What Does a Degree in Architecture Have to Do with Web Design & Development?

The Bay Lights Art Installation by Leo Villareal

The above image was taken by light artist Leo Villareal and shows the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge at night during a test run of Villareal's The Bay Lights art installation. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Information Space has a conceptual mirror… Physical Space

Having recently worked my butt off to earn a Master of Architecture, I often come across those who are curious about my decision to channel my design education into the wonderful world of the interwebs. Basically, I’m regularly asked what capital-A Architecture actually is– as in, physical space-making (i.e. buildings, cities, landscapes)– and what it has to do with web design and development.

The Short Answer:

The Slightly Longer Answer:
There’s a good reason that information technology professionals have co-opted the terminology of traditional architects and engineers. The processes of creating physical spaces and information spaces require similar strategies for problem solving, throughout both design and development– both are focused on handling complexity. You need field-specific knowledge for each, but the system of design is interchangeable.

Building dynamic artifacts

The resultant physical building or web site/application is all that remains of this process at the end. The product acts as a functional artifact of the process. Each artifact, whether physical or digital, requires maintenance (hopefully minimal) and offers an opportunity for improvement the next time around. Cities, buildings, and landscapes, just like websites and web applications, are living and breathing entities. They are not static, but intended by design to be lived in, played with, updated, improved, personalized. Nothing (even if it literally is) has to remain set in stone.

Creating anything this dynamic, whether it manifests as an everyday object, tested through generations of use, or as the most bleeding edge technological innovation, requires serious negotiation with a significant degree of complexity. True art emerges when complexity is rendered intelligible through smart design and development.

Where simplicity and elegance meet

Distilling complexity into something simple, intuitive, and meaningful is extremely challenging. And, it just so happens that excellent design seeks to realize these outcomes, whether the medium be digital or physical. Superb architectural design and suburb digital design never overlook or diminish the experience of the user, regardless of the complexity of the behind-the-scenes systems that help create it.

Blending the physical and digital

As information technology continues to penetrate further and further into our physical spaces, it behooves us to continue to look towards capital-A Architecture for inspiration regarding how best to approach the complex task of designing and developing tightly integrated artifacts. We are not trying to create a pseudo-built world. However, by consciously and carefully blending influences from both the physical and digital, perhaps we can eventually seamlessly integrate the two. And, while we’re at it, we can learn from the physical pioneers that came before us, to avoid the pitfalls that can ensnare a project, destroying otherwise noble design intent.

We should aim for wholeness, a balance. If we root our digital systems in the real world, we create Place– a specific space that we experience and identify, navigate to, and associate with the experience of being there. The creation and habitation of space goes back to civilization’s very foundations, but only recently could we create Places in both the physical and digital realms.

(If you want to fall down this philosophical rabbit hole, checkout Martin Heidegger’s work.)

The application of design thinking to solve complex, interconnected problems applies equally to information spaces and physical spaces. Ultimately, the intent is to deliver a seemingly simple product that is immediately approachable, legible, functional, performs well, and is enjoyable to use. Of course, this isn’t easy. There are numerous stakeholders whose expectations must be met (and hopefully exceeded) throughout the process. So, here’s the kicker: when things get complicated, old-school design process alone isn’t enough. The way out is Integrative Design.

This is merely the preamble

An integrative process creates a support system within a creative environment. There is a multidisciplinary blending of specializations in which a diversity of fields inform, support, and elevate our work. In practice, Integrative Design is hard– really hard– but the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

So, I know you’re saying, “Wait, what?” But, this post is simply the first entry in a series on the topic, so stay tuned. In our next episode, we’ll look at what composes the Integrative Design process. Following, we’ll explore the specific challenges of such a process, for example, the switching cost for an individual between different modes of thinking, and the challenges faced by a multidisciplinary team as they quickly iterate between cycles of design and development.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my inaugural post here at Portent. Until next time, keep making.

Bonus Section for the curious types: A theoretical perspective on the relationship between physical and information architecture

In both professions, a congruent process makes sense. It’s no wonder that Christina Wodtke’s recent essay, Towards a New Information Architecture, takes its cues from Le Corbusier’s seminal work, Towards a New Architecture.

At one point in Christina’s treatise, she responds to a query by Jesse James Garrett asking where we can locate the “great works of information architecture.” Christina asserts that they are “just showing up now.” And, that they are not “pseudo-libraries or pseudo-buildings.” Instead, information architects are “understanding spaces made of information. They are new works that make data dance. They make the impossibly complex clear.”

The featured image above was taken by light artist Leo Villareal and shows the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge at night during a test run of Villareal’s The Bay Lights art installation back on January 24, 2013. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

From conceptual ideation to the design of intricate detail, Blake leverages years of cross-disciplinary experience informed by years of formal education. With a Master of Architecture, an MBA focusing in Sustainable Business Practices, and a B.A. in Computer Science, Blake delights in challenging problems. Practicing whole-system thinking and an integrative design process, Blake thrives at the intersection of digital and physical. Though he is dedicated to continuous learning, his wife still does a better giraffe impression.

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  1. I think the days of bad architecture are slowly coming to an end as web designers are much more aware of basic SEO principles when designing but it’s definitely a headache when you look at a car crash of a website with no structure. Especially if the client gets charged extortionate rates by their web agency to fix the problem that they created in the first place!!

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