Since taking art and technical drafting classes in high school, I knew that some combination of creativity and tangible problem-solving was my calling. After three years of undergrad designing buildings and urban plans, I opted for an elective studio with a focus on furniture, where my interests shifted from designing at the city scale to the human scale. Fast-forward through three years of designing commercial furniture, I needed to put together another iteration of my web-based portfolio. It was then that I fell in love with organizing its flow and layout, as well as tweaking the template’s CSS. This was my foray into designing for the web. However, it wasn’t until I began doing professional UX work that the parallels between architecture school and practicing UX design became readily apparent.
The differences between conventional architecture and user experience design are obvious. Solidified as profession for thousands of years, architecture in its most primitive form provides shelter and gathering space. It typically results in long-lasting physical spaces, landscapes, cities, etc. Conversely, UX design in the software industry has been around for the past few decades, largely thanks to Don Norman. UX design typically typically provides a means to complete a task or gather information. This usually results in a usable and continuously-improving digital products or services. Depending on which field you’re in, common words like wireframe, developer, and even architecture take on quite different meaning. Despite the macro-level, temporal, and nomenclature differences, I’ve experienced an interesting overlap in the empathy we have for the end user as well as communication skillsets and visuals. Furthermore, the future of these two fields is becoming more intertwined.
A significant part of our role as a designer means empathizing with the user. In architecture, this includes understanding how a user will be using a space now and in the future, understanding the context/geography/climate/neighborhood in which a structure is being built, considerations for use of artificial and natural lighting, aesthetic and structural properties of building materials, upfront costs and costs over time, etc. UX designers also exercise empathy in understanding how the user intends to complete their tasks, exploring better ways to achieve their goals, and advocating for the user throughout the entire process when the desires of developers, product owners, etc. may obstruct optimal user experience.
Architect Barry Berkus shares his design process in designing a residence.
We don’t work in a bubble, and we often wear multiple hats. A good designer should have a practical understanding of how periphery tasks work and be able to communicate with people dedicated to those tasks when needed. An architectural designer may need to work with contractors, real estate developers, and city planners to effectively realize a project. Extensive knowledge of materials and construction best practices are key to having a built design realized. UX designers may interface with product owners, end users, and developers. Both are trying to ensure that the proposed concepts satisfy the client’s needs and wants, and that they are feasible for all involved within the given time window.
Effective visual communication is key to sharing and selling design concepts. Both fields tend to use sketches early on to document and communicate fleeting ideas quickly. After initial concept stages, there are a wide variety of drawings and diagrams used to communicate our ideas in both fields, and they often tackle many of the same issues.
Flow – navigating the entrance/exit/movement between distinct sections
Architecture: Floorplan (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
UX: Sitemap (Image Credit: WebTuts)
Components – understanding all the individual parts and how they come together
Architecture: Detail Drawing (Image Credit: lifeofanarchitect.com )
UX: Wireframe (Image Credit: usability.gov)
Visualization – imagining the experience of the end product
Architecture: Photorealistic Rendering (Image Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group)
UX: Visual Mockup (Image Credit: designmodo)
The rise of augmented reality, virtual reality, smart buildings, tiny sensors, and the internet of things is creating a world where digital interactions are no longer limited to 2D screens, and where the 3D environment can be part of the interface. As such, UX designers have begun designing in 3D spaces, while architects are designing connected, interactive, and virtual spaces. New media companies like Moment Factory are exploring and challenging the ways we perceive digital interactions and space.
In many ways, its clear that these two professions demand similar methods of thinking and communicating, and the future seems to be bringing them closer than ever before.
In researching for this article, I was surprised to find many others who have either taken a similar path from architecture to UX and/or have noticed commonalities between the two, listed below:
- What Does User Experience Design Have to Do with Architecture? – Helena Lazaro
- From Architecture to UX – Oliver Brechon
- What UX Designers Can Learn from Architects – Ling Lim