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design thinkers

The Magic of Paper and Pen

(Watercolor sketch 1: The process of collaboration with clients-collective perspective builds vision)

As an architect working for institutional clients comprised of large groups or committees, I see a resurgence that is much needed, fresh, and human. It has has nothing to do with PowerPoint, Videos, Webinars or Skype. Quite the opposite.  It’s about paper and pen, a growing relic of modern society.

So often, the most engaging presentations given by dynamic presenters still cause attendees to lower their eyes and tip their heads downward toward their cell phone.  Today, people carry multiple agendas to meetings and multitask. We, as a society, love our toys. What is the latest iPhone? What is the newest self-driving car? We use social media because we only have a quick second to express our views and are grateful for the brief communications.

Designing multimillion-dollar projects is not just a single meeting, it is an investment in something that will impact our clients and last decades, if not centuries. Each institutional building developed today goes through an extensive and highly technical analysis. What’s in the building program? What is the relationship with other buildings? What is the objective of the client and how can we make that happen? Naturally there are a lot of computer tools that are very helpful in the decision-making process. These include surveys, benchmarking and program analysis of the amount and type of spaces required for the building.   

I share a similar enthusiasm as our clients, theirs is derived from the years spent anticipating the great investment of a new building and wanting to make it happen.

The new trend I’ve never stopped using, stems from anticipating the immeasurable and timeless value of the pen and paper-based meeting, which I believe has always been the staple of client trust and common vision. The design response synthesizes all of this as we are creating physical buildings.

I believe that the process of this creation needs be considered at first on paper with pen, so that the potential result can easily be understood and considered by our clients.

Inside high-level design meetings, our team is focused on engaging the stakeholder and inspiring results.  We set up a conference room with—paper—all drawings, and models on the conference table, all chairs are set to the sides of the room and not to be used.  Many times, these are standing meetings.

There’s no or very little PowerPoint. Clients are encouraged to gather around, interrupt the conversation and discuss their thoughts, as I go from one drawing to another.  I build trust by conversing with drawings and humans. Our client’s phones are put away, their blood pressure lowers, and they are focused.

The beauty of working directly with our client’s hand-in-hand enables a process that is crafted to their aspirations and customized to produce inspiring work. The process is, in fact, emotional and sensory, as they can touch the drawings that represent their future and almost instantly become emotionally part of the design experience.  

(Visual presentation – people see things in different ways and turn these sessions into their own experience)

Part of the design process is to closely listen and respond creatively by drawing or sketching ideas right before the client’s eyes. This brings tremendous energy to the process. In an instantaneous process I bring forward the best ideas and edit those that may not deliver an inspiring design.   

Creating watercolor sketches enables people to see different things and turn that into their own experience.  While a computer rendering offers a seemingly finite result, the watercolors gives flight to multiple possibilities rather than one single direction.

The net result is clients who are excited about each project and take ownership in understanding the design objectives. From a design perspective, this gives clients a sense of what Design means and, in the end, are ideally pushing for elegance and craft. It is an intimate process that propels future hopes and values harnessed by hearts, hands, and minds.

It is not the hand of one, but the work of many.  The purpose of the creative approach is to capture all ideas and with a structured process synthesis, the best of all is to create a singular direction.  This direction many times is expressed as a concept or “parti” diagram and serves as a guide for future development. With the “parti” as well, key phrases or the concept are equally captured.   

The captured sketch, represented below, is a science center meant to evoke a modern plan form with the overall idea translated to be a light box that occupies a premier campus space.  

All ideas or “parti” will face a litmus test. Is it just an interesting image or does it have power to capture the imagination? Does it put everyone on the same page and make a commitment that defines not just who they are, but what they want to achieve? The power of the pen and paper captures it all together in one place and moment and is the most effective and powerful human tool that makes it happen.

Humbled by the truth, technology can move mountains. In a recent meeting with a donor, I literally was able to move a proposed building from one side of the campus to the other in SketchUp, while actively engaging with him in an advanced manner. That said, I did draw the proposed solution prior to moving the building…and sure enough—the magic of pen and paper played its part.

SLAM designers work in various mediums and we support all of them to enrich our creative outcomes.

(New Science Center at Providence College)

Architectural watercolors by Neil H. Martin, AIA

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