There was a period in the 1990s when most architecture websites were slow Flash-driven beasts. You waited minutes for the site to load, spent more minutes trying to understand how to navigate it, and likely never spent another minute on it again, out of sheer frustration. Architects just weren’t satisfied with the standard web pages, and so they chose the freedom and frustration, of Flash. The sites didn’t work very well, but, damn, they sure were nice to look at.
No process guarantees insight, but plenty set the stage for its arrival.
So when the young Chicago firm Studio Gang approached Bruce Mau Design with the task of refreshing their website, we set out one rule: no Flash. The challenge was how were we going to design a website that appeals to the sensibilities of architects–who are fascinated by how we move through space–while maintaining the clarity and simplicity that comes with standard web conventions like scrolling, text that you can actually copy and paste, and images that you can easily download.
Our process, as always, began with an immersion phase. We spent time at Studio Gang where we got to know the (amazing) culture and (wonderful) people, we observed quietly, and we engaged our team and theirs through workshops and interviews in search of the insight that would lead us to the foundation for our design work.
Then comes the time for the dirty little secret of design: The moment of insight. I believe Einstein was right to say that “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
Seek difference because insight lies in the space between.
The act of deriving insight is the dirty secret of design in this age of scientific method, but that’s changing. There’s a lot of great new research to suggest that our intuitive minds are simply a different way of processing great volumes of information that we acquire through rational processes. Don’t blindly trust rational processes; listen to your intuition, too. Read Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, if you don’t believe me. There is no process in the world that guarantees insight, but there are plenty of processes that set the stage for its arrival.
There are hundreds of ways to set the stage, but here are three big ones:
Surround yourself with both the problem and with inspiration. That means drawing on the field of study itself, and gathering all the information that you can. It also means drawing on inspiring, but unrelated fields. Insight can come from anywhere. We also use 4 x 8 sheets of ¾? thick foam core to make any space into a project space. We cover those boards with as much project-related material as possible.
The differences between things are one of the surest ways to find insight. Just as biodiversity is a hallmark of a healthy ecosystem, cogni-diversity (let’s call it that) is the sign of a healthy creative environment. That can come from a diverse set of collaborators, or simply leaving your office and talking to different people at the supermarket in your neighborhood. Seek difference because insight lies in the space between.
As Einstein says, we’re slaves to our pre-frontal cortex. The rational centre of our brain controls the vast majority of our conscious thought process. Designers have always known that you have to stay up really late sometimes to find insight. You have to distance yourself somehow from the world. These techniques are simply ways to escape the tendency towards purely rational thought. The trick is to get to a short hand. If you can calm your thought, the chances are much better that that moment of insight will simply emerge from the deeper recesses of your mind.
For the Studio Gang website, we immersed ourselves in their culture. We found friction in the differences between our ways of thinking. And, along the way, we struck on the simple insight that the horizontal scroll is an undervalued and underused paradigm of the web. We combined this idea with the inspiring work of Matteo Pericoli and his book Manhattan Unfurled, an epic, long, and hand-drawn Manhattan skyline. We realized that we had an idea that was perfect for an architectural firm in that it made interesting use of the infinite space of a web page, but it also tied into a mainstay of architectural inspiration: the skyline.
Good design thinks. Great design feels.
Each piece of content is treated like a building in the skyline. So when you land on the home page, you’re basically entering Studio Gang City. It’s a simple idea, and that’s why it works. Content is easily sorted by type and it’s easy to see all the news in one view, or all the projects in another.
And the idea contains within it one of the key indicators of value: It has legs. The site can grow over time and is not technology dependent. As web technology evolves, the city can become three-dimensional. Some day soon clients will be able to explore their buildings in 3D and monitor the buildings’ progress in real time. The possibilities are endless and the site concept can accommodate that evolution.
Good design thinks. Great design feels. The biggest downfall of designers is when we fall to the tyranny of purely rational process. When you also learn to trust your gut, the work not only makes sense, it just feels right.