18 Design Lessons You Can Learn From Architecture


Richard de Vries

November 19, 2012

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This is a guest post by Richard de Vries

Every medium has its architect. When we talk about brick and mortar it’s an architect, when the medium is film, it’s a director and for printed media it’s the editor in chief. For interactive media, I believe the architect is the interaction designer. With that belief, I try to get inspired by architecture in my work as an interaction designer. So when I stumbled upon “101 Things I learned in Architecture School” by Matthew Frederick I immediately bought it.

Basically, the book covers 202 pages of small bits of knowledge ranging from thoughts about what makes a good architect to very handy tips on how to draw a solid line. The book taught me a lot of things, of which I would like to share my top 18 lessons with you.

In this article I want to apply Matthew’s brick and mortar knowledge to bits and bytes of interaction design. Even though comparing interaction design to architecture is almost a cliche, I do feel that seeing interaction design from an architecture point of view (or vice versa) is always a lot of fun and very insightful.

Lesson #1

“Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city play” – Eliel Saarinen

Basically this means respect context and don’t design the page, design the experience.

Lesson #2

“Manage your ego.”

Something that I think many architects are notoriously bad in. Interaction design is not as established as architecture. Ask 10 people what you need if you want to build a house and then ask 10 people what you need if you want to build a mobile app. However, this is changing rapidly, interaction design is becoming more of an established authority. Authority and arrogance are close together. An arrogant interaction designer is about as useful as an empty battery. So it is becoming more important to manage our own ego.

Lesson #3

“Two points of view on architecture: Architecture is an exercise in truth, Architecture is an exercise in narrative”

As architecture is one of the oldest design fields there is, it is interesting that different architects see their work differently. I see a lot of talks on conferences where people talk about the way they see interaction design. Examples: Form follows function or Function follows emotion. Interaction design is an art, interaction design is a craft.If even architects still disagree about the way they see their own work, then I don’t see interaction design ever coming to one point of view, perhaps we should stop seeking for it.

Lesson #4

“True architectural style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely – even accidentally – out of a holistic process.”

Replace architectural with design and this becomes a design rule.

Lesson #5


Basically design something bigger than is needed, in the process things that were not anticipated on always get added. We should do this more, I feel that many interaction designers put their best effort in keeping stuff out of their design. We should also expect the unexpected.

Lesson #6.

“Figure-ground theory states that the space that results from placing figures should be considered as carefully as the figures themselves.”

Now this sounds very intellectual, but it did make me remember to think of the gestalt principles. This lesson means that your mind will always try to perceive a figure, either by what is there, or what is not.


Lesson #7

“When elements or spaces are not explicit but are nonetheless apparent – we can see them even though we can’t see them – they are said to be implied.”

From an interaction point of view this is even more interesting. It implies interactions without making them explicit. For example, apple is very good at this. When browsing photo albums on the iPad, you pinch, twist, and slide without any clues that this is possible.

Lesson #8

“Our experience of an architectural space is strongly influenced by how we arrive in it”

By accident I came across the website of “almost modern” a few days ago. http://www.almostmodern.com/ This website is not very unique, however the splash photo is quite ingenious, it turns a plain website into an artsy website. Many interaction designers have developed a holistic view on their work, especially in this, it is important to realise that the start is important to set the stage.

Lesson #9

“Architecture begins with an idea.”

Design begins with a concept. Matthew writes in his book “Architecture resides in the DNA of a building …” I think this is also the case with good interaction design. It is in the DNA of the application. From text to photography to the simplest webform, they are all part of a the experience of the same user, and the interaction designer’s job is to make it all one experience. The design process should be in the ‘DNA’ of the whole product.

Lesson #10

“A parti is the central idea or concept of a building.”

Before reading this book I never heard of a parti. For what I understand from the book it’s a diagram in shapes to explain the concept / idea of a building. What we need as interaction designers is a way to explain the idea of our product. This can be a story, a person or a device. YouTube is a good example of a website which uses a tv (tube) as a conceptual guide.

Lesson #11

“Use your parti as a guidepost in designing the many aspects of a building.”When designing a stair, window, column, roof, lobby, elevator core, or any other aspect of a building, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the essential idea of the building.

If you have a strong concept (which you should have) always consider how you can use this concept in every aspect of the design. Having a very accessible concept really helps in doing this.

Lesson #12

“The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be.”

In school I learned “if you try to be the best in everything you will end up being nothing”. Many of our clients however ask us to make them the best in everything. The difference between a good design(er) and a bad one is their ability to make choices that go beyond design.

Lesson #13

“Any design decision should be justified in at least two ways.”

Before I read this book I have never justified a design decision in two ways. However now that I do, it makes my designs better and raises the bar to a higher level.

Lesson #14

“Engineers tend to be concerned with physical things in and of themselves. Architects are more directly concerned with the human interface with physical things.”

Engineers focus on what they build and how they build it. Interaction designers should focus on how it’s used.

Lesson #15

“An architect knows something about everything. An engineer knows everything about one thing.”

I don’t like to focus on what others are. But if a good architect knows something about everything, and interaction designers are architects of code, we should not become specialists. This makes an interaction designer for mobile a joke, its like being an architect of garden sheds, so maybe we should try to get more diverse knowledge.

Lesson #16

“A good designer isn’t afraid to throw away a good idea”

Kill your darlings. Just about every design I have seen go to hell was due to a designer who couldn’t let go of a design that just didn’t work in that situation (which says nothing about the quality of the design).

Lesson #17

“Being process-oriented, not product-driven, is the most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop.”

The end product is important, but the end product is something that is the result of team work in just about every interaction design project. The design process is the result of the interaction designers’ effort. When you improve your process and keep optimising it, it will make your work better. Unfortunately, you are the only one who will notice this…

Lesson #18

“Any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint.”

This is easier for us interaction designers. If we want something to stand out, use contrast. A bevelled button on an otherwise flat surface, a desaturated photo in a colourful page.


Even though I am a huge architecture nerd (my label isn’t called architecto.nl by accident) I still learned a lot from a simple book such as this one. In fact I learned a lot more than the 18 lessons I shared in this article. I honestly believe that we are the architects of code so learning about ‘classic’ architecture gives me a lot of inspiration and useful knowledge. If you feel designers are the artists of the screen, you might find your inspiration in classic painters, either way, new knowledge is worth the most when you connect it to the things you already know. I hope you can connect this article to what you already knew.

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