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For many, the creative process feels mystical and unpredictable. It’s harnessed by those with an innate talent and a creative personality. This is, however, utter bull. A creative mind is the right of every person. It just requires a few key skills and a clear approach.


1. The Quota Approach

The creative process follows a clear path from quantity to quality. Rarely are we struck with such a brilliant idea that it requires no evolution or alteration to be realized. More often a successful solution comes from exploring many options, distilling them down, and refining only one. Quantity to quality.


Designers often forget this. Our greatest failure is assuming our first good idea is the best one we will have. It’s understandable. Design is an arduous process. We can go hours, even days, focused on a problem without a solution in sight. Then suddenly the idea strikes. It’s precious. It’s gold. It’s utter relief. So I beg you to shove it aside and go back to the misery of the design process. We are not yet ready for quality.


Here is the value of the Quota. A good idea is comfortable. We can rest rather than go off searching for a better one. The Quota gets us out of this mindset. Give yourself a number and force yourself to produce. Can you think of 15 ways to design a bathroom? 20 ways to finish a wall? 10 ways to lay out an office? Quality is not the goal, but it is certainly a result. I guarantee that within those innumerable options, one will be better than what you started with.


The Quota approach is a gift from Twyla Tharp, legendary choreographer and author of The Creative Habit.


“A lot of things happen with you set an aggressive quota…[People] focus, and with that comes an increased fluency and agility of mind. People are forced to suspend critical thinking…they put their internal critic on hold and let everything out.”

When you force yourself to devise an unreasonable number of solutions, you start to get creative.

2. Mashing Ideas

A while back I came across an adorable book called Dancing about Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity by Phil Beadle. The premise is simple: Creative solutions cannot be arrived at through normal means, otherwise everyone would arrive at them. The way you approach a problem through unusual means is to mash it up with something totally dissimilar. What can be learned about architecture through the lens of dance (or vice-versa)?


"…a person with a propensity to produce ideas will be someone who sees the relationship between things; relationships that are not necessarily obvious on first sight."

– Phil Beadle | Dancing about Architecture


Architecture has a very real example of this creative mash-up in the world of biomimicry. We have begun researching plants and animals through the lens of architecture. Can the way trees soak up water be applied to plumbing? Can the way leaves soak up sunlight be used for solar energy in buildings?


Or perhaps you take a more comical approach. How can fishing be applied to bowling? I won’t try to answer that one, but you get the point.

3. Feeding the Mind

Most artists (and designers) have a certain arrogance about them. There is pride in the creative act, and it’s easy to believe our “genius idea” came only from our brilliance. It does not. For the mind to work, it must be fed. Output first requires input.


Young designers (myself included) are always making this mistake. We see the ease with which our seniors design. We then sit at our desks, eyes on a piece of blank paper, wondering in vain why we cannot produce a single idea. The reality is that our seniors have had years of “input”, inspiration, and precedent. Their mental repertoire of ideas has been filled. Ours is empty.


The solution is simple: Feed your mind. Let it soak in. Let it simmer. Let it stew.


Renowned advertising executing, James Webb Young, distills the creative process into 5 “Techniques for Producing Ideas”.


  1. Gather materials. Find inspiration. Find precedent. Research.

  2. Digest materials. Consider what you learned.

  3. Unconsciously internalize materials. Sleep! The best ideas come when you allow your subconscious to take over. It is far better at synthesizing information than your conscious mind.

  4. Sudden Eureka moment. An idea will appear as if from thin air.

  5. Bring ideas to life. Act upon the idea. Refine it. Make it work.


In essence, the more you put in, the more you can take out.

All new designers face the hurtle of presenting to clients. Each client is unique and so the way you approach them should be as well. Unfortunately, architecture school only teaches us how to present to professors. Our presentations are full of verbose archispeak. We use words like “verticality” and “compression” by the boatload. Try that with a client and you get blank stares and frustration. Don’t become that condescending architect. In my experience, there are 5 (nearly) foolproof techniques to having productive, energizing, and inspirational client meetings.

1) Quit the Bullshit

Most new designers are faced with a sudden and traumatic realization: They know VERY little. Those agonizing years of (supposedly) learning architecture in school have prepared us very poorly for the real world. We look up to the architects around us in wonder at how much they know, and we start to question our value to the field.


Suddenly we are thrust into a meeting with a client. They hit us hard with question after question expecting accurate, professional answers. They are not trying to quiz us, but it sure feels like it. We have two options: Admit ignorance or fake it ‘till we make it.


Here is where I urge you to quit the bullshit. Any client can tell when you are making up an answer. Though all your instincts will pressure you otherwise, never try to answer a question you don’t have an answer to. Instead, promote your resources!

Never try to answer a question you don't have an answer to. Instead, promote your resources!

I recently had a client ask me a string of questions about various light fixtures I was showing. I knew that nothing I could say would honestly answer her question. Instead, I offered to consult with one of our amazing lighting reps and get back to her with a full and honest answer. By sharing this with her, two things were accomplished:

  1. I avoided giving a wrong answer and costing the client time and money (and looking foolish)

  2. The client now values our firm for the consultants we bring to the table

Saying “I don’t know, but I have a coworker or consultant who does” only ever adds to your value. Quit the bullshit.


2) Show the Client “Their Scheme”

This will forever be my boss’s slogan, and there is plenty of wisdom in it. Clients are always sharing their design ideas through sketches, Pinterest, Houzz, etc. They have put a lot of thought into their project and will almost always “know” what they want before speaking with you. They are not aware how much value you bring.


The designer in us wants to start each project fresh: contemplating the angles of the sun, the patterns of the wind, and meaning of life. However, I have learned from experience that a good designer will instead build upon the expectations of their client.

A good designer builds upon the expectations of their client.

When your client comes in for their first design review, they expect to see the design which has been inhabiting their headspace for last year. Rather, you show them four new options. As you explain these Brunelleschi-like design solutions, you can see the client’s enthusiasm wane. You describe how successfully your bathroom design meets all their requirements, but their response…



You might as well end the meeting now.


So, what can you do to avoid this death trap? Simply prepare the client’s design as described. This is Scheme A. Scheme B incorporates a few of your genius design improvements.


3) Start with the best? Start with the worst?

The order in which you present your design schemes is up for constant debate. While it’s not a question I can answer definitively, considering the following ideas can tremendously improve your client meetings.


Is cost a primary concern? If so, perhaps you begin with the least expensive option and work your way up. Starting high may put your client in shock and all your great ideas will be lost on them.


Have they given you “their version” already? If so, start by showing them that scheme and gradually explaining the improved versions that you developed.


Do you have a preferred design? If so, it may be helpful to start with the preferred version. Clients will often linger on the first scheme they see. It is a good idea if that version is the one you like the most. Each successive scheme can then be compared to the preferred scheme.


4) The Beauty of Trace

A productive client presentation is a collaborative act between you and the client. It is a consultative encounter requiring two participants: The consultant and the consultee.


I am forever fascinated by a concept called “linguistic registers”. It is the idea that we always interact with each other in one of five ways: Intimately, casually, consultatively, formally, and frozen(ly). This is a subject in-and-of itself, but the consultative register has tremendous value here.


It suggests is that certain actions and ways of speaking can create an environment of consultation where we position ourselves as an expert and the client as a recipient of that expertise.

One such action is the unrolling of the trace.

By opening a roll of trace paper, we signal that we are prepared to collaborate and explore ideas together, yet the owner of the trace paper is the expert.

Unrolling the trace paper takes us out of the “formal register”, which says “I am preaching to you. Listen but do not contribute.”


The actual act of sketching during a meeting is an incredibly powerful gesture as well. Clients will appreciate the speed with which you can design! A convenient trick is to mentally prepare a few extra design options prior to your meeting. As you are presenting your ideas, whip out the trace paper and draw one of those options in real time. It is equally as impressive.


5) Be Expressive. Be Gestural.

I recently came across Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication. 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is what you actually say.

The best designers know this. When walking a client through a design idea, be expressive and be gestural. An example of poor client communication:



Instead:



While my explanation may be overkill, the idea is simple: Create an experience and sell it. Every great client presentation is about the attitude you bring to the table. Be enthusiastic, be honest, and be prepared.

When I first began working in the field, I felt such pressure to be productive and churn out my work. I felt like I was being evaluated on how fast I could produce a design. I hesitated to start my designs with hand sketching because of how time consuming it was. Instead, I would jump right into computer drawing. I suppose I thought that the “completeness” of a computer (CAD) drawing made it more valuable. I was treating the “sketch stage” as just a precursor to the actual design process, something to be eliminated for the sake of speed and productivity.


I was walking a dangerous path. The sketching stage is not simply an early stage of the design process. It is a different stage all together, and it is perhaps the most important period of the entire process.


I could write an entire book on the value of sketching (and many have!), but these 3 reasons are enough to keep a pen always in my hand.



Concept Floor Plan Sketch

Need for Speed

The early design phase is all about output of ideas. Quantity matters. The successful designer sees many ways of looking at the same problem and understand that the first solution will almost never be the best. You need to be churning out ideas, approaching the design from as many angles as possible. This is the value of the sketch: the ability to produce pages of mind splatter. With each drawing comes greater clarity and a more refined design. Renowned Choreography, Twyla Tharp, refers to this as “scratching”.

"When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going.

– Twyla Tharp | The Creative Habit


These tiny ideas require you cast your net broadly, exploring many approaches in a short time. CAD is a fantastic production tool, but it demands information you may not yet have. To draw a line, you must know whether it’s 3ft, 4ft, 5ft, and so on. There are no expressive, undefined “strokes” to suggest a loosely defined idea. It must have certainty, but in the sketch stage…uncertainty is king.


New Townhomes - Concept Sketches

CAD is Uncanny

Drawing is a language like any other. When you speak, it’s never enough to just say the words. You use expression and emotion. Tone of voice can make you sound authoritative, meek, confident, or uncertain. Drawing is no different.


Architect Susan Piedmont-Palladino beautifully describes the link between drawing and speech in her book How Drawings Work: A User Friendly Theory. I absolutely suggest the read.


She argues that drawings can express a level of certainty or uncertainty depending on how they are presented. A CAD drawing expresses certainty with its defined lines, clear scale, and clean look. We assume that a stair drawn via CAD is accurate in its number of risers and floor-to-floor heights. It is a perfect tool for preparing constructible “instruction” drawings. A sketch conveys uncertainty with its squiggly lines and expressive gestures. We can roughly indicate the location and style of a stair without committing to its size or height. This is fundamentally important when we begin a design and all of the fine details are not yet decided.


When a designer skips the sketching stage and jumps right to CAD, they are pretending to have a level of clarity that does not exist. As Palladino puts it, this drawing is uncanny.

The uncanny reveals itself in the precision that is out of place and time, and the uncanny accuracy of a digital drawing can act as an unhappy performative.

– Susan Piedmont-Palladino | How Drawings Work

If anything, it can be confusing to clients and often mean the death of a great meeting. It is too easy for clients to get caught up on the accuracy of tiny details when all you wanted to present was the broad idea.


Fireplace Built Ins - Visualization Sketch

Revealing the Process

Computer drawing does a strange thing, eliminating all evidence of the thought that went into the design. The ability to move and delete lines means our progress is always being sacrificed to make way for a revision.


When we sketch, those drawings can be recalled at any point, pulled from the stack of trace paper and revisited for future designs. Our process is documented with all our ideas along the way.


It is often assumed (wrongly) that clients and bosses are paying for your design solutions. In truth they are paying for your creative approach. They are deeply invested in how you reach your design, not just what it looks like in the end. Walking a client or a higher-up through your design process can ease them into a design. It’s your chance to guide the conversation and say “I have given this a lot of thought…as you can see…and here is my best idea”. You’ll find you get a lot less push back when the effort you put into your design comes through.


My hope is that everyone picks up a roll of trace paper and a marker and begins their next design with a sketch.


For further thought on this topic read:

Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit

Susan Piedmont-Palladino's How Drawings Work



Carriage Style Garage Addition - Concept Sketch