Design Studio: Top 10 Things you should know

Design Studio: Top 10 Things you should know

Editor’s note: We welcome Bob Borson to ArchDaily. We will be presenting periodic updates from his popular blog Life of an Architect, generating a space for conversation among architects.

So school started a few weeks ago and architecture students are back in the studio environment – Aaahhhhh (breathing deeply) the familiar smell of despair, B.O. and basswood. There are a few things that I thought I would share with all you new studio rats. These are things you will probably have to figure out for yourself but I wish someone had told me some of these things when I was still spending 35 bazillion hours a week up at studio. There are many different experiences people might value from their time spent with other future architects but I would like to expose some commonly held urban legends associated with architecture and design studios.

1. All-nighters are not a requirement

Architecture students are terrible at managing their time. While part of the design process is the vetting that goes on between students, rarely do architecture students show up, put their heads down, and get to work in a methodical productive manner. There is a lot of competition and gamesmanship that goes on but if you manage your time in the studio like it was your job, all-nighters simply wouldn’t happen. I see all the time that when older people go back for an architecture degree or a masters – people who have been out in the work place or have other “grown-up” responsibilities, they never pull all-nighters. They don’t have to because when they are at the studio for 8 hours, they get 8 hours of work done. It’s the guy sleeping in the lounge during structures class whose desk is littered Starbucks cups that pulls all-nighters. This person will also brag about pulling an all-nighter – as a “grown-up”, this makes me chuckle.

2. Last minute changes do more harm than good

It’s always hard to stop designing, especially in school, but at some point the goal is to present the concepts, the drawings, and models to support your ideas. If you were to think of this process as if you were presenting to a client and work backward from a deadline, you will have far less negative work. If you determine that it is going to take you 4 days to build your model out of basswood and 2 days to render the drawings, leave yourself the appropriate amount of time and stop creating original work. If you have all these great ideas and no method to effectively communicate them who cares? I don’t and the people who will be sitting in on your jury crits don’t either.

3. A bad presentation during your review will not sink your grade

If things are still the same, people get really worked up and more than a little stressed out when the time comes to pin their work up on the wall to get reviewed. The good news should be that your professor, the person who will actually be giving you your grade, knows all about your project and how much time and effort you’ve put in. As a result, you should be less concerned about the guest professors/ reviewers who don’t know anything about your work, have 10 minutes to “get it”, and then offer some meaningful insight. More times than not those professors have their own pet project or something that they are into and their comments are simply a narcissistic way to make your project about them. Your project could be a multi-disciplinary research housing station on the dark side of the moon and the “sustainable” professor will find some way to ask you about rainwater harvesting. (think about it – I’m not making a joke). Same thing happens to the person who can render really, really well. Their presentation will look amazing and the guest reviewers will go on and on about how great this project is and how feeble the previous one was, this person’s on a entirely different level, etc. etc. … but everyone in the class (including the professor) knows that this project doesn’t work, despite looking as great as it does. Everyone is influenced by snazzy graphics – but unless this is a rendering class, you professor will know who did what and where the value lies.

4. Your portfolio has a 3 year lifespan (max)

Yes, your portfolio is important and you will use it at various points during school and your early career to leverage it into something you want. Just realize that at some point in the early future, you will be embarrassed that you thought your work was so great when it clearly sucks. Your portfolio will find a home in some closet with other items of diminishing importance because you will discover that the purpose your portfolio serves isn’t what you thought it was. It isn’t to show off some awesome creative project you designed, it’s about illustrating your proficiency in the various skills of the trade and demonstrating that you know how to think and process information. Think about it – do you really want the only message your portfolio to send is how great you can render? Because you’ll be the “render guy” when you finally land a job.

5. Hard work is easy to see

You aren’t fooling anyone, there isn’t any coasting and if you think you can get away with it you will learn the truth in the most public and humiliating manner. That guy we mentioned earlier – the one who thinks you have to pull all-nighters even though he sleeps during class – he’s full throttle isn’t he? He lives, eats and breathes this stuff  - clearly he is going to make a great architect. Right? I could make a drop-in appearance in any studio and pick out the people who work really hard versus the ones who work hard at looking like they are working hard … and your professor knows it too. Yes, there are still prof’s out there who like and support this sort of behavior because it shows “dedication” or at the very worst a high interest level. Ultimately, hard work is it’s own reward.

6. Take business and real estate classes with your electives

I never did this and to be frank, it never even occurred to me. I was already taking a million hours and I saw my electives as a chance to coast a little. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them or get anything out of the process . I took an intro to Ceramics class as a 6th year senior – all the other students were freshman Fine Arts majors. I had a great time in this class and I am pretty sure I had a guaranteed A after 3 weeks. The professor and I would talk about design and trends and he appreciated that I was there because I wanted to be there, not because I had to. I also did about 50x more “projects” than anyone else because I didn’t screw around as much as the others. Looking back, it was one of my favorite classes but I really wished I had burned that elective with something that would have helped me with my job today.

7. Visit your professors during office hours

This should be lesson wasn’t as cool a lead off as all-nighters. This isn’t particular to studio as much as it is any and every class you take. When you take the time to visit your professor and ask some questions, say hello, whatever, magical things typically happen. Most professors are required to keep office hours and depending on the class they teach, I found that nothing happens during this time. As a result, I could ask about the lecture and not only would it get personalized for my benefit, but the professor was now engaged and invested in my success. I wasn’t a suck-up, I didn’t go by just to say wass’up but I did make it a point to make an appearance early on in the semester.  I just wished I had learned this lesson before I took Quantum Physics as a freshman.

8. ”Sell” your professor

You should get used to thinking of your professor as your client and not your buddy. I know this might sound contrary to the preceding point but this is more about settings expectations. When you talk to your professor about your project, it’s important that you be able to clearly articulate your reasons for taking the design in the direction you have chosen. You need to think that it is your job to convince them that your assumptions are valid and that there is a good idea behind your logic. The professors job isn’t to do your project for you but rather help protect you from yourself and help guide you along the path you’ve chosen. I always like to hear professors engage in psychiatrist talk, i.e. “Why do you think this was an appropriate gesture” or “what do you think the result of that (blank) would be?” It’s their job to help guide you, not tell you what to do.

9. The value of jury reviews is not what you think it is

I touched on this a bit in item – it’s not (see #3). This is really another important part of your education. The most important thing you can get out of these critiques is practicing the art of standing up in front of a room of people and emanating confidence and knowledge. You are the expert on your design so you should be able to convey the objectives, strategies, and directions your design takes better than anyone else. Talking under pressure without ahh’s and uhmm’s is not a gift – it’s a skill. If I had known that the ability to effectively communicate was a more prized skill than designing in an architectural office I would have put more effort into developing it at a younger age. No architect wants to hear that anything other than good design sells but it simply isn’t true. The person who can be put in front of the client, communicate and make a connection, will be more valued than a skilled designer. Those “star-kitects” you see in the magazines generally have the ability to be amazingly good at both.

10. Break the Rules (big picture)

The best projects tend to be about ideas and not about the literal execution – at least it is at design oriented programs. Who cares how that 10″ column is going to support the “lifestyle pod” on your habitat tree. If people are talking about your toilet layout and not your positive and negative space, your design probably isn’t very good and you are on the road to becoming a successful project manager. Kudos.


I feel like it is important to add that there are all kinds of value to staying up late and being with your studio mates. Going out for a coffee and street meat at 1:00 a.m. tends to build relationships and strengthen solidarity within the studio. I am not telling you to avoid that – you need to do that;  it’s part of the education process. I am telling you to get your work done during regular hours (8am to midnight) and then you can screw off with your friends late at night listening to Miike Snow and remixes by Mark Ronson all you want. You can even be “that guy” who walks around offering unsolicited opinions that require a massive design reset if you want … but nobody likes that guy (that’s #11).

I am here to tell you that nobody gets their best work done past midnight - EVER. Look up the word ‘serendipity’ if you disagree with me. I am also aware that the work is typically more important than the grade so please don’t misconstrue what I am saying: this is about smarter not harder. Spend the time in the studio working instead of playing tape-ball. Please don’t act like there isn’t a lot of screwing around that goes on, we all know better. But don’t think that the old guy who is working over there in the corner while your rounding second base is a jerk because he wants to get home and see his kids. You are supposed to have fun in college, I am just telling you that there is an alternative manner on how to go about your business – one that will make a difference beyond this semester.

Cheers from Life of an Architect

About this author
Cite: Bob Borson. "Design Studio: Top 10 Things you should know" 15 Sep 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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