8 Essential Skills for 21st Century Designers

This essay is a summary of the book “The Multi-Skilled Designer: Cognitive Foundation for Inclusive Architectural Thinking.” Using the theory of multiple intelligences from cognitive psychology, and developments in psychometric research, the book advocates eight skills to incorporate skill diversity in design. Design problems of 21st Century vary far too greatly—in terms of their content, scale, and complexity, and demand a repertoire of skills. To consider multiple skillsets is to recognize the presence of individual differences, representations, and approaches in design. This allows a shift from formalist practices of architecture that emphasize graphical and formal logic skills, that tend to produce the same type of designers and privilege a narrow section of designer thinkers.

Intrapersonal Skills

Designers with strong intrapersonal skills are aware of their own emotional states, feelings, and motivations. Intrapersonal skills consist of introspective and self-reflective capacities, strengths or weaknesses, uniqueness, and the ability to predict one's own emotions. Intrapersonal skill involves the sensitivity to one’s own wants and fears, and one’s own personal histories. Intrapersonal skills in design could be described through (i) the ability to pursue emotions and meaning in design through personal memories; (ii) the ability to explore metaphors and analogies in design; and (iii) the sensitivity to personal knowledge. Such use of intrapersonal skills in design practice is evident in the works of Daniel Libeskind and Peter Zumthor.

Interpersonal Skills

While intrapersonal skills involve a designer’s own emotions, interpersonal skills demand an understanding of others. Since designers are concerned with how people experience their works, a deep awareness of people's needs, socio-cultural norms, and behavioral patterns are critical. Interpersonal skills involve empathy and recognition of user needs, as well as an appreciation for diverse perspectives among people, with sensitivity to their motives, moods, and intentions. Interpersonal skills in design could be described through (i) the empathy towards human needs; (ii) the ability to be socially persuasive; and (iii) the ability to engage in design collaborations. Such use of interpersonal skills in design practice is evident in the works of Alejandro Aravena and University-based Design Centers such as Detroit Collaborative Design center and Clemson Architecture + Health.

Detroit Collaborative Design Center’s (DCDC) community engagement strategies demonstrates the use of interpersonal skills. The “Roaming Table” from the Detroit Future City project is a prime example of a tactic used to enter into a dialogue with a community and broaden engagement. The DCDC team constructed a mobile wooden table to take around to public places or meetings throughout the city several times a week for three to four hours, placing it in front of schools, libraries, businesses, bus stops, and other public sites to increase participation. The table alone facilitated one-on-one conversations with approximately 6,000 individuals. © Dan Pitera

Suprapersonal Skills

While intrapersonal skills involve personal emotions, and interpersonal skills rely on understanding the emotions of others, suprapersonal skills transcend the merely personal emotions and delve into deep existential thinking. Suprapersonal skills is the capacity to locate oneself with respect to existential features of the human condition, such as the significance of life, the meaning of death, the ultimate fate of the physical and the psychological worlds. Suprapersonal skills in design could be described through (i) the ability to connect beyond the material world; and (ii) the ability to engage in vivid cognitive imagery. Such use of suprapersonal skills in design practice is evident in the works of Louis Kahn and Zaha Hadid.

Bodily-kinesthetic skills

Designers with bodily-kinesthetic skills think in terms of body movements and use those movements in skilled and complicated ways. Design involves the creation of space through visualizing body posture, human scale, and the existential conditions of humans inhabiting space. Thinking itself is a fundamentally embodied act, and hence the body’s indisputable role in the very constitution of architecture. Bodily-kinesthetic skills include the role of senses in architecture, which include haptics, orientation, pressure, and temperature. Bodily-kinesthetic skills in design could be described through (i) the sensitivity to human scale; (ii) the awareness of body movement; and (iii) the ability to activate social performance in space. Such use of bodily-kinesthetic skills in design practice is evident in the works of Steven Holl and Herman Hertzberger.

Naturalistic Skills

Naturalistic skills involve a keen awareness of the surrounding ecological environment through discerning patterns of life and the natural world. This includes the ability to identify and classify the natural environment, as well a superior understanding of its components, such as plants, animals, and the ecological relationships among them. These approaches adhere to a more thoughtful use of natural resources, reducing energy consumption, improving environmental quality, and considering nature and built form as a more holistic system. Naturalistic skills in design could be described through (i) the sensibilities that consider natural features such as topography, flora, and fauna; (ii) the ability to incorporate expressive and functional qualities of nature; and (iii) the ability to pursue ethics of sustainable design and ecological resiliency. Such use of naturalistic skills in design practice is evident in the works of Geoffrey Bawa and Chris Cornelius.

Spatial Skills

A person with spatial skills can perceive, transform, and modify spatial information easily. Spatial skills involve solving problems of spatial orientation and putting objects together. Core capacities of spatial skills include mental imagery, spatial reasoning, image manipulation, graphic and artistic skills, and active imagination. Spatial visualization involves full engagement with light, atmospherics, materials, and tactile nature of space. Spatial skills in design could be described through (i) the ability to imagine and manipulate space in fluid and unrestrictive ways; (ii) the ability to conduct spatial choreography; (iii) the sensitivity to spatial transparency and the creation of tactile sensations; and (iii) the ability to conceive space as strategic wholes. Such use of spatial skills in design practice is evident in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tadao Ando.

Verbal/Linguistic Skills

Verbal/linguistic skills involve thinking in words and the creative use of written or verbal language in which one finds meaning and order among words, sounds, rhythms, and inflections. While the use of verbal/linguistic skills can be poetic in nature, it can also be used in everyday life for expressive and practical purposes. Aside from using language as a literal tool, designers use literary devices to construe design as a narrative, bringing about a fictional quality to design. Verbal/linguistic skills in design could be described through (i) the ability to incorporate a design syntax; (ii) the ability to use verbal tools such as narratives to generate design; and (iii) the ability to be persuasive in the verbal articulation design ideas. Such use of verbal/linguistic skills in design practice is evident in the works of Bernard Tschumi and Maya Lin.

Logical-mathematical skills

Logical-mathematical skills involve the ability to use logical reasoning to solve everyday problems, which require one to make causal connections and to understand relationships among actions, objects, or ideas. This involves the ability to calculate, quantify and perform complex mathematical/ logical operations. Designers use logical-mathematical skills to project order in the natural world. While the use of logical-mathematical skills in design as a mere problem-solving activity might be perceived as suppressing more creative and subjective facets of design, these skills are particularly valuable in an information-driven world and as engineering and technology become more prevalent. Logical-mathematical skills in design could be described through (i) the sensitivity to the use of number and geometry; (ii) the ability to produce variations of formal design strategies; and (iii) the ability to resolve functional and programming aspects of design. Such use of logical-mathematical skills in design practice is evident in the works of Le Corbusier and Greg Lynn.

These eight skills should be considered as a flexible menu from which designers choose to frame and deal with the complexities of the design world. As designers, we could use these skills as a self-diagnostic tool, to examine our own skills and become sensitive to the skill-sets of others. The skills are a window into the intentionality of where designers might invest their resources, and to acknowledge that multiple mental capacities exist in the realm of a designer. It lays a foundation for preparing designers within the 21st Century context and makes architectural practice and pedagogy more inclusive.

The Multi-Skilled Designer: A Cognitive Foundation for Inclusive Architectural Thinking (Routledge Research in Architecture)

About this author
Cite: Newton D’souza. "8 Essential Skills for 21st Century Designers" 28 Jul 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/944531/8-essential-skills-for-21st-century-designers> ISSN 0719-8884

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