The Principles of Exceptional Design

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The Principles of Exceptional Design

There are many books on the topic of “design thinking,” meaning the unique way in which successful designers reach solutions. Design thinking can be summarized as divergent thinking paired with a collaborative and iterative solution process. In other words, successful designers in this arena enthusiastically try a lot of varied concepts until we find the most suitable and creative solution.

A concept expressed in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People struck me as a poignant addition to the traditional definition of design thinking explained above. In the book, Stephen Covey states:

“We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles or directions) and less in need of a road map.”

In my view, a road map is critical to a successful project but it is not the key to opening doors to great design. In architecture, we tend to think of things like budgets, schedules, and the appropriate team members as parts of the design road map.

What really sets exceptional design apart, however, is the discovery of a new creative vision and identifying the principles required to fully grasp it. Successful design thinking requires guidance, though working collaboratively with a client to identify guiding principles can be the most challenging aspect of any project.

It is easy, and all too common, to skip the visioning process - or even worse to allow a designer to assign a vision without collaborative support. Either tendency frequently leads to a flailing design concept and unhappy clientele.

A collaborative process coaxes a comprehensive vision from the client team through face-to-face meetings and thoughtful follow-up. One of the key roles of an architect is to guide clients through this visioning process.

To be effective the design vision needs to be distilled to a few guiding principles. While identifying a client’s vision is commendable, it is often still too broad to skillfully drive day-to-day design decisions. The power of principles is the ease with which a distilled vision guides each and every decision throughout the design process. Design decisions value and success can be easily weighed based on the specific principles jointly pursued by the client and design team.

For example, a vision may be that a school strives to provide great education to all students. While this is a great destination it is difficult to implement. The principle behind this vision might be equality of opportunity. It is much easier to determine if a design decision engenders equal engagement among students.

In short, one can surmise – and we at Cuningham Group tend to emphasize – that identifying a short list of principles to guide “design thinking” is truly the key to exceptional design.

By: Gardner Clute of Cuningham Group