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How to design...or not?

edited April 2008 in Q and A
Howdy Funsters,

I'm a 2nd year student and I have some questions about how design is taught. I'm at the University of Newcastle where there is a 'problem-based learning' philosophy. Whilst we have design studies courses, there isn't really any actual 'how to design' component. We are guided in tutorials and can also go by our marks & (subjective) presentation feedback, but I feel that this is often unsatisfactory, especially for people who are very inexperienced. Whilst I *love* art & architecture and can just eat up all the theory, I hate to admit that when it comes to putting pencil to paper I am constantly underwhelmed by the frequently er prosaic results.

How do other universities teach these kind of skills? Some people seem to think that experience is the only way to learn. I have looked for some books but it seems that most architectural design texts are about 'how to design in one particular style' - not really what I'm after.

Anyhoo I will be most innerested to hear what others think & all ideas & info will be much appreciated. Thanks a bunch!



  • edited April 2008
    Dear Frosty,
    That used to be my nickname once because I couldn't be seperated from a 'frosty boy' icecream servers baseball cap, but you're not interested in that and I don't wear that hat anymore.
    I do wear this hat though. Art, design, architecture and falling over in the street, all have a common denominator. They have a reason for happening the way they do that has nothing to do with your imagination. You have to look for what is needed, for what is asked for, and for what limitations exist on achieving those first two. That is design.

    Your imagination will more often that not lead you astray from those three goals and that is why some people think experiance is the only way and why some texts appear to contain more 'style' than substance. Experiance, because you have to learn the answer to those three criteria above by careful and repeated observations of what works best AND what fails to work. 'Style' more than substance, because no one can be relied upon to be completely without stlye but everyone can be relied upon to sometimes be without substance.

    Style is inherent to human nature, like a bird can sing and a domesticated dog can bark, but 'substance' in the meaning of the word that I think you use it, is inherent to physical nature, like a tree stands up or certain plant seeds floats on the breeze or the shape that your thumb has. Their design was not 'imagined'. Their design is utterly rooted in the three parameters of what you should look for, that I have listed above and which you must attempt to understand long before your imagination comes into it. Not designed by 'intelligent design' I hasten to add, but designed by the enviroment in which they exist.
    Substance is understanding both limitations and the successful exploitation of those same limitations. Design does not succeed if it does not referance the enviroment in which it must exist and you cannot 'imagine' the enviroment, so do not attempt to 'imagine' the solution to design problems. You must observe what fails and learn from it, until you stop setting up things to fail in the first place. You have to ask why there is no such thing as a successful design that does not 'fit' where it exists.
    Good luck has nothing to do with it either. It is all about being a careful observer
  • edited 11:26AM

    Thanks for the ideas. I understand all of what you say but it's the translation of these kind of general or high-level ideas into actual rooms, spaces etc that often eludes me.


  • edited April 2008
    Frosty, thanks for your reply. It's good not to write off into an echo chamber.

    You could try reading up on Leonardo da Vinci's note books. He was the first to really empiricalise space. He invented perspective drawing, or rather he invented the mathematical means to reproduce on paper, space as humans experianced it.
    When designing space you are really designing human movement. You have to know how we move or more precisely, would want to move or sit or eat, etc, when you define a space. If you don't attempt to know human movement then you will only get it right with luck and so, often you will get it wrong. You'll know it is wrong because it looks bad or if it gets built, it feels bad.
    For instance when you come out of a lift, it is disturbing to walk into four differant directions to go in. Two is a maximum and then two others after you have made the initial turn left or right.
    Or a toilet should not face a wall which your knees can touch. It seems obvious, but I have seen designs where exactly that much room was drawn for the toilet. I have also seen toilets big enough for a billiard table and that is as equally distressing to someone just trying to have a nice private crap.

    If you remember that you are designing a level of restriction on human movement and therefore a level of impact on human psychology, and not just a pretty space, then you will perhaps be able to translate such "general or high level ideas into actual rooms, spaces etc."
    Happy to give you further tips re materials, space, whatever.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Howdy Simon,
    Im four years into my degree and found your comments interesting. The info for anwsering these design problems is usually right in front of you. Whether thats the brief or the site of the implied info. Trying to come up with an anwser to a design problem by just "imagining" it without constantly checking back with the info you have makes things very difficult. I find myself quite often (and at the moment) doing this and needing to check myself. Its like having a design problem with no constraints. You need them in order to give your brain some parameters to work within.
    Dont know if this was entirely off the issue guys but there it is.
  • edited April 2008
    Absolutely not off the issue Lukle.
    The 'constraints' are the best clue how to move forward. For me the 'constraints' are the solutions to most of the work. I just saw a video on Sir Norman Foster's Barcelona communications tower. If you look at his problems you can see why that was his solution.
    Firstly the brief.
    A tower that didn't dominate the whole mountain
    A tower that could accomodate present and future demands

    The solution.
    A slender column
    The constraint.
    A slender column that high, can't stand up by itself. Even with cable stays, which would impose a crush load which would bend the column.
    The solution.
    Design the floor levels to act as the main bracing for the column.
    The constraint.
    unwalled floor levels that high will warp under wind loads.
    The solution.
    Triangular floor plans.
    The constraint.
    Cable stays will interfere with radio waves.
    The solution.
    Bring the stays up to the lowest floor, bulge out the triangle floor edges (the edges where all the radio emitting equipment has to go) and run the cables up the three corners which are now 'behind' the signal emitters. Above the TV floors in front of the mobile phone microwave dishes, make the cables from kevlar.
    And so on...

    My guess is that Norman Foster's 'imagination' has more of a rendering role in the design process compared to his deep respect for an intimite understanding of the physical solutions to physical problems long before rendering is an issue.
    This ties into my beef elsewhere in this forum about the ego being made a first point of referance.
    The ego can't do it unless it plays second fiddle to intellect and when it plays second fiddle, it is better to remain silent than to put up with all the rescoring and dischordance that inevitably results, until the main music is written.
    Best wishes. Simon.
  • edited April 2008
    I think the main question behind my original post was about how design skills are / can be taught. In my course there are complete novices, like myself, as well as people who already have a fair bit of experience and who can often produce good results very quickly. The others are left pretty much to themselves to try to come up with a good plan, without really being taught how to do this. I have to say that I am surprised at how uneven the playing field is, especially within a course that does not require prior experience in these areas. Not that there's anything I can do about this - I am now starting to realise how much self-education might be involved in order to get through the course.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Hi Frosty,
    Fair comment. When I was at art school as an 18 year old, half the class were twice my age and their life experience brought to their works insights I didn't have. But that's life. There's nothing you can do about it except not put pressure on yourself for not knowing something that others do. Forget competition and comparisons of life experience. You might as well beat yourself up for not having been the president of America.
    When you say
    "I have to say that I am surprised at how uneven the playing field is, especially within a course that does not require prior experience in these areas. Not that there's anything I can do about this - I am now starting to realise how much self-education might be involved in order to get through the course"
    You reveal to me, no disrespect intended, that previously you had come to expect your education to be a series of incrementally increasing levels of data being spoon fed to you on an equal basis to the kid on the next desk.

    I am a school council president of my kids primary school and my principal is an inspired educationalist who campaigns against that style of education and practices what he preaches, and has come to be sought after for his advise by the education depts of most of the Australian states. His programs, which are now being taken up by primary schools across the nation, revolve around creating a sense of "self education" ie. problem solving using guided imagination, at primary school level. Being taught to analyse and think for ones self by being given the same data but having to use it creatively to work out why it is useful to know it in the first place.
    His school contributes a small number of pupils to the local high school where they disproportionately represent a very large number of the brighter kids streamlined classes, but where they also often become extremely frustrated by the very style of education that you probably received. That is rote learning of pure data, day in, day out, without much attempt, if any, to relate the information to the real world experiences of children.
    As you have found and many do, when you get to Uni you are suddenly expected to use your own brain when you've just spent the best part of 12 years years learning not to use your own brain.
    Well, all I can say is now is the time to enjoy the freedom to explore your own intellect. In answer to your original quizzical reference to Newcastle Uni's "Problem based learning", well yes you do need to use your imagination in that case because your previous education taught you not to use it, which is completely unfair because as young children and teenagers that's exactly when imagination is most important.
    As adults it has to play second fiddle, but a very important second fiddle I assure you, to physical realities.
    You have your work cut out, but DO use your imagination because with conventional education you will have missed out on much valuable "problem solving" time, which you will find most useful in avoiding prosaic emulations.
    In the dictionary prosaic means 'lacking imagination'. OK, so if that's your problem then your solution is in front of you. Practice using your imagination for a while. And don't forget to enjoy it.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Here's The problem Frosty. And It is not your fault in the slightest. You are the victim of it.

    Classical education for architects as late as a hundred years ago involved copying line for line the great temples of the Greek and the Roman spheres of influence representative of The Three Orders Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. The Greek being original and the Roman being inspired copies. The principle behind that was that Greek architecture was seen to be the pinnacle of design above which only those immune to widespread ridicule would dare to go.
    In fact this was a symptom of a society-wide understanding that a classical education meant learning all that was available from ancient Greek culture. Even little children began by learning Greek and the Latin translations of Arabic in which most of Greek culture had survived the dark ages.
    But back to architecture. The classics were still being taught in some Universities in America when the Bauhaus School was in it's formation in Germany. Hitler had the school dissolved and their pupils were persecuted and the greatest of the teachers and adherents fled to America.
    Here was the solution. Their main tenet was that "Form Follows Function". This may seem ho hum to us now but try and imagine (I do know imagination has its purpose) that concept in an era when all the great buildings of Europe were still being designed on the template of a 2000 year old temple floor plan and the decoration of them involved the training of thousands of craftsmen in the faithful reproduction in stone and wood, of acanthus leaves and fluted columns
    To the traditionalists, 'form follows function' was to suggest a gross and politically dangerous heresy because for centuries all great architects, artists and politicians of Europe had been taught to mold themselves upon the only one true 'form'. Greek culture and its 'modern' expression in the great commissioner of public buildings, the Roman Catholic Church and its imperial inheritors, the European monarchies.
    'Form follows function' was to suggest that function was actually independent of 'form' and possibly even superior to 'form'. Politically this was like suggesting that the bureaucracy might have an independence from the authority that created it, or that workers might not have to follow demands.
    Actually the Bauhaus formed after these political ideas were historically relevant fervent and real in the Russian revolutions and the French revolution which spawned the Prussian revolutions.
    Importantly for modern Architecture, Germany, the main culture independent of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of both great revolutions and thus the main supporter of the communist ideals of the workers on the other side of Poland, architectural expression in heaps of Factory buildings was the biggest opportunity to express this relatively old, but as far as buildings go, untested ideal that Form does indeed follow Function.
    The Bauhaus represents that moment when the political ideal began to infiltrate the education that architects received.
    It was the first not only to suggest that the long and ancient received wisdom of the Greeks might not be superior but should be ditched altogether in favour of the new and modern demands of real people with a real need to live and work in buildings that worked for them and not for long dead Greek temple functionaries.
    Your prosaic problem is that we are still only one hundred years out from this cultural upheaval from which many educationalist have still not dared to venture towards for fear of upsetting some quiet harbinger of doom if people think for themselves, without reference to Classical thought.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Yes I understand all these kind of things. I don't think I was ever expecting to be 'spoon fed' - I was just interested in finding out the different approaches or ways design skills could be learnt or taught and investigating these to see if they worked for me and could supplement my course.
  • edited April 2008
    Just taking a break from hand rendering some Autocad sketch drawing at, OH MY GOD 1:15am !!!, Anyway.
    You present to me a fascinating dilema Mr Frosty. You say you have a 'problem based learning philosophy' at you're University and I assume you feel that that is problematic.
    I rave on ad infinitum, I know full well i'm a terrible bore, but my intentions have lofty motives in that I so love design that I would love to extol left front and centre, what the right can't see and I finally get a responsive correspondant and ironically your name is Frosty.
    Any way Mr Frostbland. I have tried and so have others it seems, to show you that problem based solutions are the be all and end all of design. You may wish for an easier way to arrive at metro design, but I am afraid that there is no other junction than that between a problem and its solution.
    One cannot be taught design without first being introduced to a problem that needs solving. Perhaps you are talking about illustration. Perhaps you assume that there is a finite index of solutions to problems, the existance of which you are perplexed as to why it has not been revealed to you.

    This finality is simply not so. Your quest does not exist except in that it does exist where ever you may choose to find it and it has no end. When Chopin the composer of music, circa long before you or I were born, when Chopin was a little boy of five or six, he had written rheams of music and had begun to tire of his genius and lamented to his mother that he was afraid that he was actually beginning to run out of original compositions. His mother said to him, dear woman, that God had so far failed to run out of smiles on beautiful faces and that she didn't think he was going to run out any time soon either.

    If you can find all the different approaches there are to teaching design then you will have found about one billionth of the possible designs from next year and I doubt you will have found any that suit you. Why don't you just try designing and then you may well just teach yourself. Your teachers in the meantime will surely guide you and your collegues and your books and your pencil.
    I have a young cousin at Newcastle Uni doing Architecture who i am informed is doing really well. If I know him at all then I know he would not be doing really well if Newcastle wasn't a good university in which to learn architecture.
    But, it may not suit you and so I must leave you to your quest, might I suggest though that one of the big Asian universities might satisfy you. Singapore has some pretty good stuff coming out of it. Or RMIT in Melbourne is really big on computer aided design which I think lacks imagination, but if prosaic is your thing, you may really love it there. It certainly does well in the kudos stakes overseas anyway.
  • edited 11:26AM

    Thanks again for the considered input. I do understand that problem-based design has many advantages, however it's the area between the problem and the design that I'm still unsatisfied with. I know I have a tendency to overanalyze everything and that may be all that's happening here. But there must be techniques that people use to come up with a design, problem-based or not, otherwise they'd just be flailing round randomly every time, as if their skills and experience were of no use. Anyway, I think we might be in danger of exhausting this topic - I am starting to suspect that there is probably no answer and that I should just go and finish my assignments :^)
  • edited 11:26AM
    No worries frosty, it's been a pleasure.
    Before I go, Randomly flailing around, as uncomfortable as that sounds, may be your best bet to uncovering this elusive technique you're seeking.
    AND there is no such thing as a skill or experiance that is not useful.
    'Application of' skill and experiance may be useless but that is generally for other to judge when you've finished randomly flailing around.
    What have you got to loose?
  • edited 11:26AM
    may i care to suggest that university is about allowing you to explore your own methodology regarding design by introducing you to a collection of strategies and you finding out the one that works for you.
    the academy cannot teach you how to design only how to think and maybe how to learn.
    it certainly cannot teach you how to BE an architect; how to draw, how to conduct yourself in a meeting, how to detail, how to wear a site helmet. this is the role of practice and the profession. unfortunately not enough practictioners agree.
    finally, go hard or go home.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Miles, you strike me as being some sort of hard drinking ski bunny, or maybe you go parachuting and base jumping on your days off. Love your confidence, but really, I think Frosty may be the more sensative kind who treads carefully and gingerly. Maybe too carefully and gingerly, but he'll probably get there, even if he goes softly. Remember the hare and the tortise?
  • edited July 2008

    Here is a video of how not to teach architecture. It is excrutiating so be prepared to have your socks rocked. Thanks to architecture planet
  • edited July 2008

    And here is a video "the thermea of stone", that shows clearly how a design can be governed by the materials and the brief and still allow the artist to shine through completely. Absolutely beautiful building. Note the engineering solution to the cantilevered roof structures, that show how physics has been used as art.
    [couldn't get the link to work so found this one - hope it's the same - p]
  • edited 11:26AM
    Oh dear, just fought my way through that eisenman / prix video. What an indulgence, it's as if the student doesn't exist.
  • edited 11:26AM
    Isn't it a shocker!! I have a really poor connection being in the country so I had to endure it in bits and pieces stop starting, but even then it was as excruciating as promised.
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