Creativity: it all happens at the concept stage, right?


Five minutes of fun followed by months of hard work.

It’s tempting to think that way, isn’t it?

It’s so easy to think of design projects as a short burst of creative energy at the beginning (often considered to be fun and exciting), followed by a long period of hard graft to deliver the result (often thought to be tedious but necessary).

Why is that?

And, if true, why would we put up with the enjoyable bit being such a small part of the process?

But it’s not true, is it? Your architectural education is likely to have taught you otherwise. Weeks spent on the concept. The frustration of trying to find an idea that works. The pitfalls of reviews and crits. It takes time and a considerable amount of effort to come up with anything of quality. We know that.

And, like so many worthwhile things in life, it often only becomes fun after the event!

We know what reality is like. Yet we still hang on to an over-simplified image of the process. So why do we end up thinking it should be otherwise? Here’s a few thoughts:

The architect stereotype

Popular culture tends to rely on a few stereotypical images of architects.

There's the architect as master of everything and everyone in his domain (it’s usually a man). There’s the lone genius, sketching away late at night under the light of a single desk lamp. And then there’s the client-architect meeting, which takes place over a restaurant meal at which an amazing edifice is cooked up on a paper napkin.

By over-emphasising the heroic nature of design, these simplistic images tend to reinforce the idea that the creative part of any project happens right at the beginning.

Big names and the press

The press like an easily digestible story. They want big name architects that come up with big ideas.

Messy doesn’t sell. Slow and laborious doesn’t sell.

So the press is full of well-known architects who present their schemes as the inevitable result of some early insight by them alone. You don’t get to see all of the options that were considered and discarded. You don’t get a sense of the contribution made by the team. And you don’t get to appreciate all of the challenges that had to be overcome.

Who designed it?

So often when we ask ‘who designed it?’, we’re seeking out the single person who had the original idea and who drove the design to it’s conclusion. We find it hard to conceive of situations where an idea from one person may have been built on by someone else.

And then we end up being guilty ourselves when we try to sell our own schemes. We perpetuate the myth of the initial creative act when we present our ‘early' free-hand concept sketch as the thing that led inevitably to the final solution. All the time keeping quiet about the fact that these sketches were produced after the design had been developed!

Things are more complex

It’s true that architects are excited by the prospect of a new project and a design that is yet to emerge. It’s also true that, occasionally, the chosen solution emerges very quickly, leading to the conclusion that the architect must therefore be visionary, rather than just plain lucky.

But most projects are a complex mix of interactions between the aspirations of the personalities involved, the brief, the context of the site and a range of external influences that are particular to the project. In many instances, the brief develops in response to the emerging design possibilities.

This often means that the development of a design takes place over an extended period of time and involves many more people than those popular images would have you believe. There will also be a host of unforeseen obstacles and setbacks that will need to be overcome as the design process unfolds.

Architecture is a multi-dimensional team sport. To over-simplify it, is to do it a dis-service. In doing so, we end up believing our own propaganda.

Pace yourself and enjoy the whole ride (the ups and the downs).

Four examples of everyday creativity

In reality, opportunities for creativity exist throughout a project. Below are four short accounts of some everyday recent examples where a scheme was developed after the design was ‘fixed’.

Building on a suggestion from a Design Review panel

This design for a new townhouse in a city centre conservation area and adjacent to listed buildings went before a Design Review panel. The panel liked the overall concept but felt that because it was to be a single-family dwelling, some additional interest and joy should be introduced to the scheme. We took this as a challenge and re-worked the left-hand side of the proposal in chequer-board blue engineering brick (it had previously been clad in zinc). The scheme subsequently sailed through planning.


2. Solving a tricky technical design problem

The design of this pavilion-style extension included an unsupported corner door system and clerestory glazing around the perimeter. How that was to be achieved had not been decided by the time planning permission was granted. It subsequently relied on a good rapport with the structural engineer in arriving at a roof design that could support the corner, but at the same time keep the structure at the clerestory level to a minimum.

corner glazing.jpg

3. Re-designing an over-budget staircase

We designed a contemporary staircase with steel stringers, oak-faced open treads and frameless glass balustrades. The prices from specialist staircase companies were in the region of £15,000, which was way over budget.

So we re-designed it such that each of the components could be supplied and installed separately. The steel was from a local fabricator, the treads were made by the builder’s talented joiner and the glass was from a specialist supplier. The resulting stair was just as good as before but the price was in the region of £6,000.


4. Overcoming a problem on site

There had been much debate about the support of this overhanging roof which shades the glazed gable to an artists studio. In the end, it was designed to cantilever with no external columns. But the supporting timbers suffered some warping during construction and one side deflected noticeably. We needed to do something about it but were reluctant to repeat the oak frame of the internal structure because of fears of it looking too heavy. The solution of an aluminium frame finished in black was not immediately obvious but turned out to be successful as, amongst other things, it echoed the black and white of the adjacent 17th century cottage.

retro frame.jpg

Do it beautifully

The purpose of this post is not just to demonstrate ways in which we continue to be creative throughout the design process and beyond. It’s also meant as a reminder that design isn’t a quick burst of fun followed by a hard slog.

Creative opportunities exist throughout the life of a project, some more obvious than others. The design is never completely finished, there is always room for improvement. And the challenges and obstacles that arise along the way, often require creative thinking to overcome them.

Creativity is a choice open to all of us, in everything that we do, at any time.

You can choose to do something in a conventional, ordinary way. Or you can use the inherent creativity that we all possess, and choose to do it beautifully.

‘None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.’

Laurie Anderson quoted in Keep Going by Austin Kleon

Andy FosterComment