The Zaha Grandparent Test: Turning your design into a great visual presentation.

A colleague told me her final year Masters design students asked her what the format requirements were for the final submission. What is the template they asked? She told them, as they were all doing individual projects, there were no right answers. There was no template. They were horrified and disturbed.

She suggested  that they each needed to design there own layout and graphics for their project. Of course, as all experienced architects know,  by the end of architecture school students should know that there are no rights answers. Full stop.

Of course, such stories make me wonder about the power of computers to seduce young minds. Yes, I know this sounds cynical. But the computer is a highly controlled software environment ruled by algorithms producing another set of rules, graphical user interfaces and templates that are stable and static. Unfortunately, outside of this pleasant world of the rule regulated shimmering screen there are no rules. So here are a few ideas about making that design shine on the printed page or on some other digital platform. At the end of the day, or studio, your work needs to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test.

Drawings are read 

In the real world people “read” drawings. What do I mean? It is not like reading a book; nor, is it like watching  a television; or like looking at the screen of a mobile device.

The key to a great visual presentation is to understand that reading drawings or digital models is about getting inside the head of the person, or people who will look at our drawings and digital images. It is like a novelist who writes words in order to evoke images, sensations and thoughts in the person reading the book. Your drawings and visual images are “read” in this sense. If you do not prepare your presentation with this in mind you will fail to communicate your project ideas.

Approach it from the viewpoint of creating memorable images for your audience. What are the images that you need to produce that your audience of critics or clients will never forget? In other words create images they will think about even when they are fiddling around on their favourite app on their mobile phone.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_5

Layout is crucial 

When I look at architectural drawings or images on the wall. I don’t often read the text. I want to look at the images and get a sense of what the project is like. The layout of the drawings in the pdfs. or on the posters on the wall need to tell a story; in other words a narrative needs to be created that guides a “reader’s”, in other words a critic’s, “eye” through your architectural or urban design. In two dimensions either digital or physical you will need to describe and guide this “eye” through a three dimensional project.

What the project is like as a spatial entity, object or series of spaces is important. The spatiality of the design may need to be described and explained at different scales. At a urban scale in relation to a city or neighbourhood. How it is approached is important. At the scale of the street or its immediate neighbourhood. Entry conditions should be described. How do you enter the building and what are the spaces you first encounter when you are in it? What will a person see as they move through the building? What is it like at the scale of rooms? One way to do this is to organise your layout around these different scales or even the circulation routes around and through the building.

Layout is crucial to convey all this. It should not contain too much text as people want to see what the design is like. Too much text is confusing. Give your layout a heirarchy. Consider which information is more or less important. Structure it so that supporting diagrams, text and research information is adjunct to describe the spatiality of the building.

It is no good having one big aerial fly through or overall image if you then do not show the other spatial aspects of the project.

Always test your layouts with mock-ups and then refine them. Physically print them and pin them to a wall and then stand back and see what it is like. A bad layout has usually been done in one hit.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_4You don’t have to show everything. 

A good layout is a sequence of well organised images that convey a story and give an overall impression of the design. You do not have to draw everything. Tutors or critics who insist that you draw everything or you need to consider every detail are pedants. In the dark days of the 1970s I visited the architecture school up the road from my architecture school. I remember coming to the final year pinup and seeing sheets and sheets of plans, elevations, roof plans and sections. Every internal elevation, every external elevation and numerous sections. Line after line after black and white line of two dimensional drawings. There were even a few details. By the time the students had done all of these there was then no time to do any 3 dimensional drawings. The whole enterprise was as boring as batshit.

Drawing everything is a waste of time. Draw and translate into other media your digital models the  aspects and qualities about your design that are the most important. Architectural design communication is not about naive realism or trying to representing reality. You are not a failure if you haven’t drawn every elevation. In fact you can convey more about a design by just producing sections. After all plans are really sections anyway.

Only draw and present those images that convey the spatial, emotional or material narrative of your proposal.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_2

Design with the end image in mind 

Smart architects, at some point in the design process, plan their images, drawings and layouts ahead of time. They then put more design effort into those aspects of the building that will be presented and end up as images for others to view. In other words they start to design with the end visual product or presentation in mind.

Once you have a design up and running its always important to think that this will be presented and then work backwards from that. The worst presentations are those that desperately pop out at the end of the digital design process and get slapped around in Photoshop and slopped into InDesign.

RACHEL JONES FINAL LAYOUT_BLACK_Page_1Avoid excessive realism.

It’s not about copying reality. If your were going to represent your design as reality then you would build it at one to one scale. But, creating architectural images, particularly in the early stage of a project (sketch design),  and representing your design is not about making it real. It is not about filling in the dots with material likenesses, textures or colours of the real thing.

Yes, the sky is blue and bricks are red and concrete is a kind of grey. But that doesn’t mean we have to make everything look like its kind of real. Usually it just leads to really bad visual images that are oversaturated with colour and that reek of naivety. Drawings are not real, (look at Zaha Hadid’s early work for example), digital images are not real, 3d printed physical modes are not the real thing. So why try and pretend they are real? The best and most powerful architectural images are those that recognise this fact. Your images are representations and translations of your design. They are not the real thing and as such your images should represent the essential ideas of your design in the very manner in which it is presented.

Understand your media

We don’t all have Oculus VR set ups. So in the meantime we have to be able to translate our models from the computer to other formats. Sometimes these formats are actually physical. In the past we had a limited range of formats to translate or describe our projects in. Mostly just pens and pencils a and ink and limited range of reprographic techniques. I was an expert on reprographic techniques and using pantone for colour on drawings.

Today the techniques are different. Today with the proliferation of different platforms, software  and mobile computing your project may end up in a powerpoint, in a .pdf file, as a poster on a wall, on a web page or in the screen of an ipad or mobile phone. Its a good idea to remember which media you are translating or representing your design in.

Finally, the Zaha Grandparent test

Your images need to pass the Zaha Grandparent Test. Put your grandparents in front of your final Zaha like outputs and see what they say. They should both be able to understand what you have done and also be blown away as well. All of the above survival tips are another way of saying that to a large extent architecture is about image making. Of course how these images become a material reality is the topic of another blog. If not a few thousand blogs. Again, there are no right answers and after all isn’t that what architecture is all about.

(The images are from Rachel Jones MSD MArch thesis from 2011.) 

 

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