To be a good designer, start writing

There are two skills I use constantly; writing and designing

Throughout the day, I am constantly putting on and off two different hats: writer and designer. Whether uncomfortable email writing to clients/consultants about the latest project scope increase(bad news) or redesigning the building lobby for the ninety times are such examples of those hat-changing activities. 

Writing vs Designing

The good news is that I do not get bored since I have to constantly switch tasks that require different skills and brain powers…

The bad news is that one task (writing) takes much more time than the other (designing), especially at the beginning of work.

However, over the years, I realized that I have the same struggle starting any design work.  

It was not just writing but also designing work which developed the same painful process. Still, more importantly, these seemingly different skills help one another.

Writing helps unlock (visual) design blocks.

Like writer’s block, designer’s block exists, especially in any project’s early stages.

There were many unsure” what should I do” moments in the early stage of working on a project. I vividly remember the first assignment at my architecture school and how I did not know what to do…just kept looking at the blank sketchbook.  

Recognizing the assignment was due in 4 days and having to prepare the verbal presentation was absolutely one of the most terrifying moments in architecture school education.

During that scary time, I talked to one of my professors about the difficulties in “starting” to work on the project.

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Seeing my struggle with starting the assignment (no drawings, sketches, study models…no nothing), he asked me, “What are you thinking right now?.”  

I thought the question was strange, and I felt that I had already explained my situation clearly by showing nothing. Since I had nothing to offer (no visual materials), there was “nothing” I was thinking…at least, that was my logic.

He suggested I start writing instead of trying to draw/make/ build etc. Instead of trying to create visual representations (drawings, models, etc.), he told me to start writing.

The rule to this new design approach is that there are no rules. I can write whatever thoughts I have about the project…they can be questions, ideas, wishlists, feelings etc. 

Instead of telling me what/how to start the new method of designing, he just left to go speak to the following student.  

I was more confused about what I had to do. 

However, I decided to try his design method; instead of pulling my hair out to draw/make “something,” I decided to write on tracing paper.  

Without focusing on the design ideas/solutions, I started asking myself the questions…and coming up with these questions was oddly easy.  

  • How do I want to experience the house I am designing for myself?
  • How do I want to move through the house?
  • Who else is going to live in or visit this house?
  • Where do I want to build the house?
  • Is there a special requirement for this house that other homes might lack?

Once I started writing the questions (without worrying about the solutions), I began to have more/different ideas to respond to those questions.

After spending time on those writing exercises over the days, my fuzzy thoughts/hunches/feelings started to take the “shape” of an idea.  

I was ready to translate those ideas into visual representations for the upcoming presentation.  

Writing clarifies / Design organizes 

Both designing and writing are messy processes.

The “messiness” makes the work challenging, complex, don’t know what to do, and a blank sketchbook phenomenon.  

Although the term design block is not well known, the feeling of being blocked is very real, like the other well-known term, writer’s block. They work exactly the same way; early paralysis in any creative work and procrastination result from those paralyses, causing feeling much worse about not making progress.  

I am an expert in experiencing these blocks. With this “expertise” over the years, I am much more aware of my emotions and inactions facing these two huge blocks.

The article, Writing as a Design Process described my hazy, imprecise thought process in straightforward, articulate ways.

Professor Shin states, “design process isn’t linear, it’s iterative.” I would further add that it is not only design but also writing work.

As I constantly remind my students in design studio classes, design ends when you run out of time,” and the iterative nature of constant reviews/revisions can continue.

Despite these repetitive working processes, from hazy, unclear, messy thoughts to clear, a significant main idea “somehow” emerges.

Writing and Designing have ONE goal: communication

The purpose of these seemingly two different disciplines is the same: communication.  

They are essentially the same skills to express ideas, thoughts, intentions or even one’s opinions; methods and approaches might differ.

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Whether seeing the well-prepared architectural drawings on the wall or reading the well-written articles, both satisfy viewers/readers.  

As an architect illustrating the visual documentation to clients and not having to explain too much to the clients or recognizing the project ideas from my students’ work (without receiving their verbal explanations) are examples of clear communication.

Being able to communicate through written words or visual means is the ultimate goal ALL-not just writers or designers – of us are aiming for.  

Final Thought

I no longer treat my writing and design work separately

In fact, whenever I struggle with any writing or designing work, I use these skills interchangeably; writing to get myself out of design block and doodling diagrams to clarify writing ideas.

One notable aspect of these two equally challenging works is that I am much better(or faster) at designing than writing:). 

With these notable weaknesses in writing work, I am much more willing to bring out my tracing paper with a thick marker to start drawing writing!

On the other hand, my writing ritual takes much more elaborate preparations: an organized desk, a massive pot of coffee and also a pint of Haggen Daz ice cream for more challenging writing work, always:)

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