Architecture is One Part Design, Two Parts Problem-Solving

April 29, 2015

Before design begins, there is always a period of analysis-an effort to understand, identify, and categorize the existing situation. Tantamount to this analysis is the communication of the current conditions, and possible solutions. Like design, if that explanation is not cogent and relatable, it falls short.

Traditionally, architects have approached storytelling through a sequenced set of graphics, each diagram and view building on the last. As the interconnectivity of issues becomes more complex, a linear approach to communication becomes increasingly difficult. There are branches, and subsets of ideas that may not easily be read in sequence. Furthermore, in a traditional linear format, if a client does not understand the initial reading, what choice do they have other than to start again, at the beginning?

While working with Washington State University to develop a plan for renovating Bohler Gym, we found ourselves mired in a complex web of five phases that would shuffle 14 different departments and lead us to an ideal final scenario. Communicating the strategy was difficult. True, there is the linear nature of events - in phase 1, x,y, and z departments move, etc. But what if the client wanted to reorder the sequence? Then the dependencies trump the order. And what if the client wanted to know what the configuration of the gym was at any given phase? Then we'd need a map of the building for each stage.

We began with a traditional graphic approach, but the sheer number of graphics and diagrams was overwhelming. In the end, we decided to present the information via a hyperlinked pdf, with an interface much like that of a website. Across the top ran a phasing timeline, listing each department moving by phase. Users could navigate to a specific phase, regardless of order. Similarly, those interested in a specific department could choose it from the list. The pdf would then illustrate the preceding departmental moves necessary to allow the chosen department to find its final home. In all cases, a map updates to display the gym at any given time. Allowing users to explore the phasing in this manner goes beyond explaning the solution, and encourages an understanding of relationships and rules used to establish the solution.

This idea of allowing people to skip ahead, or go back, to specific information isn't unique to the digital age, or even new. Printed tables of contents and indeces have been around for centuries, and the first hyperlinked document was issued in 1966. What's changed is that the hyperlinked approach is now more familiar, and accessible to the average person. Navigating hyperlinks is, by and large, intuitive. It's also a much faster way to get to the specific information you need. Packaging traditional graphics into an interactive user interface allows clients to peruse and explore information at their own pace and interest, ultimately keeping them more educated and engaged.