On an intellectual level, I understand the notion of concept in design, but when it comes to applying a concept to an actual project, I just don’t get it. I can read a text and write about the topic like a champ and I can learn how to do something by watching and trying it out, but if I’m asked to translate between verbal thinking and visual/kinesthetic thinking, I run up against a blank wall. But this translation – between words and images – seems to be exactly what’s required with applying a concept to a project and I’m struggling to make sense of it.

My current studio teacher’s design education was more grounded in theory and, as a result, she does get it. She can start with an intellectual notion and create the loveliest diagrams expressing her ideas, then seemingly effortlessly turn these ideas into an architectural design. Now she is trying to lead us through this theoretical process of translating ideas into images. I still haven’t gotten it, but I am beginning to feel a glimmer of understanding.

Our project is a restaurant and here is the process so far. First translation: looking at drawings from the Imaginary Prison series by Giovanni Batista Piranesi, we developed a list of words. Second translation: we associated architectural terms with these words. Third translation: from these words and architectural terms, we are developing diagrams that show our concept. Fourth translation: use our concept to develop the restaurant’s design.

Ok. First, I took a stab at the drawings and came up with a list of words. They were generic and insipid. I worked on them some more and began to see some patterns, but nothing emerged that felt like a concept. Second, I took the words and associated them with design principles and elements. Not so hard, but each word could reasonably be associated with a lot of elements and principles so the whole exercise felt overly broad and undefined and got me no closer to feeling that I was approaching a concept. Third, I started in on the most literal type of diagram, the adjacency diagram, and at least came up with a sense of the functional needs in a restaurant, but still had little sense of what my concept might be.

So I went back to the drawings and the words and let my thoughts free-flow through them, purposefully abandoning anything literal, just to see what would happen. What happened is that ideas started to flow. Not images of what my restaurant project might look like, but what could perhaps be the beginnings of a concept. A concept still expressed in words, but at least it is bordering on being a real concept.

Now I have to turn this notion into something visual, and this is probably where I will have the most difficulty. How do you make words into forms, shapes, volumes? My guess is that I can’t reason through this exercise in my usual problem-solving mathematical way. So I’m sketching and reading and sketching some more and it is starting to make some sense. I still don’t have a fully-developed concept, but at least I may be on the right track.

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