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Cross-pollinate Your Design Process

Jay Behr
Jay Behr
Nov 2, 2017 · 4 min read

I have experience in two design fields: building architecture and user experience design for apps. For a while, I struggled to reconcile my two seemingly separate careers. As I matured in my craft, I began to explore the parallels. Now, I rely on these cross-overs to sharpen my practice in both fields.

It doesn’t matter what field of design you practice. We can all expand our design abilities by looking at the perspectives of adjacent design fields. The act of design remains founded on the same fundamental challenges, regardless of medium. Our design training gives us the foundation to take advantage of the variations in how other design fields are practiced well.

My skill set cross-pollinates techniques from architectural design and UX for screens. Even if you’re not a UX designer or an architect, I hope these examples inspire you to gain an edge by cross-pollinating your design abilities.

Borrowing a mindset

UX designers usually work on products that people buy. So, the success of their work is scored one subscription at a time. Architects rarely view their work as a product that needs to compete in the market. So, they are rarely pushed by this pressure.

Traditionally it’s considered enough for an architect to examine site conditions, and draw from their past knowledge of a building type to start a design. Sometimes, there’s an investigation into the demographics of usership on larger public projects.

But the mindset of UX product design includes techniques that architects can leverage. Product teams work to clearly define the blue ocean for their product — a unique need in the market than can set their design apart from competition. This forces them to investigate to a deeper level, then set a crystal clear target for what they’re designing.

Adopting this product mindset gives me an advantage in my architecture practice. When I approach every architecture project with a product designer’s mindset, I begin with a better defined target that gets me pointed at a more innovative solution before the first line has even been drawn.

Adapting techniques

The field of UX/UI has become justifiably obsessed with iteration. Trying, failing and redoing brings meaningful progress.

Prototyping in code is only limited by the costs of time. Modern apps remain within control of their design team indefinitely. So, UX designers can put a solution out into the world, see how it performs, then react to what they learn.

But in the field of architecture, once the concrete is poured, the design is final. There’s no taking it back. The architect usually relies on sketching and small scale physical models as a substitute for prototyping. These are valuable techniques, but they are not real tests of an idea.

To achieve a higher level of iteration in architecture, the design process must integrate more intelligent software. But to many, staying abreast of technology in their design practice can be seen as un-billable distraction. Architects often lament that they’re too busy to change.

Understanding the value of iteration in UX design has inspired me to create new software tools that make digital prototyping practical for architecture. These tools allow me to prototype buildings so iteration can happen just as it does in cloud based software.

Web designers routinely release multiple versions of a design to compare how each performs in the market. I’ve started borrowing these same methods by A/B testing building designs over the web using cloud based 3d software. This allows users to experience my designs long before the concrete has been poured. Now my clients react to more ideas represented with better accuracy. So, their feedback is more informed and dependable.

Borrowing aesthetic dimensions

As designers, we’re uniquely trained to perceive and critique aesthetic qualities. It requires practice to build fluency. When we stay focused within our main field, we tend to look for the same aesthetic dimensions, over and over.

A screen designer may be routinely concerned with clarity and legibility in their work. An architect may be commonly concerned with tactility and the interplay of light on form. Each type of designer becomes fluent — but sometimes over focused — on the dimensions that matter most in their field.

But, there’s inspiration to be found in borrowing aesthetic dimensions from another field. They can be lenses that open up new insights for improvement. What happens when the architect assesses a house design for clarity and legibility? Even though this may not be a primary concern, it can overlay additional richness to the solution.

The consideration of light source on form has had an undeniable impact on screen visual design in recent years. Google’s Material design is an excellent example where qualities of light have been borrowed from 3d mediums to inspire a fresh and more readable structure for designing UX screen graphics in a 2d medium.

At the end of the day, the design processes of adjacent disciplines can be mined to reinforce and expand successful practices in one’s primary discipline. It can be refreshing to examine the subtle differences in how great work gets accomplished. Exploring them has helped sharpen what I offer the world. Are there methodologies in a different field that inspire you? I invite you to think of ways you can cross-pollinate your skill set and share them in the discussion below.

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