The Cartography of Design

Dan Burdzy 

Dan Burdzy graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture in 2013. He now works as a designer at Rogers Partners.



Design does not happen in a linear fashion- it encompasses and harnesses creative energies through thought and understanding. While it is certainly a movement from the unknown to the known,1 this transformation is not along the straight and narrow. Our process looks at inside and outside influences, goes through phases of divergent thinking that opens up possibilities, and then through divergent thinking to have a stronger focus. We move forward by moving backwards, we progress by failing, and we embrace the ambiguous. Moving between fixed points of known information, design goals, or identified influences, the designer explores the relationship between these points, these set parameters for design, in order to find the known within the unknown. Design happens between these parameters. The parameters are fixed points among a havoc of new thoughts, and the controls for all the ambiguity. They are understood for how they are important to a project, and what effects they can have on it. They can frame a problem or an approach prior to design, but also act as directives in making key decisions. As designers, we use these fixed points at the start, but turn our focus to the space in-between, where we embrace the possibilities, the mess of thoughts, and the ambiguity to generate new, and better ideas.

Design takes parameters into account in order to solve for an unknown. If a simple math equation cannot be solved without the constraints of known information, it goes without question that a complex design problem must be solved in very much the same way. It is the parameters in the design process that help designers to transform ideas into physical form. For them, need, context, and form become the greatest and most influential variables. The solution carefully considers these areas and as manifested through the analysis, exploration, discovery, and verification of information.

When thinking creatively, it seems counter-intuitive to have parameters. This word brings to mind a limited scope of understanding, establishing rules and hindering the creative process. The discussion of such wide-scope words such as “site forces”2 has no resemblance of limitations or hindrances. But by creating constraints, we heighten our art. It allows us to limit our scopes in the slightest bit, and promotes deep thought on the topic at hand. To make full use of these parameters, however, we must be comfortable with exploration that is not tightly focused, let the mind wander, and be open to unexpected results. Now, these might sound as complete contradictions to each other – posing two arguments entirely. But it is the balance of both reduction and expansion of thinking that I find extreme fascination within the design process. A process filled with contradictions, interpretation, and ambiguity gives way to a single solution: an item, a building, something that either is or isn’t.

As described earlier, parameters can be used in different phases of design- both before and during the design itself. Parameters come into effect long before design takes place. They help define the problem as well as make way for the solution. Designers must interpret their problems if they are going to deal with them. It is the process, however, that sets designers apart from analysts. As creative minds, we have the ability to think visually, through drawings and models, and have a comprehensive understanding of our spatial surroundings. This understanding, however, is not a mere knowledge of rules and laws. Much of what we do as designers is interpret. With our collection of data and resources, we cannot possibly create a finished product, as data collection is not mechanical. Analyzing and understanding the sites of our buildings, social influences, and other ambiguous and debatable factors influence our approach to design problems in a very different way than the scientific, mathematic, or physical influences that architects also use, such as soil samples and topography maps. The intuition of a designer can utilize these things, and innovate. This design-thinking synthesizes the issues, the opportunities, the individuals, pertinent information, context, site, and creativity into one process. It allows for the manifestation of information into tools for creativity and design. It re-frames how the designer and the user understand variables of every project, and helps concretize the muddled ideas and data that were once strewn throughout a site and the designer’s mind. This reframing and creation of design happens with parameters.

Alan Colquhoun, an architect, theorist, and educator in the midtwentieth century brought much of this thought into his writing. As a response to much of the “objective” and scientific thought within the Modern movement, Colquhoun promoted the invaluable role of intuition in the design process, which not only helps to express an author’s intent, but also create better solutions from those before us by incorporating prior knowledge.3 While his discussion surrounded the idea of using type-based solutions, the ideas behind it are particularly important to the parameter discussion. Type has played a strong role in architecture for centuries. We can easily identify a house as a house, a church as a church, and a museum as a museum, because we have mental constructs of what these are. Designers before us have already solved many issues within these typologies, so it is not uncommon to use these solutions to solve problems presently facing us. While this can be a tremendous benefit to the designer, type (a parameter), does not make a final determination for our final product. As Colquhoun points out, “At whatever stage in the design process it may occur, it seems that the designer is always faced with making voluntary decisions and that the configurations which he arrives at must me the result of an intention and not merely the result of a deterministic process.” While we may certainly define our parameters within our scope of design, they do not make the final product- the designer does. If we frame our parameters as aspects of the project which need to be considered and solved, we can see that they are not the end all. They are not the check list for the final product, but points of inspiration or a solid grasp for our focus. “after all the known operational needs have been satisfied, there is still a while area of choice in the final configuration.” Using these ideas as a starting point, we can see that parameters are certainly helpful, but on a means to an end. “The area of pure intuition must be based on a knowledge of the past solutions applied to related problems, and that creation is a process of adapting forms derived either from past needs or from past aesthetic ideologies to the needs of the present.” Our intuition is based on our collected body of knowledge, both from previous life experiences and through research necessary for design. Whether a designer carefully considers every decision made, or makes one fowl swoop into design, intuition and information are never far behind.

Information is one of the greatest assets to a designer. It helps us to understand, to organize, and most importantly, to design. Even prior to design, architects and designers are the individuals responsible for searching through the uncertainty in order to understand the problems that face them, and even to discern what opportunities are available. The process of data collection is an art of its own and not merely a recording of assorted information. The information associated with any given project is an asset to the designer, establishing relationships between parts and whole, making overarching goals apparent, and helping to bring ideas into physical form. While designers certainly hold the end product as a coveted ideal, the information they collect and use is just as vital to the process.

Three key elements within design are need, context, and form. They are their own entities, but highly interrelated, as one could easily influence the others. PLOT Design describe one way of looking at this: By utilizing a Punnet square setup for a design problem, one can help identify both a challenge and response. For challenges, they compared needs or challenges that were met vs. those that were articulated. For response, they looked at “how” vs. “what” to determine the focus of a project.

For the most part, the resulting approaches to a design problem are self-explanatory. For example. if a challenge has been both met and articulated previously, you can just copy another example (like a kettle). If challenge is not met, but articulated, you need to invent. If you don’t know what and you don’t know how, you are “navigating through the fog.” You have yet to define what the problem is, and don’t have the slightest idea on how to go about solving this basically unknown problem. If you can at least figure out the “what,” you can continue on a “quest” to figure out how to solve the problem at hand. Of course, if you know both what and how, the solution is rather point blank.

From there, the designer can create a series of variables and parameters specific to the problem at hand. In most cases, these are the answers to smaller questions that make up the entire task at hand. What is it? Who is it for? What is its purpose? These smaller questions, of course, can have any number of answers. It is the role of the designer to control how these parameters are derived, and even how they work together. Knowing that they work together as a whole design solution is key to this approach. Structuring, detailing, abstracting, representing, understanding are all frameworks for looking at these new parameters. If the detail of a project changes, it might not meet the current understanding of the project. This could either lead to a redesign of that particular detail, or even a newfound understanding of the project entirely. The interplay of these frameworks is the essence of design, and a main role of the designer. Thinking more concretely, a connection detail can help spark inspiration for the rest of the project (such as other connections, or even the spaces, or the overall concept), or it can be derived moving from a macro to micro design scale, if it meets a set of requirements of a design scheme. It is up to the designer to create many of the parameters and decide the scope they have within the project. The parameters and approach are designed just as much as the overall product itself.

Strict parameters result in strict outputs, and don’t leave much to the designer to interpret. The important roles of thinking and problem solving are gone when a mechanized system is employed. Going back to Colquhoun discussing a process of exclusion rather than reduction, “Scientific detachment toward our problems is essential and with it the application of the mathematical tools proper to our culture. But these tools are unable to give us a ready-made solution to our problems. They only provide the framework, the context within which we operate.” If we use parameters in this way, as a framework, they become tools, rather than solutions for design. I suppose the best way to describe how this works by tracing methods of reasoning and thought. As discussed earlier, design does not happen along a straight path. And if, by chance, it did end up being straight, there are certainly some challenges, bumps, and extra pressure along this road! Design is not a field where deductive reasoning has much play. This type of reasoning is extremely mathematical, and has a guaranteed outcome. In my opinion, there is no such way to address architecture in this way. The end result is always building (that is, to say, that the rain is kept out), but is not fair to say that it is always architecture. The human play of buildings, and the architect’s intent within space far surpasses any methods by which a direct, law based, solution can be created. Looking at inductive reasoning, where one moves from a set of specific facts (in our case, parameters) to a general conclusion or rule. While “architecture” can be seen as a type of general conclusion, this type of reasoning still doesn’t allow as much freedom to design. It kind of takes the “quest” approach discussed earlier, knowing the what, but not the how. Abductive reasoning, however, is more the approach that designers should use, as it allows for the use of parameters like inductive reasoning, but in a different way. With inductive reasoning, a conclusion is likely, but not certain, as the parameters help to move us toward our solution. But abductive reasoning uses parameters as launching points, where we can start, and then reach out to explore. If no solution is found, another parameter can be used, allowing us to reach and explore another method, another thought, and another possibility. The parameters are merely just grounding points for thought, which we can come back to in case of an unsuccessful thought exploration, or as a spring starting point into a new exploration. There is never a certainty what one will find, and it is up to the designer to interpret and identify which solutions, if any, are valuable to the task at hand. In this way, the designer works in an expansive and contractive type of manner, or a divergent and convergent manner. We start at a parameter, explore different avenues and widen our breadth of thought, and once new and exciting pieces of information and knowledge are found, refocus them in a convergent manner and move to the next parameter. We may find a solution, we may find a new, or multiple, other parameter to aid in our explorations, or we may end up empty handed. It is this risk, and the uncertainty, that promotes effective design. Our previous knowledge guides us in our explorations of the unknown, and acts as a basis for decision-making.

We can even think of this in terms of a conversation with a stranger (we can sometimes have an intent when talking to those we know). A greeting and a topic are simple points of grounding. But unless the two people are the most uninteresting beings alive, the conversation will not end after only one topic. So how do we get to the next discussion? By exploring through dialogue. The growth of a discussion comes from the sharing and collaboration of ideas and experiences. This can promote a series of related topics, or spark a tangent that leads to an otherwise unconnected topic. These topics are unknown at first, but are quickly established as common points of interest (or disinterest) between these two people- creating a physical memory for them to store about each other. In the end, they have a body of knowledge, if not about a few unfamiliar topics, then about each other to refer to later. The end result, once unknown at the point of the initial greeting, is now clear (unless it was a very bad first date!).

The discussion of such abstract thought however, can only go so far in architecture. We are, remember, makers. We create and build (while this could include ideas and discussions, they don’t keep the rain out, although they can certainly help another designer to). So how can these abstract ideas become physical entities? As this discussion is focused primarily on process, model making and the parti will be our points of interest in this area. They are a designers way of “doing” something with their thoughts, explorations, and knowledge. The act of doing concretizes ambiguity, and although it doesn’t solve all problems, acts as a focal point much like the parameters from before. Take a parti diagram, for example. They act as a means to capture the essence of a project – to get across a main idea. They move our thoughts into a physical entity, possibly in the shape of a model or diagram. The allow the mind to buzz by creating a synthesis of what could be. As the designers of PLOT call it, the parti is “everything that isn’t architecture.” Again, a contradiction: everything that isn’t architecture promotes thought to create architecture. This can be paired with physical modeling and prototyping to promote the same type of thoughts, and allow the designer to evaluate successes and failures before moving forward. But to the designer, it means much more to gather information from his own work and thoughts through this abstract method. It can also aid in establishing clarity in design by showing it to others, or even furthering an idea by promoting feedback and dialogue. The divergence of focus, in the end, allows for a much more focused product.

The idea of parameters is not to limit- it is to promote. It is truly impossible to define all parameters as something so complex as a building, so why try to do it from the onset? We should explore to the fullest extent if we are to create. The world of architecture, bound by the limits of tectonics and gravity, is unlimited in its scope when designing. Embrace these contradictions to explore, create, and inspire.

1.  Juan Pablo Bonta tells us “the design process can be thought of as a series of transformations going from uncertainty towards information.
2. Carnegie Mellon dialogue often abuses this phrase. While context plays an important role in design, students often invent these “forces,” – a common criticism in project review.
3.   Alan Colquhoun, “Typology and Design Method,” in Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, ed. Kate Nesbitt.