Originality often refers to has something new, unique, or different that has never been done before. In the field of architecture design, creatives value originality, individuality, and uniqueness because they shape a designer’s identity. The general belief is that originality is nonexistent. Mostly everything has been done before, to some extent, and in one manner or another. I could not disagree more, hence the importance of design analysis. Each design project is an opportunity to express our originality. Adam Grant, the author of Originals, explains “instead of starting with, why start with the how.”
Answering the “how” starts with the process of design analysis. Designers understand, abstract, and interpret the salient givens or the known factors to inform creative design solutions. This process of abstraction comprises of two primary intersecting contexts: the project givens and the response to the givens. The project givens include the program, conventions, and site and context. The design program stipulates the required spaces, functions, material specifications, and all other requirements. For instance, in a residential design project, the client may provide different areas with their functionality and even material preferences. The site and context refer to the geographical characteristics of the project, such as project location, orientation, etc. The conventions apply to the cultural contexts of the project. The collection of said information occurs during the initial client meetings.
Now that all the project givens are identified, the interior designer starts interpreting and defining these givens to begin answering the “how.” It is then the design analysis phase begins with a process of exploration and discovery of the existing conditions, assumptions, and expectations. The designer looks at the problem through a conceptual lens facilitating the establishment of a framework. Thus, the output of this exercise will inform all subsequent design decisions.
“Analysis is the process of exploration and discovery with which an architect not only develops a familiarity with the assumptions, expectations, and conditions that are given, but subsequently establishes the critical framework of the problem, the conceptual lens through which all design decisions are subsequently made.”
Discovering design solutions is similar to that of the practice of law; we often refer to precedent to help with identifying the best response to the present circumstances. As designers, it is essential to the design process and to our success to educate ourselves on what has come before to create an architectural repertoire. We tap into our knowledge of design precedents to identify formal solutions that have responded to similar programmatic, contextual, and cultural constraints. Precedents can originate from external sources such as fashion, art, films, urban landscape, nature, narratives, etc. These formal solutions undergo a process of distillation and abstraction via a series of exercises such as architectural models or sketches to inform strategies for form, circulation, order, structure, and aesthetics.
The role of abstraction during design analysis is to discover the values within precedent work to inspire more original design. The completion of architectural design consists of overlapping and intersecting systems to form the complete work. Abstraction is the design process of breaking down these systems into parts via a series of vignettes, diagrams, or sketches revealing insights into the precedent’s unique attributes. Circulation, structure, public versus private spaces, solids versus voids, and major versus minus spaces are the most common systems. These systems are transformed, merged, or intersected for a better understanding of their qualities and strategically implemented to form a new set of parameters.
The synthesis of the generative analytical diagrams during design abstraction produces intermediary devices for interpretation. These devices are often models developed during the design analysis phase motivating the development of concepts. Accordingly, the testing of these interpretations helps with answering the “how” and formulating original new work. The value of the devices is within their intermediary condition retaining the concept of the studied precedent work and embedding the potential of new ideas.
For example, the image below illustrates Richard Meier’s diagrams for the House in Pound Ridge, New York 1969. In these diagrams, he isolates different architectural systems – site, program, entrance, circulation, enclosure, and structure – in a spatial sequence collecting a series of information leading to the production of an intermediary device, the architectural model. Intermediary devices serve as a bridge between the retained precedent concept and new emerging ideas/concepts shaping a threshold of innovation and interpretation.
Design analysis leads to a journey of discovery, reflection, and inquiry of existing work with similarity to the project in hand. It reveals the importance of precedent reference in the initial phase of designing. Certain projects may require more analysis than another; it is at the designer’s discretion the depth of analysis undertaken. Nevertheless, the analytic exercises – abstraction, interpretation and intermediary device production- results in the authorship of new ideas, concepts, and designs. Hence, as designers, we must focus on the “how”.