The Big Issues…

If you struggle to know exactly what you should be doing in a design studio, coming up with concepts, communicating your ideas or feeling frustrated with the process… you are not alone.

Over the last ten years I’ve taught thousands of architecture students and dozens of design studios.

In many cases, as a student, you don’t see the biggest issues stopping you doing better work.

Today, I’m going to run through the top seven issues I see as a tutor that are preventing architectural design students from thriving. Some may or may not apply to you. By being aware of them, you can begin to take control of your education and learning process. You can fill the gaps with knowledge and make the changes to get you to where you need to go.

01 | Frameworks

One of the biggest gaps for architecture students, especially in design, are frameworks and guides. Like a set of rules or steps to help you get from A to B.

Frameworks are a support structure and a guide to underpin creativity. They are not a definitive set of rules or an answer but guides and prompts to help you think and get you to where you need to go. And they’re often missing.

Let me explain…

A big part of design studio included design lectures. You’re shown examples of amazing architecture that relates to your studio project, and great examples of drawings, models and presentations. You’re given a project brief, or assignment, and told to go and design a school, a housing development, an installation, or whatever…

But often, no-one breaks down the steps. No-one tells you how to do a site analysis, or create a concept or approach space planning – or that space planning is even a thing.

Many students think the model or drawing or presentation graphic is the outcome, not the information in it. They try and mimic that, versus the information and thinking within it.

People are telling you what to do but not how or why to do it.

It’s like going to a cooking class and being shown ten different finished curry dishes and told to go and cook one. You have no idea what the ingredients are, how to prepare them or put them together and in what proportion, order or combination.

Architectural design studios (and even other university subjects) are often like that. You’re shown the outcome and expected to figure it out. Which is an important part of the process, but when students have never done this before and have no idea where to start or what to ask, it can leave you stuck for days or weeks.

Frameworks are a big part of my work. It’s like taking everything I know and breaking it into steps and ingredients and recipes for certain tasks and steps in the architectural process. You can start to look at frameworks and reverse engineer and breakdown the processes and thinking that different designers take to get from point A to point B.

As an architecture student… you need to be clear on the outcome you are being asked to create. If in doubt, ask – what am I supposed to be doing, and how do I do it?

02 | Critical, Conceptual and Creative Thinking

To become a successful architect and designer requires different types of thinking. You need critical, conceptual, creative, innovative, intuitive, logical and design thinking. You need to be able to put on different hats and see things from alternative perspectives at certain times.

In architecture and design, and most other creative pursuits, there often is no right or wrong answer. Sometimes there may be. Usually, some answers and ideas are obviously better than others, and you can have multiple good creative solutions to a problem. The design process is all about identifying and testing different options and solutions.

To be blunt, in many cases, the school system is letting you down. It’s training you to take in information and regurgitate it to deliver an answer that is right or wrong. It’s severely lacking in creativity or thinking outside the box. It’s not teaching you to explore options, analyse, evaluate or question.

If you struggle with different thinking, you’re not alone.

As an architecture student… stop looking for the right answer or what the teacher wants. Start to understand and practice different ways of thinking and how you can think more creatively or conceptually.

03 | Presentation Focus Over Iterative Process

Far too often I see students take a design studio brief and jump onto Illustrator or InDesign. You begin to lay out final presentation panels or play on Photoshop to create a final, finished drawing, image or presentation panel.

Student attention can often be focussed too much on graphic presentations and making “pretty presentation drawings.”

Don’t get me wrong. Yes, graphics, drawing and presentations are important. Very important. It’s how you communicate your ideas.

However, when the focus is all or mostly on graphics and presentation, the process of design development and iterations can be neglected.

Design and creativity is not a linear process. Rarely do you do one perfect plan or one concept sketch and you are finished. It is also not just about producing an impressive drawing.

Design is an iterative process about testing ideas to get the best solution possible. This means drawing, testing, obtaining feedback, getting it wrong, making mistakes, making changes and improving.

Not completing a task or drawing requirement once and you’re done. Sorry.

80-90% of your time should be focussed on process – drawing, sketching, testing, feedback and iterating. 10-20% of your time should be final presentation drawings. Often it is the other way around.

As an architecture student… an ordinary drawing of a well tested and developed idea is way more valuable than a beautiful drawing of a superficial and untested idea.

04 | Digital Over Analogue

Following on from too much focus on presentation is too much focus on 3D and digital software as a design tool – and the neglect of the analogue and 2D.

As I said, I see many students jump right into a 3D model in Revit or Rhino from day one. You start developing a plan and then just extrude the walls up. Or playing with random shapes and forms with no clear reason or intention. The rest of the time is spent dropping in random, generic doors and windows. t the last minute, you extract a plan, section and elevation and drop it into the presentation panels.

The foundational thinking, research, idea development, option testing and iterations is missing.

There are a number of big issues with this:

  • Students are trying to design in a 3D digital model rather than through 2D scale plan, section and elevation. It’s missing understanding of scale, space and experience.
  • Tutors cannot give valuable feedback from zooming in and out of a model on a screen. We have no idea of what the spaces are doing until we see printed scale plans, sections and elevations.
  • Final plans, sections, elevations and details are underdeveloped and often incomplete or incorrect because they are printed at the last minutes. The content and conventions of these drawings need to be worked up individually and to scale (not rely on quick drawing extract and a computer to get the conventions right – because they mostly don’t).

This topic deserves a full episode on it’s own – there’s a lot to talk about here. It’s coming…

As an architecture student… Get out of the 3D model. Regularly print out plans, sections and elevations of various scales, test, revise and work them up with butter paper and pencils, and then take that information back into the model. Work it up, print it out again, repeat.

05 | Productivity & Time Management

At school, you had bells and teachers telling you exactly what to do and when. At university, you are pretty much left to manage yourself. It’s adult learning – no-one is making you be there. No-one is forcing you to do the work. It can be super challenging to motivate and organise yourself – you are so not alone on this!!!

Productivity and time management are a skill. There is a lot to it. Unfortunately, no-one is really teaching these skills to you. Or to any of us. Or telling you exactly what you need to know.

There are two main ways that students approach productivity and time management:

  • There’s student who are late, disorganised and inconsistent. You turn up without any work and spend the last week or two of semester doing all-nighters to get it done, to varying standards. This can create a lot of stress.
  • Then, there’s students who seem to be working all the time. However, your outcomes and work do not reflect the time spent. Because the time they spend is not efficient or effective. You sit down and play around without a clear focus on what you want to produce or a clear process on how to do this. When you have a lot of time to do something you tend to fill it and stretch it out and become distracted. Ten hours pottering in a 3D model or playing with Photoshop filters is not necessarily efficient or effective work.

As an architecture student… commit to developing productivity as a skill. Study it, implement new ways of working, and constantly reflect on what is and isn’t working and where you can improve. Then do it!!

06 | Capability, Repetition & Consistency

Following on from productivity and time management is the challenge of capability and consistency.

Capability is your ability to complete any task you are given. It’s the level of skill you have in many different things such as drawing, creative thinking, communication, productivity or time management.

Everyone comes to university with different skills and capabilities. Some of you may have spent years in art or graphics classes, or have a natural ability to draw. Others may struggle. You may pick up software quickly, or slowly. Some may develop conceptual ideas and thinking. Others may take years to really understand this.

Some of you have strengths in one area, others in a different area. It doesn’t matter. You’re only at the start of your design journey, and you can improve.

One of the big challenges students face around capability is the expectation to be good the first time and get the right answer. To do one plan and be finished. To create one 3D model and be praised and told it’s amazing.

Design is one of those things that never feels finished. There is always something to be improved, at every level. There is a reason most architects become famous in their 40’s, 50’s or 60’s. Because it takes time to get good at this stuff.

Regardless of where you are, two of the most important things that will move you forward are repetition and consistency.

If you want to be better at drawing or sketching, do 200 terrible sketches. Repeat the process. Don’t just get disheartened after one. I guarantee by the tenth sketch, you will be better already.

Learn to be consistent. If a 12 week semester requires 20 hours of work a week, you cannot do 240 hours of high quality work and ten all-nighters in the last 2 weeks. But imagine the difference of 3-4 focussed hours a day over those 12 weeks. You can produce a way higher standard of work and have a life.

As an architecture student… commit to working consistently from day one. Set a plan in place with accountability if you need it. When faced with a new task or skill, and something you’ve never done before, lower your expectations, be okay with making mistakes, and commit to repeating the process and learning!

07 | Passion & Excitement

One of the final issues students face is finding passion and excitement for architecture and design.

If you struggle to stay interested and inspired for the long term, consider what draws you to architecture. Is it the graphics and drawing and presentations or building and being on site? Do you hate being in front of a computer but love buildings? Maybe you’d be better in graphic design or a building trade. Only you can figure that out. Architecture can be a path to other things. It may not be exactly the path you need to take – you might need to pivot into a slightly different discipline. Which is totally OK. It just means it might be something to help you get off the wrong track and onto the right one.

Even if you love it, you may be presented with a project that is very unfamiliar to you. You have no real understanding of an office space, a museum or kindergarten. You just might not be that excited about the site, or the brief. Or the style of lecturing and content just might not work for you. Totally cool. It happens.

Find the part of the projects and lectures that interest and excite you. Or consider parts of architecture that have interested you previously – can you find a new perspective to apply to this project or subject? How can you drive your own passion rather than waiting for someone else?

Research and explore them, and give your own spin to the project. Even if it’s not exactly what was asked for, most teachers value an excited student outside the box rather than a disengaged student trying to follow the rules.

Finally, students often get to the end of a project or semester and begin to lose interest and momentum. This is common at all stages of your career. What once seems exciting, after weeks and months, you now can’t wait to be rid of it.

For this, you have to find a way to reignite your spark, or shift perspectives and keep going – it’s another skill to master. Consistency from the start can help stop burning out at the end.

As an architecture student… find what excites and interests you. Keep coming back to that.

Overcoming the Issues

There’s a lot of challenges students face. I know. I could give you a list of two hundred rather than just seven. But on a quick reflection after being away from creating this content for so long, these are some of the biggest, most common, and most impactful challenges.

Being aware of these issues and challenges can definitely help you see what’s happening and start to look for ways to change and improve.

In the meantime, I hope this has been helpful. See you soon!!

Until next time…

Liz at ArchiMash