Surviving the Design Studio: Why architects are the Design Thinking Misfits we all need.

Design Thinking has become all the rage for the corporate, consulting and media organisations. Since the 2015 Harvard Business Review on Design Thinking everyone is jumping onto the bandwagon. There has even been a documentary and as I noted in an earlier post there a now graduate schools and courses devoted to this. Design Thinking is seen as an efficient way to configure new digital workflows and processes. For some people working in this area, Design Thinking as architects know, it has a lot in common with User Experience design, or as some people call it UX.

It’s great that these things are starting to emerge. But as architects we need to be aware of these developments, and start to build these things into our curricula and to promote ourselves as the foremost exponents of Design Thinking. The range of design techniques we learn at architecture school, and our understanding of both digital and physical spatiality at different scales are things we don’t want to lose to others.

I was once invited to a corporate “Think Tank” workshop thingy about 10 years ago and started talking about “creative destruction.” This is a key mode of design thinking. I argued it as a great way to help solve complex business process problems. You can just imagine how those exact and actual words went down: in that room, of hard core line managers, country club styled corporate execs, and shiny suited consultants I felt like a TOTAL misfit. It didn’t help that I was wearing my black architects drafting coat.

I started to think about and remember this experience, when a friend of mine working in the UX consulting space said to me that the best people to do this kind of work are architects. She said this was because architects are able to think across different knowledge domains; as well as quickly drill down into the detail of one particular area. Then at lunch this week, another person involved in managing and reconfiguring digital work flows in a global consultancy argued that the Misfits, especially and usually the architects, are the best type of people to do this kind of work. He said it’s not just about learning regular BIM or Rhino or other routine aspects of coding. These things seem to work best with the Misfit outlook.

All of this begs a number of questions which I might leave for later blogs for example: Are we making enough Misfits at architecture schools? Also, are we as architects actively promoting ourselves as the specialists and leaders in the wider area of Design Thinking? Have the industrial and graphic designers grabbed all the Design Thinking glory? More broadly, are architects too often slaves to meeting the normative requirements of clients and regulations and money. As a group have we architects forgotten how to be misfits?

I have even developed an Acronym to help you read through the rest of the blog:  Architectural Misfit Thinking or AMT.  As an architect if you feel yourself thinking you are slipping into the mire of normalised design production; here are few mindful like Misfit thoughts and exercises you can do.

1. Link your problem to something else. Don’t just focus on the project/product.

In AMT any design problem can, and should be, quickly linked to something seemingly extraneous. Yes, it could be about the life, the universe, or everything. Anything really: The endangered species, the next scale up or the next scale or detail down. AMT can quickly get you across the emotional experience, the politics and the subaltern perspectives. In AMT there is no problem creating, a seemingly unrelated idea, throwing it into the mix,  something as an idea, testing it and the destroying it to see what’s left. Then starting all over again. To others from the outside it looks like a chaotic design process but from the inside, if well led, divergent thought helps to test and determine the best solutions.

AMT Exercise:  about a design problem you have and then think about something else completely different. Then think about how you might even try to link the two together.

2. Imagine the physical reality in your head.

Your mind is way better than any Rhino or BIM modelling software. AMT, because it is a socio-material and spatial way of thinking is a great way at helping people visualise things. AMT can help you visualise the full experience of a thing.  Not just the digital one you see on the screen. ATM relies solely on the imagination and the mind.

AMT Exercise: Design and imagine that next project in your mind. Then zoom in and out and spin it around, in your mind, as if it was on a screen. Walk through it in your head.

3. Dance across the Silos of Knowledge

As suggested above, AMT is about thinking across specialist knowledge silos and putting together lots of disparate fragments. Architects usually assemble and put together many different manufactured products. We dance across structural, hydraulic, climatic and electrical services; silos of knowledge too numerous to mention.

In some ways designing a single building can be easily linked to product or industrial design. But it isn’t quite the same. A building can be a bundle of different off-the-shelf products. But then some of it is completely one-off, innovative and purpose-built. AMT is about knowing how to make things from scratch and also how to combine very different products or pre-existing configurations together.

AMT Exercise: Think about a few different off- the-shelf industrial and manufactured products and then sketch or diagram how you might put them together to make something useful. Or better still, think how you would put them together to make them completely useless, but still look fabulous as an aesthetic.

Yes, Architects are the Misfits you need and perhaps the Misfits we all need. In some ways architecture needs more Misfits. But as architects we also need to embrace our inner Misfitness and not lose touch with the great aspects of our odd Design Thinking, weird studio education, and strange but wonderful discipline.



Categories: Design Thinking, Misfits and Punks, surviving the design studio

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