So you want to be a Designer?

At TAFE I teach the first year part time diploma of Architectural Technology. This experince is showing me how we learn to design.

A comment was made by a student that the course is slow moving. But slowness the nature of learning this skill.

It took me 6 years through University with a debt of over $10,000, and it was slow and hard work, with some weeks up at 5am where I would work on the one drawing to 12pm, to do it all again the next day for the next drawing in the set and then I would work four or five long days to build a model. The work would only be interrupted to attend lectures, or to eat. This level of effort would last for two weeks and then I'd hand in the work and CRASH. Within a week I would be doing an assignment and within 6 weeks be at it again. And I sometimes worked through my breaks.

Looking back, every thing I did counted. Yes, it is slow. But the slowness was good too. The breaks I did have I look back on with longing, for I don't have them now! It's hard to take a holiday!

Learning to document designs is not a 'head' thing, but rather a thing we 'do' again, and again, and again. That is, it is a skill. The building and the situations are radically different for each design and the nature of problem solving varies, but the skills are the same. The more we do the better we get, the longer we do it the better we are.

Like cricket or rugby. It takes a certain effort to make it to the level where 'you can play it'. Then to be a master, a pro, a sportsperson it's something that is done, or practiced, for hours a day.

This is why we call a drawing office a 'practice' of Architecture.

Nobody is taught to design, people learn it by doing it. And doing it again, and again and again and they just get better, and if they have luck or chance throws them the right client they'll be world famous... at ninety nine.

Another point I have found is that students minds need to be "switched on" to "see". For example sitting at a bus stop is not wasted time. It is a good time to work out exactly how the bus shelter was put together and how you might do a section of it, or even sketch a better design. Every building you are in is a source book; how did they make the windows?, why was it arranged this way? A construction site is a valuable find and a lesson; how are they doing the basment? Why are the columns so big? What is that c-chanel on its side for in the wall? why is it cranes are so thin? how do they stay up?. Every surface teaches texture and light, every space teaches volume, every town teaches urban design.

Also, especially when tutoring at Univeristy, I have found students are lazy. They think somehow they will learn by watching. I tell them "fall in love with your drawing board" and "until you have put a line at scale on the paper you have not designed a thing!" Until the hours are put in thinking, by drawing, at scale, through the issues no leaning is done. The "think" method does not work. Without piles of butter paper, or computer printouts, without hours of investigation by testing with design options, no comptetant design option is achieved.

One year I had a class of TAFE students who had a few bright people who asked me, "what is the minimum I can do to pass?" I replied that my observation was that if their aim was to get a job, there was no minimum effort. They needed to do enough that they could learn the skills, and the more they did the better they would get. Interestingly one student obtained a job as a draftsperson and their drawings improved rapidly. This challenged the other students and the whole class standard lifted, as they copied and put in more effort to draw and re-draw and master skills like stencilling to compete. The fact that the student was both working all week and drawing throughout each 8 hour lesson with me on Friday meant that they achieved professional levels of presentation within six months (and marks over 90%).

Design is a skill. It's learnt by doing it. And by thinking about it while doing it.

Donald Schon who studied it calls it "reflection-in-action". He said proficient designers think of more options, may make more and faster sketches more quickly than their less experinced or less skilled counterparts.

Conscious observation is the sourcebook for thinking of options.

So we spend years seeing our environment and learning from it, then, I was told by a founous Finnish archiect, when we are very skilled we need to "forget" and to see it again as if we were not trained designers. I'm still learning skills so I still need to "see" the environment around me. One day I hope to be able to again "re-see" it as a child.