How to design like an architect.

The basic purpose of design is to decide upon the look and functioning of products (in this case buildings) but designing like an architect isn’t as straight forward as mathematics where the end is certain as long as you follow laid down formula and steps.

Therefore how do architects design?

Before we start, the focus of this article is on ‘how to design like an Architect’ and not on ‘the processes involved in designing like one’ so to learn more on the ‘process’ go-to ‘Design Process for Architecture Students‘.

The steps to designing like an architect discussed here were garnered from my experiences in practice and teaching, and also from observing colleagues.

How to design like an architect | Guggenheim interior sketch
Sketch of interior of the Guggenheim Museum, New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

1. Study the brief . . . Study your client.

The first step to designing like an architect is to study the brief you have been given – whether verbal or written. Note them down and study them.

You will have an edge here if the client explained this brief to you in person because this would afford you the opportunity to hear him; observe him and know even those things he could not voice out; his likes and dislikes and also ask questions.

The secret to not only a good design but a design that meets the client’s expectation is to clearly take note of the client’s brief.

Some of us receive briefs by proxy, don’t listen well during the briefing or fail to ask the right question and end up design buildings that do not meet the client’s expectations.

Analyze this brief to understand what the major functions of the buildings will be. Sometimes you may be lucky and the client will verbally tell you all the basic functions he needs.

A few clients are enlightened and know what they want, have done their research and may even know more on certain topics than you and may also already have built a building similar to the brief and can thus enlighten you on the functioning of that building type.

How to design like an architect | Guggenheim design analysis
Analysis of the Guggenheim museum showing its form, plans and sections.

2. Relax . . . and do some research.

Now you have been equipped with the brief, so the next thing to do is analyze your site and do some findings and case studies. In order to design like an architect, this is very important, though the level of research you will do is dependent on your capability, experience and knowledge and also on the nature of the project you have been given.

If its a project you have worked on before and you are confident that you know the project thoroughly then you can skip this stage.

What you want to look out for in your case studies are similar works like the new project you are about to embark on. You will need mostly plans and pictures of the finished building, if it hasn’t been built then the 3-Dimensional renderings or elevations will be fine.

Here you will study how the architects achieved his own design and try to pinpoint one or two uniqueness in his work. Just joggle these observations in your mind, you may not need to draw then down or write them down because your aim is not to copy.

Decide on what you will like to achieve with your design at this stage or what you will like to make it do or look like – some say this is you developing a design concept. Once you are certain of this then move to the next stage.

3. Chill and dream.

Just like an architect you now have all the raw materials to make a good design it’s just that they are not tangible and still exist only in your head. You don’t want to force the design out yet because it hasn’t crystallized.

So what you need to do is to chill, if you are the type that meditates maybe this may be a good time.

For me, I just chill. Go do some other things while you consciously pay attention to your thoughts because they are forming the basic design ideas subconsciously.

Sometimes you don’t have time to chill while the ideas form. If you are this type then take a pencil and paper and just make random sketches as the thoughts come to you. You may not get that special idea until after several tries.

4. Conceive the idea.

There are two ways to go about this stage, the first is to get your idea from another person’s idea (inspired idea)  and the second is to conceive the original idea.

For inspired ideas

This should be when you are unable to develop your own mental picture of what you want by your self or you don’t have time. So what you do is – From all the case studies you looked at am sure you saw certain patterns and uniqueness in their layout or forms.

So in this case, in conceiving yours you would tinker with the design principles or massing you observed in those projects. You can extract inputs from 2 or more designs and harmoniously integrate them into yours.

Try not to copy verbatim, the inputs you want to extract are concepts which you will interpret in your own ways. let’s look a the drawing underneath. 

How to design like an architect | Architectural plan comparison
3 plans showings the layout of rooms in a hotel building.
When you study the 3 plans above you will notice that they all have the same layout idea (concept) but their designs interpreted this concept in 3 different ways.

For example, from the drawings above – If your case study was the architectural plan at the middle (the square layout) and you want to develop a new (inspired) design from it, instead of copying; why not study the drawings – In studying it you will notice that the basic concept of the square plan was to design the rooms around a center core using square configurations.

Therefore what you want to do is to tinker with the configuration but retain the basic concept. In so doing you can a circular configuration (as on the left) and a derivative of a circular configuration (which is a totally unique configuration as on the right) and many more other layouts.

Unique ideas

If what you desire is a completely original idea then you can either wait for your formed idea to strike your mind like in a eureka moment or you take your pencil and paper and start sketching the ideas forming in your head.

Try not to mentally dwell on your case studies so they don’t influence your ideas.

5. Sketch out your ideas.

If you are seeking for original ideas; several ideas should be going through your minds at this point, try to pick the ones that are holistic – that is they address both basic form and functional needs simultaneously.

Meaning that from the idea you can tell what the basic form of the building will be like and at the same time tell what the basic functional layout will be like. It may still be very sketchy but you can tell it is unique.

Get a sheet of paper and a pencil and sketch it down. Extract a few more thoughts like that from your head and sketch them as well.

How to design like an architect | Holistic concept sketch

6. Take a good nap…

Take a good nap to help refresh your mind. The following day revisit your sketches, be mindful you may have a completely different opinion than what you had the previous day so pick the best sketch. Some may not be practical so you can discard those.

7. Detail your sketches

Work on the successful sketches by detailing the spaces and form until you are satisfied with the outcome.

If the detailing seems to spoil the design or brings out the impracticality of the design them you may discard it and pick another sketch. But if you are convinced that the sketch is too unique to be discarded then you can put in more effort to make it work.

Also, you will want to study the spaces and forms you have created. You can either use a 3D model or physical model to do this. Build a small scale model of your design and observe it from several angles both interior and exterior, if you are satisfied with the result it means you are set for your presentation. If you aren’t, tweak the model till you like what you see.

I hope you learnt something, please add your own ideas in the comment box below. Please note that this design metamorphosis isn’t always as fluid as discussed and may not at first try to lead to great design.

Even good architects sometimes fail to come up with great design ideas the first time, so don’t beat your self when it isn’t working out, just study your own way of coming up with ideas. Don’t pressure your self, relax mostly and you will get it.

Thank you for reading and please share. We look forward to your comments on the above topic. Also, you can subscribe to the latest blog post by clicking on subscribe at the top of the page and imputing your email address. Do have a nice day.