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Unlocking the Foundations of Architectural Design Theory

There are two fundamental ingredients required in every successful architectural design.

If you’re missing these ingredients, chances are your designs aren’t reaching their full potential, leaving you frustrated and uncertain in the design process.

You find yourself pushing shapes around on the page and not sure what to do or why.

Once you understand these ingredients, you will have a complete tool kit and vocabulary to describe your decisions with clarity. You’ll know what you’re trying to achieve and have clear reasons for why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Join me as I delve into the core of design theory, specifically tailored for architectural design.

If this interests you, then keep reading. If you think you already know it, then challenge yourself to see if you do know each of the design elements and principles, and how you are actively using them in your designs.

What Is Design Theory?

Before we get started with understanding design theory in architecture, let’s understand what design theory is. We’ll start with a few terms for clarity.

  • Design is defined as a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made. It is the purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object.
  • Theory is a plausible set of general principles offered to explain something.
  • Design theory is a system of ideas that explains how and why design works. It includes definitions of elements and principles of creating design.

It is the answering of the question “why am I designing it this way?”

If you cannot answer the question, you may need to think more. And, you may need to make an effort to Understand the elements and principles of design if you don’t.

The number of design elements and principles is not fixed and can vary depending on the context.  

  • Design Elements are the simplest pieces within a design.
  • Design Principles are the ways elements or pieces are put together.

Design theory is why you are placing the elements or pieces of the deign together in different ways.

Design theory is why one piece of design works and another doesn’t.

What Is Architectural Design Theory?

I want to talk specifically about design theory and how it applies to architecture.

Architectural Theory in general is the act of thinking, discussing, and writing about architecture.

Architectural Design Theory is the system of ideas that explains why architecture works (or doesn’t!!)

In my experience, this is often a part of architectural education that is missing. Or, it is presented in pieces, hidden amongst design lectures but without the foundational understanding that the content forms part of your design theory – is it an element or a principle of architectural design?

If students understood the concept of design theory, and how elements and principles of design are used, then as more of these are presented to you over time, you can simply add them to your design toolkit with full understanding of where they fit in.

Architectural design theory begins with the general elements and principles of design that apply to all types of design including art, sculpture, graphics and communication.

However, because it moves into the realms of three-dimensional spaces and volumes, it has a more developed and detailed design theory language of it’s own.

Here, we’re starting with the basics. If you’ve done any kind of art or design theory, this may be familiar. So, consider how you take these ideas from art, sculpture and graphics into the three-dimensional realm of architecture.

Design Elements

Design Elements are the simplest pieces within a design.

The basic general elements of architectural design are…

  • Point – Points serve as focal markers or pivotal elements or significant junctions, anchoring attention within a design.
  • Line – Lines define boundaries and movement and guide the eye through compositions or space.
  • Shape – Shapes define the outlines of elements within a composition, shaping visual structure.
  • Form – Form refers to the three-dimensional aspect of design, encompassing mass, volume, and spatial arrangement.
  • Size – Size denotes the physical dimensions of elements, influencing scale and proportion within architectural compositions.
  • Direction – Refers to the orientation and alignment of elements. It encompasses the lines, shapes, or forms that guide the viewer’s eye through the design and create a sense of movement or flow. Direction can also be used as a design principle.
  • Space (Positive + Negative) – In design, positive space refers to the occupied areas within a composition, while negative space represents the unoccupied or empty areas, both contributing to the overall balance and harmony of the design.
  • Colour + Value – Colors and values evoke mood, establish hierarchy, and add visual interest to designs. In architecture they influence perception, atmosphere, and spatial qualities.
  • Texture – Texture in design refers to the tactile quality of surfaces, adding depth and visual interest to compositions.

Design Principles

Principles of Design are the ways these elements or pieces are put together.

Some basic principles of design that relate to architecture are:

  • Unity/Harmony – Achieving cohesion and coherence in a design by ensuring that all elements work together as a unified whole.
  • Balance – Achieving equilibrium in a composition through the harmonious distribution of visual elements such as colour, texture, and spatial weight.
  • Proportion – Establishing pleasing relationships between different parts of a whole to ensure harmony and visual appeal.
  • Scale – The comparative size of elements within a composition, defining their relationship to one another and the space they occupy.
  • Symmetry – The arrangement of elements or forms in a design that mirror each other across a central axis, creating a sense of balance and harmony.
  • Asymmetry – The intentional deviation from a symmetrical arrangement, where elements or forms are varied in size, shape, or placement to create visual interest and dynamism within a composition.
  • Axis – An imaginary line or central reference point around which elements in a design are organized or balanced, influencing the spatial arrangement and symmetry of the composition.
  • Datum – A fundamental reference plane or point within a design that establishes a baseline for spatial relationships, orientation, and organization. A datum can be horizontal, organising elements along the ground, or it can be vertical, arranging elements at a certain height. Or both.
  • Repetition – The deliberate use of recurring elements or motifs within a design to create visual consistency, cohesion, and a sense of wholeness.
  • Rhythm – Establishing a sense of visual movement or pattern through the regular recurrence of elements or intervals within a design.
  • Contrast – The deliberate placement of elements with obviously different characteristics, such as color, texture, size, or shape. This creates visual interest, emphasis, and dynamic tension within a composition.
  • Similarity – Using shared characteristics among elements, such as color palette or shape, to establish cohesion and unity within a design.
  • Hierarchy – Organizing elements within a composition according to their relative importance or significance to guide the viewer’s focus.
  • Emphasis/Dominance – Directing attention to a focal point or dominant element within a composition to create visual impact and hierarchy.
  • Movement – The visual sensation of motion or progression created within a design through the arrangement and interaction of elements. The viewers eye is guided to give a dynamic sense of movement and direction.

Empowering Your Design Journey: Practical Insights and Implementations

Design theory is a big subject.

By incorporating the elements and principles discussed, you gain practical tools to elevate your design process and outcomes.

For instance, formal application of axis, datums, symmetry or asymmetry gives you a clear strategy for spatial layouts.

Understanding the principles of balance and proportion allows you to create harmonious compositions that just work.

Using concepts like rhythm and repetition allows you to control the users experience and journey through a space.

If you want to know more then make sure you hit like and subscribe, because I’ll definitely be exploring architectural design theory and these sort of concepts in way more detail.

In the meantime, check out the related episode on your screen or find the link in the description.

Until next time, keep creating…

…Liz at ArchiMash