Repurposing Architecting Skills: Fail and Iterate

There's often a focus on how architects have utilised their skills in other careers. Architects can also leverage those skills in better architectural practice. This is the second in a series of articles about this possibility.

Fail and iterate is the second in a series considering the skills intrinsic to architectural practice. Unpacking how architects might use their architectural skills to not just do the work of an architect but to do better in their practice of architecture.

Continuing on with the most prominent skill, design. Design is the principal skill that the majority associate with architects, architect as designer. I wrote about it in my first article, Designing Possibility, might be worth reading before this one.

I don’t consider design as a singular skill, instead it consists of a number of different skills. For this second article I’m going to focus on design as a process of letting go of failure. Design is an iterative process. We come up with a design option, review it to identify if it meets requirements and then consider how we might make it better. Fail and iterate.

A final design always comes from a series of failed solutions until a satisfactory one is arrived at. Architects never use just one piece of butter paper. They’ll work to come up first with as many ideas as reasonably possible as discussed in Designing Possibility. Identifying those ideas that look likely, then iterate. Massaging and working all requirements into the design, as appropriate at the various stages. At the end there will be a stack of paper on the reject pile — all failures to one degree or another. One(ish) piece of paper will remain off that pile. The chosen solution. Fail and iterate.

Implicit in this design process is the acceptance that in order to have a single good idea, it might be necessary to have many many bad ones. There’s a willingness to fail and then improve upon the solution, involved in this process. 

Let’s dig into this a little more.

After each iteration, a series of questions might be asked: Does it work — does it meet all requirements? Am I/we happy with this outcome? Can it be better? Is there another way? If there’s a need to keep going we might identify it as a fail, and we could also call it another step on the way to success.

What if we were to apply this to our work beyond that of design. Attempts we’ve made at doing something that we might otherwise identify as fails. We should also see them as simply steps on the way to success. Some useful questions to ask following an apparent fail in our work might be: What did I learn? What worked? What didn’t work? What do I see now, that wasn’t apparent before? What can I do better?

This might be how we work with a client, or do a fee proposal, an approach we took with a Council, a conversation we’ve had with a staff member. There are many things we might apply this iterative design practice to in order to improve our architectural practice.

We should adopt this iterative design process in response to the work we’re already doing. We might also adopt it as part of a deliberate design process to do or make things better in our practice. Being proactive and identifying opportunities to improve our practice.

Let’s also just take a moment to appreciate our pile of butter paper. We have a pile because we started. Starting is not to be underestimated. Nothing happens until we start. As Christina Rossetti said

“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”

The fear of the blank page is tangible, powerful. Many fail to start because they focus on the outcome. Wanting some level of reassurance that the outcome will not be a failure. This can never be assured. We cannot know that the outcome will meet our expectation. We can be assured that there’ll be no outcome if we don’t start. If we take a more generous posture with our work instead, we can see our failures as steps towards success.

It might be helpful to consider the iterative changes to your practice as a series of experiments. It is as we might experiment on a piece of butter paper.

Let’s finish on another question. A challenge to apply your iterative design skills to more than service of your design projects.

What aspects of your practice might you now bring some iterative design to. Something that you might be able to do to assist you to practice better?

I have the same note as last time for those in employment. This applies to you too. How might you show leadership and bring this level of consideration to the office you’re working in? How might you apply this to yourself?

If you think you might need to apply a little Design Process Thinking to more than servicing your projects, but don’t know where to start, please feel free to drop me a line. I’m here to support you in building a better practice, forging better human and professional skills, and developing architectural leadership.

Image by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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