An Architecture of Thought

How studying to become an architect taught me to think about design

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I learned two major lessons in my years in architecture school: first, that design is my passion in life, in all its forms. Design is not a collection of geometry and color on paper; great design lives and breathes. It touches people.Secondly, I learned that I have no interest in being an architect.

In telling this story I’m often met with a response that implies that three years was some kind of a waste, a path to nowhere. I don’t see it that way.

The staunch traditionalism of this Beaux-Arts-styled program meant that computers, in the first two years, were nothing more than a research tool. Our designs began as rough sketches and words on trace paper and developed with markers, thick-lined sketch pencils, and quickly constructed models of cardboard. Our final products were hand-drafted, exquisitely-inked and meticulously-colored on expensive presentation boards, or bound in hand-made books of vellum and chipboard with marker and watercolor renderings. We learned to design — learned to think — with pencils in our hands.

When we start on paper, we start with an entirely different mindset. Lead on paper possesses a fluidity, a subtle impermanence. Mistakes will be made, just scribble harder. I can think of nothing that clears the mind like wadding up a bad idea and throwing it into a wastebasket, then looking down at a fresh, blank page. Touching a pencil to paper feels like channeling ideas from the intangible to the tangible. The pencil becomes a direct conduit between the brain and the page.

Computers, by contrast, exist quite literally in an ecosystem of details. Pinpoint precision and perfect geometry can be the death of ideas. I have tried, in vain, to begin designs on the computer. These endeavors inevitably end with me frustrated, retreating to the corner with my notebook and away from the computer where I’ve drawn a neat set of perfectly-spaced, dead lines.

When I show my clients sketches, they understand that I’m showing them ideas, concepts, possibilities. When I present them with computer “comps” they see a finished product. It’s important at the beginning phases for things to remain flexible. Presenting a client with a pixel-perfect Fireworks export may wow them, but it may also make them feel like we’ve taken some control from them. I’d rather the people I design for feel like they’re part of a creative process, not witnesses to it.

What that time in architecture school really taught me was not how to design. Sure, I learned a lot about color theory and composition, the importance of empty space and harmony. My handwriting became more legible and I learned that sometimes my best ideas come at 3am. But more than anything else, architecture school taught me to think like a designer. And I’ve learned, over the years, that I just think better with a pencil in my hand.

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