Restoring the Physical Nature of Design

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

As the architecture and interior design professions have advanced through the centuries, so too have their tools, from drawing on parchment in the Middle Ages to drafting on vellum with graphite in the 20th century. Today, tools like Revit and numerous 3D-modeling programs allow users to create an image of a design more quickly than ever before; in some cases, programs even generate elevations and details. Digital imagery of finish materials and 3D-block libraries of furniture and fixtures allow us to create an entire project without any tactile interaction with the items or finishes specified. But these tools, and the instant gratification offered by them, raise critical questions: Are architects and interior designers losing the physical aspect of design? Has our relationship with the physical qualities of design been watered down because we no longer have to draw a chair or bathtub, but can simply download them, thereby losing the intimacy of working out the details ourselves? 

These questions are applicable to academics and practitioners alike. Amid this ever-changing technology, designers must make an active effort to re-engage with the physical qualities of the job. As they interact with the built environment, visit project sites, and check shop drawings, it is important for designers to embrace the construction process wherever possible. Young designers are now less likely to have hands-on experience with construction methods than they were even a few years ago. That experience is vital to return attention to these small, but mighty, details. 

As my career as a lead detailer has progressed in several offices, I have seen many projects generated by 3D programs where the materials and fixings aren’t considered until after the client has approved a rendering or presentation. Occasionally, I am assigned projects to detail where the design development phase has been largely omitted; I also see designs that include features developed solely by parametric design programs, which can be defined only by dimensions and notes. Often, the detailing is so complicated that it must be handled by specialists and engineers in shop drawings, because we don’t actually know how to build them. What is the process to be when we design things that we don’t know how to build? Is this a flaw, or the natural evolution of design? Answer: It doesn’t matter. Design is evolving. The important thing is to not throw away the foundation.

When I began my career, architects and interior designers were compelled to enter their professions by way of tinkering with the built environment. They liked constructing things, and later learned detailing in school. Some schools required students to build things like concrete canoes, small wooden structures, or furniture as hands-on experiences. Once, the design process meant combining the visualization skills developed in school with the skills learned in the field to create concepts that were buildable from the outset. I made renderings only after drawing plans and elevations, after determining other considerations including style, program, and budget. The process of studying 3D sketches, elevations, and details as a precursor to final renderings helped to justify the concept from a deeper perspective than if had I not taken these preliminary steps. This approach trained me to think and design in a mode where the relationship between concept, usage, materials, and detailing is not just revered, but essential to the process.

© Tarantino Studio 2013; courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

There was a time when architects would detail projects based on an informed understanding of materials. Frank Lloyd Wright favored stone and wood, materials involving specific craftsmanship. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe pioneered the Glass Box—glass and steel were his materials of choice. This type of building had inherent detailing parameters, such as disengaging the columns from the building skin. 

Simultaneously, Mies maintained a careful relationship with materials despite using design techniques anticipating future technology. When he designed the visionary 1922 concept for what became Lake Point Tower in 1968, it was unbuildable at the time. Later, however, his students George Schipporeit and John Heinrich completed the concept when the engineering technology became available. Today, many firms are successfully practicing in this spirit by leading with unbuildable theories and then developing the technologies that support the physical realization of their ideas.

Regardless of the means, educators and design professionals alike must task ourselves to adjust our curriculums and processes so that they include the study of craftsmanship and constructability, elements that have been inherent in the design professions for centuries. Beyond conceptual imagery, the design professions will be fortified by this type of physical consideration and action regardless of the path chosen in professional practice.

Mentorship can be used to reinforce this thinking, and my role as an experienced designer includes training our junior professionals to detail what they create. At AE7, where I work, we’re establishing a mentoring program so that skills can be shared between staff members of different departments, specializations, and experience levels. Junior staff mentor senior staff in computer programs, marketing staff mentor design staff, and so on, resulting in a cross-pollination effect. In addition, each week I write a newsletter called “Detail of the Week” that focuses on a different area of detailing, from fasteners to proper dimensioning to decorative stair basics. These areas of expertise may develop over time, but mentorship speeds up the process. 

While representing a detail on paper is merely the final step in the detailing process, understanding how something is physically built, and then designing with that in mind, is the underlying foundation all successful designers share. Design is a way of life, a fundamental approach to seeing things, not just a profession. Most top designers have interests beyond designing spaces—they have an interest in industrial design, automotive design, aviation, fashion, and so on. This broad range of interests in the “made world” amplifies their understanding of how materials fit together physically and react visually. Since most schools focus on theory, we must self-educate in how things are built, using any means possible. Go to job sites, to stone yards and millwork factories. Boat shows are a great way to see millwork designed to utilize even the smallest spaces and hold up in extreme environments. Attend car shows and study the upholstery. Actively engage with manufacturers regarding the products you specify, and ask them for their details. As you go about your day, look closely at the built environment—maybe even sketch what you see. See how things fit together. Consider fasteners and joinery. Look at great sets of drawings. Note what works—and, more important, what doesn’t. And finally, build something. You’ll be a better designer for it.

About this author
Cite: Jeff Ortman. "Restoring the Physical Nature of Design" 12 Jul 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.