1st September 2014 — By Dan Hawkins

Six lessons Architecture School taught me that still serve me as a web designer

The variety of design roles and industries in the world today has been really useful to me. I’ve been able to get a taste of just a few and find a spot where I feel most equipped and knowledgeable; even though I didn't originally study in the field of web design. My degree in Architecture taught me many valuable lessons about how to be a successful designer, not just a successful architect. I’m sure this is the case for any good design based training but here I’m going to sum up from personal experience what has served me well so far when developing websites. The architecture degree was infamous on my campus as the course that made you stand in front of your work after a week of all-nighters and far too much coffee only to have it torn apart by your tutors. Whilst there is some truth in this, these design reviews or ‘crits’ were a really useful tool for learning about designing in the real world and a lot of what I talk about will relate back to them. After all, there’s no point in us designing anything unless we show it to someone!

In this post ‘tutor’ can easily be replaced with ‘client’. In architecture school, the first thing you have to learn is: your tutor is your client!

1. Give people something to play with.

My best crits were always the ones where I kept the critics amused. Your tutor has to listen to tonnes of presentations in one day, likewise your client probably has a hundred other things they need to get on and do. If you bore your tutor you are not going to stick out in their mind positively, they are going to remember how bored they were.

Interactive exhibition shelf presentation designed and built by myself and classmates

One of my best crits was when my classmates and I designed a fully interactive exhibition piece of items sat on a shelf. We simply introduced it and then let them explore and play until they’d learnt about everything we wanted to say. They watched vlogs, listened to recordings and read letters that conveyed our ideas. It was so much more interesting for them than if we stood in front of it and explained it all step by step.

My tutor told me a story of how his practice won a project on the massive London Crossrail developments. They created a Hornby style train set of their design ideas which they built whilst delivering their presentation! Needless to say, they won the project!

Just remember, no matter how formal of a setting you are in, people enjoy having fun and playing with things! Tap in to that in your next presentation with a model, a game or some other exciting way of explaining your ideas!

2. Don’t assume - find out. Have a reason for everything you have done.

Assumptions are time bombs waiting to go off and make you look like you don't know what you're doing. Don’t leave them lying around on your presentation. In architecture you might assume the size a room needs to be or the thickness of a special kind of wall construction, because you haven’t bothered to quickly check. In web design you might assume how an important sign up feature or stage of the ecommerce funnel works, without actually designing it.

These are the parts your client will end up asking about!

If you’ve made it look like it’s designed, then you better have a reason why you made it look that way - and be able to tell the critics what made you reach that conclusion. If you freeze up because you just made an assumption, don’t expect a friendly response - you’re gonna look incompetent.

If you don’t know how part of your design works yet - make it look that way, make it look like a work in progress. That’s far less damaging in the long run.

3. There is no product without process.

The process of a senior designers

The Process of a Senior Designer. Image credit: Julie Zhuo

Tutorials during my degree where I showed the different avenues I had taken with my design projects; and in general, the projects that I iterated more had much more successful outcomes. Firstly, the tutors had more to talk about than if I had turned up with one immaculate drawing; but more importantly they were happy to see I was testing different ideas and approaches.

I think this is a crucial part of any design training and is why no matter what level you are studying at, you are always asked to record and present your design process. This isn’t just a pointless exercise to keep you busy, I think it eventually makes you aware how important the process was in producing that amazing final piece of work.

When I wrote my final self evaluation for my degree, I spoke about how important thinking time was to me. This is time when I’m preoccupied doing something else but quietly mulling over my ideas at the back of my mind. I have now made sure that this is baked in to my process. I talk more about the importance of process with clients on my website; I think my clients feel a lot more comfortable working with me knowing that I am taking them through a tried and tested process that came out of my practical and academic experiences.

4. People don’t want to hear how long it took you.

derp cat - Coffee cannot fix this kind of tired

Your client will not thank you for moaning about how tired you are. Image credit: We Know Memes

You know how I just said that you’re design process is really important? Well when you are presenting ideas and work to a client or tutor, don’t bang on about how hard you worked on it. If you are the expert you are claiming to be, it should look as if it was effortless for you, because you are a design genius. Doesn't that seem so much more attractive to your clients?

I talk to my clients about the process and journey I am going to take them through as we craft their perfect project. What I don’t do is explain to them how I’m going to create every image and every line of code, because honestly they don’t care how I go about it. Some tutors love this, because they do/did the same. But not all of them.

So don’t try and get sympathy for all the effort you put in to a design. Put that energy in to convincing your critics that you are presenting the best design in the world.

5. People don’t see what you see in your designs.

So that design you have slaved over for days or weeks or months and you are sick of seeing… yea these guys are seeing it for the first time! All those little bits that brought you agony are probably not even on there radar. You have just put a fresh and most probably awesome piece of work in front of them, and your attitude towards it should reflect that.

For a lot of my crits, I would turn up having just finished the work I was going to present. This meant I had no time to take in and appreciate what I had created and was nowhere near ready to present it properly. If you can… spend some time away from the work you are going to present before the day comes. That way when you stand in front of it you see it with a fresh pair of eyes again and remember how amazing it is!

When you see your work in this way, you’ll realise what everyone else sees and hopefully feel a lot better about what you have produced. So when I design and build a new website, I usually show the finished product to my contemporaries before the clients, this way I test the water and usually get some nice feedback which inflates my ego for when I present it!

6. Designs don’t sell themselves

So I suppose all of my previous points have led up to this one! I am a firm believer that a successful project that everyone is happy with is 50% the product of good design and 50% the product of good presentation. Most of my points have oriented around the ‘design crit’, which in reality is the presentation to the client that all designers have to do at some point.

No matter what you have walked in to the room with on that day, you have to believe that it’s the most awesome thing you have ever made and you have made it especially for your client, they are going love it and its going to help them reach all of their goals.

Obviously a good way of doing this is actually have designing something brilliant, but that’s not the job done. At architecture school I saw lots of mediocre projects do exceptionally well in review, and it was because of how they were packaged. The student presented a coherent set of drawings and models that worked well together to look amazing to those fresh eyes (even though if gone over with a fine tooth comb you would find issues) and sometimes would have an element of fun to the way in which it was all presented. They also spoke about their project in the most positive way possible and never drew attention to the faults. These students had done their research as well, they may have made mediocre design decisions, but they were informed decisions which counts for a lot.

So just remember that you have to be on top form to convince your clients, not just your work.

So this list of lessons is in no way exhaustive - you learn a lot more than this over 4 years! But hopefully there are some take home points about design education’s relevance to the wider industries and the world.


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