The “I” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Improve Iteratively.

In the design process, what happens after you have that big “aha!” moment?

Arriving at a core concept or gestalt idea for a project is exhilarating, but if you don’t know how to sustain and advance the idea further, you’ll be left with something akin to a sugar crash.


Life’s more than one big parti

For those of you who didn’t go to architecture school, the word “parti” (pronounced par-TEE) may be unfamiliar. It means the essential scheme or concept of a design – something that is both distinctly recognizable and irreducible. In other words, no matter how much you shrink or distort a design, its parti remains discernible. Often a parti can be represented as a napkin sketch diagram, made with five or ten strokes of a pen.

So, imagine that you’ve gotten to the place in the process where you have a parti or conceptual armature for your design. Now it needs to be fleshed out into a building that someone would actually want to inhabit. No one wants to live in an empty diagram, no matter how beautiful! So how do you go about fleshing out the diagram?

Working without a recipe

As you might imagine, it’s a long journey from an initial parti to realizing an inhabitable, indeed enjoyable building. And guess what? It’s anything but a linear path. Fundamentally, design is the art of cooking without a recipe. (If you’re cooking from a recipe you aren’t designing, you’re simply replicating a previously realized design effort.)

You develop your “cooking” ability by using your learned skills, tools, and intuition. Starting with a core ingredient, you assemble other ingredients using your best judgment to create a flavorful concoction that you hope the intended recipients will savor.

What do you think of when you picture a chef at work? Someone constantly tasting, observing, smelling, touching and listening to everything going on in the kitchen. Total sensory and mental engagement.

It’s a matter of research and development

So what do you, as an engaged designer, do to develop your “soup,” as it were? Add an ingredient, then another and another – all the while with engaged senses and intellect, receiving and processing the feedback from your client and perhaps from colleagues as well.

Rarely can you calculate the exact amounts or cooking times in advance. It’s a matter of trial and adjustment — in effect, a taste-testing process. Going from the initial taste of the basic ingredients to the iterative stages of testing, you gradually work your way to an ideal mingling of increasingly nuanced flavors.

As you can see, creating a successful design isn’t a simple matter of filling in a pre-ordained pattern or structure. Instead, it requires the discovery of an original pattern, followed by a nuanced fine-tuning of the basic context using the resources at your disposal.

An example from design practice

A touchstone design experience came early in my career — not by developing a design of my own, but in experiencing another artist’s work unfold in a totally unrelated field. The artist was the legendary jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, making his tour of 53 solo performances in 1983. By that time I had discovered his seminal album The Köln Concert. I have to confess, though, that my decision to go to the concert was as much about having an opportunity to see the venue in which he was performing as it was about seeing him actually perform. The venue was the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Upstate New York, completed in 1875 and now a National Historic Landmark. Renowned for its excellent acoustics, it retains its original seating arrangement to this day.

The performance that evening was entirely acoustic piano. He performed without printed materials, relying entirely on his memory and improvisational skills. The fluidity of tempo changes and clear flights of manual dexterity were amazing to witness. But one particular passage, used for probably not more than a minute or so, transformed me. About a third of the way into the concert, using a repetitive short passage of low notes in a rather percussive manner, he started to subtly modulate the tempo – slightly slower, then slightly faster, then back. All of a sudden it was as if some giant engine kicked in. The entire hall reverberated. He eased back out of it and then back into it again as if to assure us, and perhaps himself, that it wasn’t a mistake. He was playing to the natural resonance of the hall. It was an amazing testimonial to bringing skill, awareness of context and nuanced tuning together to produce something extraordinary.

Fully engage your senses and intellect in an iterative, incremental process to navigate unknown territories with the greatest potential for unprecedented success.

Remember, Improve Iteratively.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design