Ramblings, findings, opinion and the occasional fact.

#2: How to start a project

#2: How to start a project

Skizze Berlin

Like everybody else, I usually have more to do than even a 36-hour day will fit in. I always scribble stuff on bits of papers, and sometimes even make lists. That may not qualify as drawing” in the professional sense, but even a few marks on paper can signify a beginning.

Drawing is the greatest means of communication for architects and designers with or without a brief. Getting the ideas on to paper is another matter, but a foolproof strategy for designing does exist. When Le Corbusier designed’ the Cabanon in 45 minutes, what exactly did he do? Did he scribble a complete building – plan, elevation and section – on to the back of that proverbial envelope? Or was it just a doodle that was then deciphered and translated by assistants who were familiar with the master’s handwriting? We all know that a quick sketch can be both the beginning of a process or the end of it. It all depends on what you call designing’. Does it only happen while actually working on paper or screen, or does a problem, a brief, or a project leech itself to the inside of your head without you even knowing it’s there? And then come out, fully developed as a building, a painting, a chair, a lamp, or a book cover? For myself, I have identified five distinct strategies to start designing. (They apply to writing as well.)

Need the car washed, emails answered, receipts filed? When the deadline already casts a long shadow on your conscience, you suddenly feel the urgent need to tidy up all those loose ends. You can only sit down to work when everything is tidy, in your mind and on your desk. I have to go through this phase every time. By now, I recognize it and use it to actually finish all these little annoying tasks that keep piling up.

Our brain is an amazing tool: unlimited capacity, works at the speed of light and is incredibly flexible. Unfortunately the problem is never lack of capacity but retrieval. We know it’s in there, but cannot find it. Just sitting down (after having cleaned up the desk, of course) and putting your mind to a problem for a few minutes is an amazing experience that we hardly ever allow ourselves to enjoy. If you do not look at emails, switch off the phone, keep your door and the books on your desk closed, you’d be surprised how quickly you start getting things sorted, in your head at least.

After a few minutes of plain old pondering the issue at hand, it can be useful to start making marks on paper. Not necessarily proper mind maps or floor plans, but anything that will still be visible a day later. Picturing thoughts, even if you cannot draw at all, is amazingly effective, especially if you have to remember what you thought about a day later or communicate it to someone else. You can buy expensive software to help with this, but I find that the time spent mastering the learning curve of a new application would be better applied to learning to sketch simple little drawings. Everybody – especially clients – loves a designer who can actually draw. As a type designer I am loathe to admit that a picture does sometimes say more than a thousand words.

Knowledge is good, and looking around for signs of other intelligent solutions to a similar task may help. Gathering background facts also builds confidence and may help convince a client. Looking at too many annuals full of other peoples’ work can be dangerous though: you either get totally discouraged because everybody else’s stuff looks so good, or you – inadvertently, of course – imitate something, often later, when you think you cannot recall anything you’ve seen.

This is an ongoing activity. I do not know one designer, writer or architect who doesn’t keep things that are interesting’. That doesn’t always have to amount to a complete collection of Braun hi-fi equipment from 1957 until today, as in my case, but anything that you could not throw away at the time survived for a good reason: it spoke to you. If you can make your collection bring back that original inspiration, you can trigger parts of your brain that may have encountered the same problem before, even without knowing it at the time. All these strategies work. One after the other, if not in the order mentioned above, but more often than not concurrently. We carry a design brief around with us all the time, not just during the hours we can actually charge a client. It just needs the right moment to manifest itself. That’s why Le Corbusier probably knew exactly what he wanted to do when he took out his pen. 

What these anecdotes fail to mention, however, is that after the first strike of genius, most of us have to spend much, much longer getting scribbles made into plans, ideas turned into prose and proposals into commissions.