All Design work is not created equal

Many conflicting emotions are going through when I am faced with architecture design work at my office: ambiguity, uncertainty, un-clarity…

With many of these uncomfortable emotions swirling in my head, I developed a non-visual designer-like approach to the design process: bullet points.

Before all the other designers out there put out hands and start shouting, “You are wrong,” hear me out.

How do you design?

My bullet point method involves two simple steps: first, create all the required to-do lists for the project and second, assign designated minutes next to those lists.  

Of course, executing those to-do lists is for another blog post:)

Years ago, I met a client (Restaurant owner) who came to our office for ONE “design objective”: increasing the customer numbers for his restaurant. He did not care about all the typical visual/functional changes – kitchen location, customer seating arrangement, trendy light fixtures

In other words, his main objective is to increase sales, and he wanted our architecture office to accomplish that objective with “whatever” means necessary.  

I quickly realized that “selecting the trendy light fixtures” would not make a significant dent in the one and only design goal.

It was time for me to put on different kinds of designer hats: calculator hitting, dollar counting, ROI (Return on Investment) obsessing designer hats!

Here are the four steps to this new design approach.

Step 1: Start with the end in mind

Instead of my usual tracing paper and many markers, I took out an empty stack of paper with only the black and red pens.  

With the one and only objective – increasing customers with new restaurant design – I had to be a mathematician instead of a designer.  

calculator OR paint brushes?

Instead of my usual architect/designer thinking, I approached the project with one objective only: increasing customer numbers.

Step 2: Google search is your friend

Like any good researcher, I started googling the questions like:

  • How to increase customers for an existing restaurant?
  • What are the reasons for crowded restaurants beside the great food?
  • Why would certain restaurants attract customers when others do not (even though the food quality is not different)? Why indeed?
  • Can a new restaurant design give an impression of “better food”?

While the lists of why, how, and what was growing, I realized I saw the design work from the “client’s” perspective.

It was no longer the unusually patterned wood flooring, mustard yellow wall paint colour, and the trendy light fixtures for booth seating areas…

Photo by Brett Jordan on

I kept asking and verifying the ONE design objective against all my decisions; Will customer numbers increase?

After reviewing the 9th page on Google,  can restaurant design increase customer numbers? I was ready to pick up my black marker.  

It was time to flex my design mussels with newfound business wisdom. 

Step 3: Commit even if you are not ready

After days of research and thinking about the restaurant design ideas from a customer numbers perspective, I came up with a somewhat unexpected visual design decision: exterior (instead of interior) design emphasis.

The existing restaurant did not have a clear street presence.  

Photo by Taryn Elliott on

I missed seeing the restaurant when I visited the first time. With small windows and a narrow wooden entrance door, the restaurant had no visual connection to the street.  

Not only the atmosphere of the restaurant was lifeless without the sunlight, but people outside would also miss its presence entirely.  

His answer surprised me when I pointed out these glaring issues to the client. His customer base was mainly repeat customers. The restaurant was well known among neighbours with great food and service.  

His enthusiasm waned when I pointed out his main objective; increasing customer numbers.

With his conceding, I proposed to the client that the entire storefront be demolished and replaced with clear tempered glass to allow a visual connection between the restaurant and the potential customers outside.  

With this design decision, a chunk of the budget was spent on exterior improvement of the restaurant rather than the intended interior enhancements.  

After making the one major anchoring design decision with the client’s blessing, the remaining design work moved through quickly.  

Following the decision, the speedy process revealed another critical element in any collaboration: trust.

The client trusted me to make the remaining design decisions without his approval. He knew we both had the SAME design goals for the project.

Step 4: Review post-game analysis

It has been four years since the project’s completion.

The recent experience of seeing the crowd outside and inside through the new storefront brought back all those memories.  

Photo by Ethan Sees on

Although I have not spoken with the client for several years, I imagine he is happy with the end result of our “collaborative” design efforts.  

The architecture industry has an official term for finding the design outcome: End User Experience. It is a way to evaluate the project and whether the intended design goals match the actual effects of users.  

No one can predict how the work would be received in any creative work. However, there is a way to increase the possibility of pushing the result in your intended direction.

Preparing the design project with detailed foundational work (research, frequent site visits, interviewing end users etc.) increases the chance of successful outcomes.

Implementing the solid review process after project completion, an accurate understanding of the project emerges for everyone involved, including yours truly.

Final Thought

There are 4 specific steps (end goals/research/design/ review) in design work, and they do not seem to relate, at least at first glance. In fact, some of them (research and design) work against one another by creating resistance to moving from one stage to the next.

Research work is inherently a passive working mode that feels comfortable to stay in “forever” and not move into the next active step: design.

Without setting your own constraints (ex., limit work hours or Google page limits, etc.), the research stage of the project can continue without a clear, helpful outcome to guide you into the next critical step: designing.

Developing my own bullet list approach after going through lots of work/no progress period was the best thing I did for myself.  

Even after years of practicing this method, I realize that it is not a 100% foolproof way to get myself out of unclear, confusing, should I or should I not? design dilemma I face, especially at the beginning of EVERY project.

However, in the midst of vague, incoherent ideas in my sketchbook, I start seeing a sliver of design ideas slowly forming. 

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