Thursday, November 9, 2017


I have long been a fan of the design firm IDEO, and their thoughts and approach to the creative process. 

As such, this article really resonated with me.  I think my students are also struggling with the synthesis part of the design process as well at the moment, as we are well past the "fun" part of brainstorming ideas, and are now fully immersed in design resolution (or making it work) part of the semester. 

I am posting this here to save for later, perhaps for a student discussion on the topic.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017


Models from our in class charrette this week

This week I revisited a favorite studio class experiment, having student’s trade projects for a day.  Over the past few years, I have experimented with variations on this exercise, where students complete a studio class charrette working on a project that is not their own.  The students don’t always love this activity, as they would probably prefer to work on their own design issues, but his exercise has several goals and positive outcomes

  1. First, I find this is a good exercise for the first class back after spring break.  Students often return from the break with a kind of post break sluggishness, and this time intensive class charrette gets them back into a productive studio class, encouraging the creative energy to flow again.  If nothing else, this activity is worth doing for this one aspect alone.
  2. In a professional environment, it is not that uncommon to find projects passed around within design firms.  You might inherit a project started by a colleague, and be responsible for shepherding the design through the next phase of the process.  So this is a valuable future professional skill to have.  
  3. More importantly, this is an excellent exercise to shake things up in the studio.  I want the students to see this design project from an entirely different perspective.  By forcing students to work on the project through the lens of another students’ work, I hope to help them challenge their own inherent biases that they have accumulated by this point in the semester.  It is my hope that now, when they return to their own work, they will have a new sense of openness to new possibilities, and will see new potentials in their own work, having spent a class living in someone else’s project.
  4. Completing this exercise as a charrette, with limited studio time to work, also has its advantages.  One positive is that the tight deadline keeps students from over thinking the exercise.  It is not that I am advocating for a thoughtless design process, but sometimes students have a tendency to get stuck over analyzing the problem, and the intensive nature of this exercise promotes a more intuitive approach to decision-making.
  5. This exercise is also an opportunity to work on students critique skills.  By having the class trade design projects, I am asking them to critique a peer’s work through the design changes that they propose.  It is important, and I stress this, that they not design this new project the way they would do it – rather, I ask them to help their colleague by developing the work based on their peers design intents.  This means identifying what is working well about the project, and trying to amplify these successes.  It means identifying areas that are not working well, and trying to edit these deficiencies.  It also means suggesting variations and alternatives, in an attempt to clarify and strengthen the work that has already been started.  It does not mean simply saying ‘now how would I do this?’.  By trading projects, the intent is to have students assume the role of the critic or instructor, and help each other to develop and strengthen the work by backing away from their own authorship of the project. 

In this exercise, students had 90 minutes to create a study model.  This model was to develop, critique, and suggest design alternatives, with the goal of helping each other to develop the work. 

Some years this activity works better than others, as the class dynamic plays a part in the successfulness of the activity.  Students need to buy into the exercise to make it most meaningful.

This year, the post charrettte conversations amongst the students, where they debriefed their partner on the design proposals, seemed to be a rich a fruitful conversation.  I am encouraged that the class this year may have received meaningful suggestions about their work through this studio experiment.  

If nothing else, this got the studio moving again, and forced students to consider the project through a new lens.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Design Concepts

Dear students, I have been thinking about your design concepts.

I hope you have been as well.

I have questions.  I hope these help you formulate and clarify your ideas, concept statements, and diagrams.

First of all, you have been assigned to design a lakefront ecology center, on a unique and dramatic lakefront site.  Given the site and the program.

·         How does your project REVEAL the nature of its place?

·         How does the design AMPLIFY ones understating of water ecology?  And address sustainable issues?

·         How does your design connect you to the lake?  PHSICALLY? EMOTIONALLY? POETICALLY?

·         How does your design make you more aware of the natural world, and ecological concerns?

·         How does the design address the specificities of its site?  The city? The view?  The natural world?  The transition, edge, or threshold?  How does it improve on the existing conditions?

I also have questions about the more practical design decisions that you have made.

·         How is your design organized? And Why?

·         How do you move to it?  Through it?

·         What are you trying to accomplish formally and aesthetically? What does it look like?  Why? And how does this relate to the site, the city, and issues of ecology?

Finally, you should be trying to design unique, authentic, and memorable spaces and places.

·         Does your project create a place for people?  Establish a sense of community?  Create a poetic connection to the natural world?   Allow for various types of uses (beyond the program)?  Function within the context of civic parkland?

·         Is it memorable?  How?

·         If Architecture is about experiencing space…..  How have you choreographed an experience through your project?

Friday, November 6, 2015


Recently, I spent some time with a few of my students exploring the Chicago Architecture Biennial.  I was impressed with the breadth of ideas being explored, the broad range of graphic communication strategies employed, and the often divergent positions presented on the ‘State of Architecture’ today.

While the biennial offers no shortage of sources for inspiration and discussion, I thought that I would start by focusing on just one exhibit, Sou Fujimoto’s Architecture Is Everywhere.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this particular exhibit, captivated by its simultaneous simplicity, humor, and depth.

At face value, Fujimoto’s installation is a simple trick.  He takes everyday objects, inserts tiny scale figures, and through the magic of a scale shift creates a humorous, architectural, spatial illusion.  The installation is playful and whimsical (which are not characteristics that usually speak to me).  It is easily comprehensible to both architects and non-architects alike.  One of my students thought the installation was a joke, and to some extent it could be read that way, but I feel that that there is quite a bit more substance than what might be initially apparent.

There is a kind of simple brilliance to the exhibit.  Fujimoto speaks to how architects see the world in a creative and spatial way.  He makes us look differently at commonplace objects, illustrating the architectural potential of the everyday world we live in.  His argument is that ‘Architecture is first found, and then made’.  As we observe these clever pairings of objects and statements, we might begin to imagine new architectural possibilities revealed in the things around us.  Furthermore, Fujimoto includes a simple, sometimes humorous, often provocative, statement with each model.  The text forces us to revisit the object from a conceptual point of view, challenging us to explore an architecture of ideas.

Looking differently at commonplace objects is, in fact, a very creative and ‘designerly’ thing to do.  In creative disciplines, we tend to look differently at the environments we inhabit, finding insight and inspiration in the process.  Recently, I finished a book by another Japanese designer, Kena Hara.  In it, Hara urges designers to “Rediscover the unknown in the familiar - extract ideas from the commonness of everyday lives.” 

By seeing the everyday anew, we find inspiration, and rediscover architectural potential.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Ok, somehow, until very recently, I did not know this existed. 

I am not new to Bruce Mau's work, so how did I miss this? 
Regardless, it exists, and I am cataloging it here for future reference.

Friday, October 9, 2015

10 Minute Party (PARTI)

I am going to try a new experiment in studio today. We are just beginning a design project for a lakefront ecology center.  The project has a significantly more complex design program that anything these students have been asked to tackle in previous projects.  It is a natural jump in complexity, however, I am getting the sense from the class that they are having trouble getting started, struggling to generate ideas.  My fear is that perhaps some of the students are intimidated by solving the problem, and have lost sight of what I really want them doing - exploring ideas and testing approaches. 

So with these challenges in mind, I am going to try an ideation exercise inspired by David Kelly’s book Creative Confidence. In Creative Confidence, Kelley discusses keys to “ideation and experimentation.”  This IDEO / d.School process includes tips for idea generation based on the notion of quantity over quality.  In other words, at the beginning of the design process, test a lot of ideas without worrying too much, at least initially, about developing the ‘ideal’ solution. 

This process includes:
  • Generating countless ideas and consider many divergent options
  • Advancing the promising ideas through iterative rounds
  • Being quick and dirty – exploring a range of ideas without becoming too invested in only one
(Creative Confidence p.23)

Inspired by the book’s ’30 circles’ exercise, I am going to attempt my own version of this called the “10 minute party (parti)”.  I will to ask students to generate as many parti (organizing strategy) options for their project as the can in 10 minutes (generate at least 10).  I want them to ask”what if?” and generate a lot of possibilities.  Form this, hopefully they can then extract a few promising schemes to begin to advance, test and explore in a more rigorous manner. 

The premise is simple, if you are having trouble generating 1 or 2 good ideas, start with 20 ideas.  If you want to generate innovative ideas - you need to start with more ideas.  
Pinning up the Parti Diagramming Exercise

We collectively generated several hundred parti / concept options in about 15 minutes.  I think it loosened up the studio and got students thinking quickly and exploring options more freely.  At least a few of the students came up with some fairly compelling ideas to pursue.   More than a few students found a third or fourth option to explore for this first design study.  I will continue to experiment with these types of brainstorming design activities.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

On Making (Design as Exploration)

Recently, Thomas Heatherwick’s book Making caught my eye sitting on my office shelf.  (Ok, actually I was procrastinating, avoiding grading student projects, and I may have been looking for something to distract me.  I had already cleaned out a few desk drawers, so naturally I turned my attention to my bookshelf!)


Anyway, I picked up Heatherwick’s book and began to read the introduction.  In it he describes his studio’s design process, and the following caught my attention. 

“We iteratively pare a project back in successive rounds of discussions, through analysis, questioning, testing, experimentation, and interrogation, looking for the logic that will lead to an idea.”

Tomorrow, my students will begin experimenting with their first design studies for a building project in the studio.  By now, the students are well aware that I am obsessed with their design process.  They are already likely getting tired of hearing me talk about “process”.  This quote, though, really resonated with me.  It is exactly the mentality I am trying to instill in the studio.  

An attitude that design is process.

An iterative process...

of testing,



interrogating (the project, the site, themselves),

and ultimately working toward a design concept that is rich and meaningful.

I want my students to be slow to solve the design problem, to think deeply, explore alternatives and ask questions.  And I want them to take this skill with them on to their next studio. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

CONCEPT: The what, why, and how?

In my studio courses, when communicating design concepts, I ask my students to think about the WHAT?, WHY?, and HOW?  If students can both intellectually explore, and then communicate the answers to these three questions, they will be well on their way to a project with a solid design concept.

WHAT?  What is the big idea?  What is the thesis?  What are you doing? What are you trying to accomplish? What is your design an exploration of?

This is often the easiest of the three for students to address.  Most of the time, I find that my students are able to tell me what they are trying to accomplish in their work.

WHY?  Why is this exploration necessary, relevant, or important to explore? 

This is a little bit trickier, as not all concepts are necessarily worthy ideas.  As a designer, communicating what you are doing is one thing, but understanding why it matters in another.  This requires students to question their own ideas, and challenge their initial assumptions, on their way to an understanding of why the design exploration is worthwhile.

HOW?  How is this being explored, specifically, through your work?  How does the design address the concept?  How do you attempt to explore the concept through the design moves you have made?

In other words, HOW does the concept drive the design decisions of the project?

From 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

Monday, August 24, 2015

Stretching Limits: Designing outside of the box.

Today is the first day of classes, and as I sit here anticipating the first studio class of the new academic year, I cannot help but reflect on my goals for this new group of architectural design students that I am about to meet.

At the beginning of the fall term, I often show a documentary video by Michael Apted titled Inspirations.  In this documentary, Apted profiles 7 artists from various disciplines who each discuss the creative process. At the end of film, each shares advice for creativity, and one of my favorite quotes comes from David Bowie.

“If you feel safe in the area you are working, then you are not working in the right area.  Always go a little further into the water than you feel capable of.  Go a little bit out of your depth and when you don’t feel your feet quite touching the bottom you’re just in the right place to do something exciting” David Bowie

I was thinking about this quote recently as I completed a design competition entry at the end of the summer.  As I prepared an image for the Chicago Architectural Club’s “Currencies of Architecture” competition, I was reminded of the value of working outside of one’s comfort zone.  This is not the type of design completion I usually am attracted to.  I prefer competitions that have a limited scope, allowing me to design an architectural object where I can get into the details and produce a well-developed, conceptually sound, piece of architecture.  This particular competition is not that at all!  Currencies of Architecture calls on participants to produce a single image addressing the state of architecture today.  What does that even mean?  This project is highly conceptual and completely open ended in terms of the manner in which participants can approach the design – which makes me a little bit more that uncomfortable. 

I was uneasy about how to approach the work, and I am still creatively unsure about my own submission.  If you are interested, you can view the project here.  The point of this post, however, is not about my own work per se, but the value in stretching limits.  For me, this competition was a reminder of the importance (and difficulty) of pushing our own creative boundaries.  There is incredible creative value in stretching your own limits as a designer, but it is also REALLY hard to do.

All of this brings me back to the first day of studio, as I am about to assign a conceptual, open ended project for my students to tackle.  Part of my job, especially in a sophomore studio, is to push students beyond their own preconceptions of what they think Architecture is.  I am supposed to encourage my students to work outside of their own comfort zones.  My job is to encourage my students to design ‘outside of the box’, meaning that I want students to push themselves, explore, and think about their own work as having new and exciting possibilities.  And if / when they struggle with this, I am newly reminded that this is also ok, as it is just as difficult for me at times to push beyond my own comfort zone. 

Most things that are really worth pursuing in your creative career are difficult, and therefore of value.

Good luck to all who are beginning a new academic year…. and I am wearing my David Bowie socks today for luck…

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reverse Critique

This post is another installment in my series of observations about teaching techniques that I have experimented with in my design studio.

This week is final review week in the studio. Watching students frantically work to pull their final presentations together has gotten me thinking about something I tried earlier this semester, the reverse critique.

As the idiom goes, turnabout is fair play.
Pearson presentation pin-up

This semester I had been working on a competition entry for the Chicago Biennial Lakefront Kiosk design competition.  I decided to take one studio class and turn the tables – I would present my design project to the students and they would critique my creative work.

The concept of the reverse critique is a not a new idea.  I have heard about this technique being implemented in design studio courses at other institutions, but it was not something that I have experimented with myself, until now.  Here are a few observations from this activity.

I spent some time mentally rehearsing my presentation before the class, and I was actually a bit nervous in anticipation.  This surprised me because, well, I am the professor.  I get up in front of this same group of students each day and talk about things.  What was different this time?  The big difference was that I was presenting my own creative work.  It is like baring a little bit of your soul as a designer, to get up in front of an audience, and reveal your creative process. 

This reminds me of the importance of empathy for the task ahead of my students this week.  If I was even slightly nervous standing up and discussing my own work, how must they feel, as sophomores in architecture school, being asked to get up in front of professional architects who are poised and ready to criticize. 

For the students, this is a necessary and important part of an architectural education, learning to articulate and defend their creative work.  This is a skill that they must have as a future professional, and they will continue to improve in their ability to conceptualize and discuss their work as they progress through architecture school.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it ever gets easy to present creative work, and as the instructor, it is sometimes too easy for me to forget the nerves and pressure of a final review presentation.  The reverse crit was a good reminder, and gives me much needed perspective as an instructor.

The primary reason I tried this activity in the class was to model (or demonstrate) the type of performance that I want my students to engage in.  I wanted them to see how I approached the presentation, how I organized content and articulated ideas, and MOST IMPORTANTLY how I received critical feedback.  I try to find moments in my studio class where I can model professional behavior.   This was a good teaching opportunity to demonstrate how to participate in the ‘design dialog’ of a final presentation.

I addition to the manner in which I presented the work, the work itself becomes an example of sorts.  I took some time at the end of the critique to discuss how I approached the presentation, in particular the graphic decisions I made as a designer that specifically attempt to amplify the concept and tell the story of the design.  We talk a lot about story telling and articulating concepts in the studio, and the reverse critique was an opportunity to demonstrate these ideas firsthand through actual work.

I received good feedback about my work from the students.  They made some very valid and critical comments about the project.  They were probably too nice to me actually, but I am still the person giving them grades, and it is difficult to completely reverse the existing power dynamic. 

At this point in their education, my students are generally better at giving critical feedback to others than they are at being reflective and self critical about their own work.  This is to be expected, and yet through this reverse critique I hope that they begin to see that the ability to critically analyze someone else’s work is also an essential component of their own design process – a skill they will begin to master as they continue to mature as designers.