Applying Architecture to Product Design: Parti

In 2014, I started a blog series about Applying Architecture to Product Design. I had a lot of fun blogging about the topics of Circulation, Program and Sketching Tools.

3 weeks ago, I visited Los Angeles and was inspired to write the next post in this series. Let’s talk about the topic of Parti and see how it can be applied to both architecture and product design.

Parti and Architecture

During my trip to LA, I visited a Frank Gehry exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibit was very large and showcased an astounding number of Gehry’s architectural drawings and models.

Walking around the exhibit, I was transported back in time to my days in architecture school. I could hear the wood shop saws and smell the freshly laser cut boards. Although it’s been 7 years, I remember my college architecture studio like it was yesterday. It was a very brief, but comforting flashback.

I walked around the Gehry exhibit with my mom and grandparents. As the architect in the group, I helped my family understand Gehry’s work. We started with models and talked about materials and techniques. I must say, Gehry’s models are beautifully constructed and remain in stunning shape. Many of my models from college are sadly in decay.

After peering into some of Gehry’s models, we moved over to the drawings on the wall. Although Gehry’s drawings looked like scribbles, I explained to my family that the drawings are “parti” diagrams. Architects start with these diagrams to quickly explore the big idea or chief organizing thought for the entire design.

Historically speaking, the term “parti” comes from the French saying “prendre parti” which means “to make a decision.”

Sketches of Frank Gehry’s House in Santa Monica, California

We then looked at Gehry’s process work for his home in LA to see if we could recognize a parti in his sketches and the associated model. Looking first at the sketches, we noticed that Gehry made diagrams in plan, section and elevation. Although the sketches highlighted different perspectives, they all represented the same parti for the design. Gehry was interested in organizing space in 2 core areas; the original home and a space surrounding the first level. This is best seen in the center elevation. In this sketch, you can begin to understand the intersection and juxtaposition of the core home with the added horizontal base.

We then directed our attention to the model and saw how the parti diagram came to life. In the model, the core home was modeled with wood, and the surrounding space was modeled with steel and glass.

Model of Frank Gehry’s House in Santa Monica, California

Although the model represents a much higher fidelity design, it’s clear the original parti diagram remained throughout the project.

To expand on the topic of parti, it’s useful to look at the book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. In the book, Matthew Frederick describes parti in the following,

“A parti [par-TEE] can be expressed several ways…a parti diagram can describe massing, entrance, spatial hierarchy, site relationship, core location, interior circulation, public/private zoning, solidity/transparency, and many other concerns.”

Frederick then goes on to show some examples.

Both Gehry and Frederick show how the parti diagram is an important starting point in the architecture design process. A building can take many years to design and build. With a parti diagram or chief organizing principle, the architects involved with the project can stay organized and focused as the design develops. The parti diagram is a practice that helps all architects design a building from start to finish.

Parti and Product Design

As an architect turned product designer, I believe parti diagrams are just as important to apps and websites as they are to architecture.

Similar to architecture, the goal of parti diagrams in product design is to quickly illustrate the big idea or chief organizing thought for the design. Whereas a parti diagram in architecture often represents a big idea about the circulation or organization of mass and space, a parti diagram in product design represents a big idea about navigation or organization of content and actions.

In many ways, a parti diagram in product design is very similar to a wireframe sketch. Both are loose interpretations of the UX. The key difference lies in the intent of the sketch. The parti is a diagram that aims to convey one big idea about the design’s organization. A wireframe is a slightly higher fidelity sketch that offers many ideas about the design’s organization. The root of a great wireframe is a parti diagram.

A simple example of a parti in product design is Google’s floating action button (fab). The Material Design website illustrates the fab through a series of diagrams like the one on the left. Although most parti diagrams are hand sketches, these slightly higher fidelity diagrams illustrate the big idea for the fab button. In short, it’s a set of guiding principles about organizing primary actions.

In both architecture and product design, a parti diagram is used to organize elements and help make decisions. If a particular design decision does not support the underlying parti, it should be questioned.

The parti diagram is also extremely useful during presentations. Whether you’re speaking with a team member, stakeholder, or client, it’s a great way to communicate the underlying design principles.

Lesson Learned

Starting with a parti diagram is useful to both architects and product designers. The parti will serve as the project’s big idea or chief organizing thought. The parti will always help focus, organize and guide the creative process from start to finish.

As a bonus, it’s fun to compare the final product to the original diagram. As seen at the Gehry exhibit, and my own experience as a designer, it’s always magical to see how an initial diagram turns into the final design.

Thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter at @lissalauren.

PS: Looking for a design job? I’m a Product Design Director at Percolate in San Francisco and we’re hiring. Say hello!