Distraction Free Reading

In Search of Convergence, In Search of Consensus: Design media in a university architecture studio

An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

Image: An architecture student amidst various forms of design media in the studio.

That’s not meant to be a comprehensive design drawing. That’s meant to say, ‘Scape is comprised of people, plants, hardscape materials,’ and that’s the language. So, we should squint at it, see the language, accept the language, the density, how it’s allocated over the site, and—boom—move on. But we get struck with confusion that says, ‘What’s that green thing? How does that fit into the scape?’ So we end up having a conversation about what it is we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, or communicated it, rather than the substance of the idea. We have to note that—we can’t build consensus on stuff we can’t communicate—because everyone’s trying to figure out what we’ve done.

With these comments, the architecture professor tried to reclaim control over his students’ design review, which had been sidetracked by the jury’s questioning. The jury, composed of other faculty in the architecture and landscape architecture departments, was confused about a secondary element of a project to redesign the façade and site of an American university school of architecture building. I was there as an ethnographer of architecture pedagogy and design process for a comparative multi-institutional research project involving four Canadian and American schools of architecture. The discussion revolved around a series of digital drawings, and a student’s narration of those drawings, displayed on a large flat screen placed in front of the audience. The time spent trying to parse and probe the “meaning” of the drawings, mediated by both the visual and linguistic dimensions of the presentation, was diluting what the students and their professor had hoped would be the principal thrust of the presentation, and drawing attention to an area of the design that was less well-developed. As Luke, the professor, pointed out, the conversation was not only distracting from the “the substance of the idea” (i.e., the design); it was threatening to undermine consensus—in a sense, the approval of the audience—which would allow the project to move forward.

The above interaction raises a number of interesting issues about the process by which designers (in this case, students, faculty, and practitioners located in an American university architecture studio) work across and through multiple semiotic forms to come up with a coherent plan (distributed across these forms) for a built structure (see also Murphy 2012 on the notion of “transmodality”). Specifically, what interests me is how the “convergence” of different design media—the recognition of different media as analogous—is critical to the successful communication of a coherent design to others, and thus important for the positive judgment of said design. In short, a “good design” is as much about how it is communicated as it is about what is communicated. This is contrary to Luke’s notion of a “substance” (the design idea) that exists beyond or outside of communication media.

In what follows I explore how “convergence” is not just a question of technical ability; it is socially achieved through certain representational and communicative conventions shared by experienced architects, what Umberto Eco (1976) has called “recognition codes” that rely on certain shared knowledge of and experience with particular graphic or material conventions. What happens when “convergence” fails? Failure, or dissonance, occurs when, for example, a member of the jury perceives a meaningful difference between a design expressed as a physical model of basswood strips and hot glue, versus how it appears in a digital photomontage of occupation. The risk of dissonance is also the risk of a design’s failure, in the eyes of fellow students and most importantly in the eyes of the faculty jury, who often direct their critiques towards representational incongruity.

Site Analysis: Design-build architecture education

The settings in which I’ve recently been conducting fieldwork are North American university architecture studios—specifically “design-build” studios. The research is part of a broader project looking at non-traditional architecture pedagogy across four different Canadian and American schools of architecture. In design studio classes, students work in groups to develop a design constituted across various linguistic and visual semiotic media. This includes speech and written texts, hand drawings, digital renderings and models using software such as AutoCAD, Rhino (and various plug-ins like Grasshopper), Photoshop, InDesign, and others. It also includes form-finding plaster and chain models, physical scale models made of basswood, hot glue, acrylic, polystyrene foam, and metal wire of various types.

Unlike traditional architecture studio education, in the design-build studio, after the design is settled or refined through drawings and models, it will be built at full scale: 1:1, human scale (see Yaneva, 2005, for a related discussion of scaling in architectural models). The design process is punctuated by juried reviews or “crits,” where other architecture faculty members and relevant stakeholders listen to a presentation of students’ projects at various stages: “research,” “pre-design,” “schematic design,” “design development,” and “final review ” (to name a few).

Case Studies: Convergence and dissonance in action

In a minute, I’ll revisit the opening anecdote, but for now I want to look at another presentation situation where students are explaining and defending their design for a simple pavilion structure, with the use of visuals including physical scale models and digital drawings. Here, a group of students are presenting a set of drawings (based off a computer model created in Rhino) and a physical scale model at an early point in the design process—the schematic design—to a small audience of two visiting architecture faculty members from other institutions.

From the beginning of the conversation, one of the visiting faculty members—we’ll call her Elaine—is struggling to make sense of how the physical model represents certain details of the structure, and makes comments to the effect that the model is not precise enough. She remarks:

Well, the way this [gesturing to a strip of wood within the model] attaches to this [gesturing to the steel ribbon that runs around the edge of the structure] bears no resemblance to the way you would actually attach it—it’s not even pinned to the outside. You’ve kind of cheated with these plastic fasteners [they are zip ties tightened and trimmed to hold crossing strips of wood in a lattice-like shape]. I don’t understand the logic of how these are placed [the wood strips]—this one starts here and ends here….

One of the students responds that actually the placement of the strips is very precise, according to manipulations and calculations performed within the computer modeling software, and also indicated on the drawing that has been printed out and presented alongside the physical model. Elaine remarks that it must then be a problem with the model-making technique or the scale of the model: “I’m trying to understand what information this model has given you that allows you to turn this model into full scale.” In her final comments, she sums up:

Now, I think you need to get as specific as possible about all of the connections. And what in the model each material represents. So that the model gives you back information. I don’t totally buy what you said about how the model—to me, it doesn’t look like all of these attachments have been made with the same precision… [i.e. respecting the specifications of the computer model]. More precision will give you more information that will allow you to go down an avenue and perhaps reject it as too complex.

In this exchange, criticism ensues when certain details of the physical scale model do not match up with the verbal narration of the design, or when the scale and fabrication techniques used to make the physical model seem to communicate uncertainty or to deceive the audience.

Going back to the scenario that opened this post, Luke’s students are also presenting their “schematic design.” The “scape” drawings (a term used by the students) were meant to be passed over quickly, but the review was instead derailed by an extended discussion and critique of the effectiveness of the drawings. The point of the review—to build consensus between the audience (containing various stakeholders in the project) and the students is threatened as a result. In this scenario, for the architecture faculty and students, ideally the various design media of the presentation serve as proxies for a third thing, or rather they represent different aspects of the same other thing, what Luke referred to as “the substance of the idea.” When analogous media are recognized as such, they are recognized as converging on this ideational “substance.”

Final review

“Convergence” is a term often employed to describe analog to digital technical conversion. But instead of a one­way translation, it seems more useful to think of convergence as an effect of a looping semiotic process, where students work iteratively to make various technologies of representation ­ such as hand drawings, physical models, and digital drawings and models ­ “analogues” of one another. These different media must be seen, in the eyes of a trained designer, to “express” the same design. In studio and shop interactions, groups of students engage in communication processes that strive to produce this similarity. Along the way, they struggle with controlling, and controlling for, variables of scale, dimensionality, and materiality.

Dissonance or difference is sometimes due to students’ lack of attention to the specificity of details and how they “read” in different design media. This is related to a usually unacknowledged semiotic ontology held by trained architects regarding a given medium, which account for the way material characteristics come to inform an interpretation of design intent. Dissonance may also result from expectations of what should be represented but isn’t (again, from the expert’s point of view). Sometimes it emerges from the cumulative effect of all of the above.

When the dissimilar qualities of media, or missing information, distract from the “idea,” the process of building consensus around a project is put in question. If we zoom out from the setting of the university architecture studio, we might observe similarly derailed discussions surrounding design, construction, and development projects whose stakes are higher in terms of public impact.


Eco, Umberto (1976) A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Murphy, Keith M. (2012) “Transmodality and Temporality in Design Interactions” Journal of Pragmatics 44: 1966-1981.

Yaneva, Albena (2005) “Scaling Up and Down: Extraction Trials in Architectural Design” Social Studies of Science 35 (6): 867-894.

Claire Nicholas is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Human Ecology (Material Culture and Design Studies Area) at the University of Alberta. Her previous research looked at textile craft and design in Morocco (and the development actors invested in this sector). She is presently working on two projects that examine design pedagogy in North American university settings. The first examines design for healthcare applications and contexts, and the second follows teaching and learning in architectural design-build programs. In a previous life, Claire was herself a costume designer and technician for film and theater.  

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