Monday, February 13, 2012

Architecture vs. Industrial Design

What is the difference between architecture and industrial design? I am frequently asked this by both architects and industrial designers. Architects tend to think the professions are very similar, whereas industrial designers view architecture as quite different. The answer is not an easy one to address. Outwardly there are many similarities. Both professions require that the practitioners know how to visualize, draw, render, build models, draft and think critically. However the differences are profound, yet I struggle to describe them, as they are the intangibles embedded in the design process.

Scale is the obvious first difference (this is self evident, I don't need to go into this). The other is iteration. Industrial designers work on small projects that move very quickly (months to market) whereas architects' projects usually take years to execute. As a consequence, industrial designers have more opportunities to practice and hone their design skills. An industrial designer who has been working for ten years has worked on hundreds of projects and is very skilled at quickly executing beautiful design. Meanwhile, the complexity of architectural projects require a lifetime of practice to develop the competency to create well designed buildings (which is why I'm an old industrial designer, but a young architect).

But I think the biggest difference is one of outlook; each profession approaches the design process and evaluates the success of the final 'product' differently. Industrial design is very much about form making. Designers are very focused on creating a beautiful object above other aspects of the project. (Yes, functionality is important, but increasing this task has been allotted to interaction designers.) And of course one of the main factors driving aesthetics is the target market. Personally, I find it very difficult to create form for form's sake. Other than the consumer market's taste (do they like simple/complex products, what colors do they prefer, etc.), there is very little to be used as a starting point to drive design. This job becomes increasingly difficult when the designer is working at a consultancy with a variety of different clients as opposed to a designer at a corporate firm where there is an established set of design goals (think Apple).

What is refreshing (and also occasionally very frustrating) for me about architecture is that each building design be based on an intellectual proposition (parti). A good parti allows the building to almost design itself (well, maybe not quite). It also makes it easier to develop the narrative of the building (another HUGE difference) and evaluate my design decisions.

There are more differences. Products typically do not respond to place, but are aesthetically neutral artifacts that are designed to fit into any contemporary culture. Conversely, most architectural projects have a 'site'. This has so much potential to positively influence the design. I don't look on it as a constraint, but an opportunity. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Alvaro Siza's baths in Porto. This project sensitively inserts walls between stones to create swimming pools. Moving from one pool to the next you are constantly aware of the site on a very physical level. Siza also mediated the transition from the road to the beach beautifully, creating a very linear entrance which then breaks down as you move to the beach and pools.

Siza pools in Porto respond to site

For me, the most exciting difference is the process of shaping space and the experience of being in the space. To a certain extent, this is also about form making, however the creation of space draws on a richer palette of tools such as light, sound, air, materiality and site. A product is viewed from the outside, as an object in space; intellectually the form and function can be quickly understood. Unless the product has complex interactivity, there isn't much new to be discovered over time. Space can be viewed from without but is also something we inhabit. It can be more nuanced and complex than any product. Space is subject to temporal changes of light, sound, temperature, the interaction of objects and people. Over time, the quality of a well designed space changes inviting the occupants to engage the space and discover something new.