Why architects are the best XR designers

This article was originally published on my personal website.

Actually, I don’t mean that all architects are the best XR (AR, XR, VR, and other XRs) designers by default. What I mean here is that architects are well prepared when starting off with XR design. Let me explain.

I have to put the record straight. I’m not an architect. At least not anymore. I studied and worked a few years as an architect, before shifting to the digital products design and eventually to XR. Everything below is based on my personal experience and discussions with other ex-architects now digital-worlds-builders.

Advantages

The XR field is relatively new. Most of the people coming into XR have backgrounds in other domains. So they bring their specific expertise to the pool. For example, game designers have a background in gaming; of course, whatever they create, there is a high chance they will end up with a game. The same goes for UI/UX designers. It’s not easy to come up with something 3D if you have been drawing flat rectangles for years.

I’m not surprised that most VR experiences are games. And most UI elements are the same as on websites, so you should use a laser pointer to “click” on them.

Yeah. Architects don’t learn Unity at uni and might not know how to craft user personas, but they have other not so obvious, but no less critical skills.

Environmental thinking

Architects inherently think about everything in 3D. It’s crucial, as all objects in VR and MR are 3D, or exist in a 3D environment. Architects are skilled in keeping these environments in their imagination and processing them easily.

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User-focused thinking

Try to design a home for a family without user-focused thinking. The same goes for any other building. The more users the type of building has, the more documentation and rules architects should consider. Imagine it as books and books of user-persona descriptions and user journeys.

Ergonomics

Architects should keep in mind far more anthropometric information than just the minimum size of a button on a mobile screen. All of this info applies to virtual spaces the same as to physical. Also, the general concept that everything should be ergonomically comfortable to use will never be neglected by architects.

Tools knowledge

I don’t think that Unity is in any uni program, but architects by default know how to use 3D modeling, rendering, CAD, and other design tools. Every additional program is much easier to pick up, especially if you know the basics of how 3D works.

Quick scale shifting

This is something that is not so obvious, but I found it very useful for any type of project. Architects quite often focus on problems of different scales and rapidly shift between them.

One moment you’re thinking about wardrobe size in the bedroom. Next, you’re considering how it would align with a bed. Then you should figure out details like electrical socket location next to the bed. Then you have to make sure that it won’t affect your window height, as it would change the look from the outside.

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You get the point. This rapid shifting between problems is handy for any project that has a lot of dependencies and unknowns, like a VR app, or an MR experience.

See the full picture

Architects make many decisions without losing sight of the full picture. For example, while designing a kindergarten, you should keep in mind a general plan with all its limitations while thinking about the size, position and opening direction of each specific door; even minor details could affect the general plan, which might snowball significant changes.

Ambitions

Let’s agree that spending months or years on a project that will take a few years to build, and which will serve people for decades, requires some ambitions. I’m not talking about ambitions to make the Next Big Thing. I’m talking about a clear understanding of the efforts and resources that ambitious projects require and a readiness to commit to it.

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Team players

Architecture is a team sport. You can’t learn it by drawing up plans on weekends, the way I learned Unity. Even a small house for a single family would require a team of people with different expertise; each of them contributes to the vision that an architect has. Then it takes even more people and communication to approve and build that building. For larger projects, the team could easily grow to hundreds of collaborators.

There is no way that architects could succeed as individual contributors just silently drawing up plans in their cubicles (home offices).

Can draw

This is not a must-have. But whenever I sketch to explain my idea, I’m grateful that I was spending 12+ hours each Saturday during my final year in high school just to pass university entrance exams. And there I spent more than five years carrying around piles of huge sheets of paper with plans, pictures, and other stuff drawn by me.

My sketches can still look like shit, but it’s good to have one more way to communicate.

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Taste

This is definitely not inevitable. You can easily spend years designing buildings and still have no taste (like me). But any experience in adjacent fields sharply raises the chances of developing taste.

By taste, I don’t mean the understanding of trends, like how large should these soft shadows be, but more a fundamental understanding of what’s beautiful and what’s not by proportions, colour, texture, and other properties.

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Disadvantages

Obviously, architecture isn’t directly related to MR and digital design, so I’m sure there are disadvantages.

Tools

As I mentioned, many tools are similar, but usually, architects aren’t familiar with game engines, which are so popular for XR prototyping right now. Also, I’d love to have started to learn coding in university, instead of doing it using Youtube tutorials as a grown-up man.

Limited by reality

The real environment should serve its purpose at least for years, more often for decades. A virtual environment is easily changeable and can be more flexible. I assume that this flexibility would take some time to wrap your head around.

No UX

Architects and especially interior designers have an idea of how people interact with physical objects; however they have an understanding of digital interaction patterns only as a user. I’m not sure that’s so bad, though. We should be more open to introducing new interaction patterns to XR environments, and stop copying from flat UI.

This story might be biased. Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter.

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Volodymyr Kurbatov

Volodymyr Kurbatov

Product Designer (AI, VR, AR). Creator of Inborn Experience.