our classmate. Since most of us were sleeping due to staying up all night working on the projects the night before, we were not paying attention to other students, or the comments they were receiving from the professors.
However, with THE question hanging, all of us completely woke up and waited…
Our classmate had some hand-drawn sketches which were pinned up on the wall but did not have anything else. He did not have the time-consuming “presentation” materials: architectural drawings or models.
While counting the number of presentation materials I had and feeling hopeful(?) I , I felt sorry for my classmate and his predicament.
The class was eerily quiet. We were all holding our breath and waiting for him to speak.
Instead of missing the beat, the classmate in question started to explain the project. (Without pointing to any drawings or models like the rest of us, since he didn’t have any). He was describing this amazing architectural space and at one point he even asked us to “visualize”it.
I could not believe it!
I could not believe how he can do the presentations without any work shown…
But the more surprising thing about his presentation was that I could somehow “visualize” his project as he asked us to do. I wondered whether the professors were visualizing his project.
I was amazed by his presentation…more correctly, with his verbal skills since he did not have any works to explain the project.
It was clear that his skills were less convincing to the professors and their comments proved the sentiments: “you cannot just wing it without doing the actual work“
On the other hand, the rest of us in the class had difficulties describing the work with the presentation materials next to us including myself.
Pass forward to the present time, I am constantly reminded of the communication skill is the most important quality in my professional settings. Designers have to communicate the ideas not only graphically, but verbally as well as through written words.
Design is communication.
It is a way to convey our thoughts to others. Being able to articulate our design ideas in a clear and precise manner requires not only through our finished works, but also how we designers speak and describe those works to others, especially to non-designers.
Having architecture practice for over 10 years, I am constantly reminded how Important those communication skills are and how they can benefit the design work I do.
My classmate back at the architecture knew something all of us didn’t…maybe “winging it” is also a skill set we designers need to cultivate.
Practice makes perfect
Design is also a process, not a “finished” work.
To have successful outcomes, there are many different steps and stages a project goes through: research, idea generation, editing, conflicting viewpoints, and also the worst – starting from the beginning
As the expression goes, “going back to the drawing board”, conjures up many uncomfortable feelings: messy, unclear, difficult, time-consuming, hair-pulling, screaming why’s? etc.
It is a long winding path I go through… not only once but several times and many more. There were many moments of literally ‘going back to the drawing board”. I guess, I should say going back to the computer screen would be the correct expression.
It is a constant struggle I go through. However, I recognize this struggle well after years of working. It is such an uncomfortable place to be…without clear ideas and directions, I constantly strive to avoid but without the success.
However, over time, I’m getting “used to” the idea of being stuck at this stage for every project, because I learned to recognize that there “might” be the light at the end of the tunnel as people say.
Design is not one thing; It is a system of many different things combined.
To arrive at the “final” design land, there are many steps and stages to go through. Some of them are difficult and uncomfortable…well, ALL of them are…
There are many detours, or worse, going back to the starting point.
While going through many uncomfortable moments and doubting every step of the way, I somehow arrive at the final design destination.
One positive(?) aspect of the struggle is that I become convinced of the choices and decisions I make about the particular design. With this conviction, I can convey my ideas in the “wing it” style I had seen years ago.
My architect colleague was partially correct in describing confident designers…Their confidence comes only AFTER days and months of struggles, not BEFORE.
What is your definition of confident designers?
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in Life Outside of Design Studio and has been updated for accuracy and completeness.