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What Is A Design Journal?

In most of your design studios, you are going to be asked to keep an architecture design journal, sketchbook or visual diary. Sometimes it may be part of your assessment to show your engagement, process and completion of the required work. Even if you’re not asked to keep a design journal it’s a really good habit to get into.

Keeping a design journal is a great record of your work for a project and over time. It keeps everything in one place and becomes an easy reference when you want to go back to an idea or something you tested or to explain the process of your thinking and how you came to a final design solution.

Your design journal is something that you might start to carry around with you so that you have a place to jot down thoughts and ideas as they come to you in random places, which they will!! So how do you start?

Choosing A Design Journal

You start by choosing a journal. You might be given a specific design journal to use for a subject or project. Most likely you get to choose for yourself. There are three big considerations when choosing a design journal: size, paper and binging.

  • Size | Size comes down to what size paper you like to draw and write on and what size is easy to carry around. My personal experience has found that A3 is way too big and awkward. A4 is usually a little bit big. A5 or B5 (which is in between A4 and A5 and about the size of an iPad although not as common) is a good size and easy to carry. A portrait or vertical format is good.
  • Paper | Paper comes down to thickness, texture and then any printing. Cartridge paper is good for art but not always as good for architecture. Some papers are quite thin and any pen will bleed through so you need to test – thicker is probably best. Also, you will have options for a blank page, ruled, lined grid or dot grid. Blank or a dot grid is good as it gives you more freedom for writing or drawing. The 5mm dot grid is great as it provides a guide for writing, sketching and scale drawings.
  • Binding | Binding comes down to whether you want a spiral binding so that you can flip the pages back on themselves

If you’re not sure, find a notebook you like and test it out. See what other people use and recommend. Over time, you will come to find a notebook you like. To get started I recommend an A5 or B5 hardcover bound portrait (vertical) notebook with a 5mm dot grid.


Even though design is mostly about drawing there will be some written work, mostly as informal notes that are really to help you learn, rather than be directly assessed. These include:

  • Lectures | Notes could be handwritten directly into your design journal or typed, printed and stuck in. Unless there is a specific requirement, it doesn’t matter. Whatever is the easiest and best way for you to take notes and learn is fine.
  • Tutorials | Tutorial notes are most likely to be handwritten. Make sure you take notes on any new content, tips or emphasis on themes, content what is important to consider.
  • Readings and Videos | You may have some additional content to research such as readings or videos. Again, these notes could be handwritten or typed and printed out.
  • Questions, issues and problems | In between classes you can jot down any questions or issues you encounter as a reminder to bring them up in class.
  • Assessment information | Notes about the assessment task and requirements. You could print out any key information that you refer to and stick it in your journal. You might highlight and mark up a project brief or assessment requirements, or even the subject outline with key dates.
  • Reflection and lessons | Include reflection on your process and notes about what you are leaning as they come to you.


Feedback is going to come in many forms and is discussed in more detail here. You need to keep an eye out for feedback on both your work and other student work that you can apply to your own during your tutorials. The main things you want to look for with feedback are what is and is not working and what has been forgotten. Feedback can come in the form of:

  • Marked up drawings | The tutor might mark up pinned up drawings. Ask if you can photograph these for reference.
  • Whiteboard | The tutor might draw some examples on the whiteboard. You can ask if you can photograph these, or in some cases, they might want you to draw and copy them yourself for practice. This is a better process for learning!!!
  • Slides or written notes | You might be given a presentation. Try to avoid just sitting through these and relying on slides. You will learn and remember a  lot better if you take notes and copy things down and start to think about the content and themes.
  • Class or group discussions | Take notes from general conversations with your tutor or other students. Ask if you can record the conversation and go write your notes later for the best result – especially with more formal presentations and crits.

Learn more in the article titled “Architecture Design Studio Class | What You’ll Learn And Why

In-Class Activities and Work-In Progress

You may have some in-class activities you complete individually or as a small group. It could be whiteboarding, drawing, model-making, brainstorming or research. Make sure you record the outcomes with photographs and scans.

It can also be fun to record your work in the process either in class or at home just as much as the outcomes. Showing your workspace, the different stages of a model being made from materials to finished product or the atmosphere in a studio is an important part of the process.

Learn more in the article titled “Architecture Design Factors For ALL Architecture Projects.

Design Process | Site Analysis

One of the first things you will do is undertake a site analysis. Your design journal should include all your work-in-progress as it relates to the site.

Desk-top research | This includes information you can find through basic research online. You can start to take notes about existing conditions, preliminary analysis and ideas and any questions that arise. You can include:

  • Plans | Of the site and immediate surrounds.
  • Aerial photographs | Of the site and trees.
  • History of the site | Take notes of important points rather than pages of internet printouts.
  • Council or authority | restrictions or information about the site. For example zoning plans, flood levels.
  • Existing reports | Including soil reports, building reports of existing structures. These may not be as important at university, but if they exist or are provided you can take some notes on the main points.

On-site research | Once you reach the site you can start to include your observations and early ideas through:

  • Rough notes | Start to put down your initial ideas about the site.
  • Sketches, studies and diagrams | Include unusual observations or studies of materials, textures etc.
  • Photographs | Capture different aspects of the site conditions at different times of the day so you can refer to them later.

Design Process | Research, Precedents And Examples

As you get into the design process you can start to look for inspiring examples across several different areas of your work including:

  • Typology | Good examples of the type of structure or building you are designing. Search for world’s best practice and different ways people have approached a similar type of project.
  • Aesthetic | Find inspiring examples of an aesthetic that is similar to your own including inspiring examples of designed space, materials or structure.
  • Graphics and presentation | Consider how other people express their ideas and how you can
  • Models | Consider different model-making techniques, materials and ideas.
  • Other | Any other images or ideas that inspire you.

Include some notes about why you have selected this example

  • What is good/ inspiring/ relevant?
  • How does it relate to the content/ themes of the subject?
  • How can you use it in your work?

Design Process | Tests, Iterations And Explorations

As you develop your design you want to keep a record of the different ideas, options and versions you explore. Some of these can be done in your design journal while others may be on butter-paper or printed as digital drawings. It doesn’t matter about their format – just make sure you stick them in your journal with a bit of tape or glue. This is about tracking the process of all your thoughts and ideas by including:

  • Sketches | Testing different ideas. It doesn’t matter if these are rough, wrong, crappy drawings or unfinished.
  • Diagrams | Showing developing ideas and analysis of your work.
  • Mind maps and brainstorming | Include your reasoning process and working through problems
  • Critical analysis and reflection | Of ideas, drawings, design, research etc.
  • Model Photographs | Take great photographs of ALL your different rough and working models.
  • Presentation | Testing presentation or drawing techniques and styles

Learn more in the article titled “An Introduction To Architectural Drawing Systems

Random Stuff

Anything that inspires you along the way that may or may not be connected directly to the project or design but could even be referenced in the future. This could include:

  • Photographs of objects, buildings, textures or things you like or inspire you.
  • Squiggles, doodles and random note either in your design journal or on separate pieces of paper.

Again, include a note of what you liked.

Final Thoughts

Some additional things you might want to include for ease of navigating through your journal include:

  • Index | At the front of the design journal, you might want to include an index of key content with a page number reference. Even week numbers of your project can help find things better.
  • Page numbers | These can be added to the outer top or bottom corners or centre of the page.
  • Date | It’s good to be able to find something chronologically and it’s always nice to reflect and see when you completed a piece of work. Add a date to the top outer corner of the page.
  • Page or sections titles | You might want to include some key headings throughout your journal to guide your reader and yourself at a later date through your process. For example, you could title lecture numbers, week numbers or the introduction of bodies of work such as site analysis which might spread across multiple pages.

Finally, remember that your design journal is not intended to be a work of art. It is not something new that you create separately from your project.  It is a record of your project process – your thoughts, tests, ideas and progress. It can be messy and rough and jumbled. But if every time you do some work on your design project, you do it in your journal, or put it in your journal, you will be fine.

Until next time…

Liz at ArchiMash