Design Communication and Rhetoric

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

The modes of communication change dramatically during the course of a design process

Architects are not builders, but we need to be knowledgeable enough that we can create written and graphic instructions for a building team. While this is an obvious statement, it points in an interesting and mostly unexplored direction. There is a value in thinking about an architecture firm as a communications business in order to clarify the role that different modes of communication play through the course of a project. Importantly, there is a target audience, a specific set of communication tools, and an appropriate rhetoric for each stage of the design process. A communication theory for practice has not been a significant focus of architectural theory since the late 1980s when Robin Evans, Massimo Scolari, and other scholar/practitioners were writing about the relationship between representational strategies and design production. In light of this void in critical thinking, I am going to take an initial stab at the potential issues and opportunities as they pertain to practice and architectural education.

In architecture and many other design fields, there are only five target audiences for what we write, say, and represent visually (draw):

Ourselves (the Designer/Author) – iterative writing, sketching, and drafting we do to work out a design problem

Our Design Collaborators – same as above, but with a rhetorical overlay because we change the mode of representation to persuade others, whether self-consciously or not

The rhetoric of persuasion necessarily changes depending on the stage of the design process.  We might do an evocative perspective sketch to convey an idea early in the process and an authoritative detail sketch during design development. At all stages, we also deploy authoritative analysis and data to justify, back-up, or qualify our design decisions.

Our Clients – same as above, but with a larger emphasis on the role of both persuasive and authoritive modes of communication

Evocative and persuasive depictions of potential solutions need to be combined with authoritative analysis and data to help drive decision-making.

Builders and Fabricators – legally codified instructions in written and graphic form

The authority of legal relationships is reinforced by the written and graphic convention of construction documents and submittals during the construction process

The Public – the most emphasis on persuasive communication strategies – and most akin to advertising

This audience falls outside of the design process but has an influence on decisions made by designers and their clients.

What’s most striking about this list is the range of communication skills that are required, including persuasive, authoritative, and instructional modes of speaking, writing, and visual representation. The relative role of these modes of communication change dramatically and abruptly during the design process, mostly as the result of the evolution of audiences. We start out sketching for ourselves, then communicate with our team, and finally present to our clients during conceptual design. If this work is going to build consensus around a single design direction, it will require a combination of persuasive and authoritative modes of communication. As decisions are made and the project scope is solidified, typically during late Schematic Design and early Design Development, there is a rapid decrease in persuasive modes of communication and a corresponding increase in instructional representations. The graphic above suggests this trajectory.

Given these observations, how can we adjust design practice models to more self-consciously apply their lessons? Certainly, there is an under-emphasis on speaking and writing skills at design schools. In general, a theory of communication, focused both on audiences and rhetorical modes, needs to be taught. Some schools, like the Yale School of Architecture, have devised innovative courses that are co-taught by graphic designers and business school professors. The D-School at Stanford is a program that working at these questions from the other direction, but with an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving and not specifically the modes of communication that engender it. Likewise, in practice, very little thought is given to these issues. I’m hoping to apply some of this thinking at both Northeastern and Utile in the next year. Theory is always  best worked out in practice!

-Tim