Think Like an Architect

Erin Chan | 11/06/2019

First things first: I’m not an architect. However, I did start my college career in architecture school. It didn’t take me too long to realize that path wasn’t right for me, but the early lessons I learned when studying architecture became a strong foundation for how I think and work today, as a UX designer. I was inspired to share my insights with both my team during our weekly team Collab session and the Philly design community at our recent workshop event hosted with Design Brew.

Architects are UX designers

Humans were walking through buildings long before they began exploring digital worlds. We interact with architecture every day; oftentimes, these interactions aren’t (and shouldn’t be) something we really think about.

For example, we have an awesome space here at EY Design Studio PHL that’s defined by an open floor plan. This is typical for many creative studios, as open floor plans generate a sense of energetic flow and foster collaboration. While we might not be consciously aware of the architecture of our offices on a daily basis, a lot of thought about how the space would be used went into its design.

Then, there are people like me who have the attention span of a squirrel and can become easily distracted by all the things going on around me. When I really need to hunker down and focus, I escape to one of our 4×6-foot glass-walled meeting rooms that we have in the middle of each floor. This change in spatial condition greatly improves my ability to complete my tasks, and I have architects to thank for that.

Like UX designers, architects are responsible for how a user navigates through a journey — and that the journey makes sense from every angle.

Our process and deliverables are analogous

Architects and UX designers mirror each other’s creative processes closely, and while the outputs of each step take different forms, they serve analogous purposes.

Whether building a cathedral or an application:

  • We begin with research. Architects, UX researchers and designers engage in activities like desk research and site visits to identify challenges and opportunities in a project.
  • Then, we’re ready to begin ideation and create high-level concepts to kick off design.
  • We draw up blueprints, or wireframes, which are technical drawings that encompass the details of all features and functionality of a building or product.
  • But we need something more interactive and “real” than flat drawings to ensure that our designs really work. So, we create models and prototypes ranging in levels of fidelity to test our ideas.
  • We fold in aesthetics and make stylistic choices around color and material in our quest to create a system that ensures a cohesive look and feel.
  • These steps inform and lead to a concrete build.

For my Collab session, I focused on the “ideation” step of the creative design process. This is the most playful part of the process, and is often glossed over or undervalued — especially when there are many moving parts in a project. However, this loose, exploratory step is essential! The concepts born from this period of play can help us find clarity for the remainder of the project.

How do architects ideate?

Architects begin articulating their early concepts with a parti pris, often simply referred to as “parti,” which is a key idea behind an architect’s design that’s presented in the form of a simple, graphical diagram. Architects use parti diagrams to describe architectural experiences: it can be a building’s shape and massing, the way light interacts with a person’s movement through a sequence of spaces, or a commanding view from a window.

UX designers also use parti: our team often calls them schematics. They’re used to inspire core themes that guide rationale throughout the design process. They can describe any part of a design, from relationships between a system of components, an interaction pattern or a screen layout.

A parti is a design’s North Star:

  • It helps guide design decisions and visualize potential paths forward.
  • It serves as a tool to communicate and critique design ideas.
  • It inspires stakeholders and tells the story of a company’s vision.

Time to parti

As part of my Collab session, I challenged participants with a “making” exercise that prompted them to create their own abstract parti diagram, and — through an iterative process of sketching and model-making — inspire a built structure.

Part 1: create an abstract diagram that articulates an architectural experience

Each participant was given a one-sentence description of an architectural theme and a bunch of simple cut-out shapes. They were asked to spend a few minutes organizing the shapes to create a parti diagram that expresses their theme.

Part 2: take your diagram to a new dimension through sketching and prototyping

Everyone’s diagram then served as aplan, or a bird’s-eye view, of their structure’s components. I asked participants to imagine how they might evolve their 2D diagram into a 3D structure. They were asked to consider how a person enters and navigates through their design and experiences their parti, or key concept. I reminded them to consider design conditions, like scale, hierarchy and proximity.

They began with loose sketching and bringing ideas from pen to paper. And then, just as we do when designing a digital experience, we quickly tested an interaction or part of a workflow with a quick prototype. In this case, participants were free to play with Play-Doh, pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks to create prototype models of their sketches.


It was inspiring to watch participants push themselves to work in a new way. We were able to stretch our creative thinking past pixels and interfaces and into a physical and spatial level.

This exercise helped us:

  • Reinforce what we do under the lens of a different profession
  • Challenge our design muscles in a new context
  • Learn a new, useful analogy
  • Put play into practice and remember that it’s an important step of the design process

I deeply enjoyed helping other designers think about what we do every day from a different perspective and am glad I got the opportunity to share the common ground between my past education and current career with the wider design community.