From architecture to product design
List of transferable skills that Architects bring to Product Design.
A few years back, just after I moved to Sweden, I looked for a job as an Architect. I had 10+ years of experience and nearly 50 buildings on my account but had to start over at a new location and after a maternity break.
I was instantly frustrated that there were so few jobs for architects and that search engines were showing me Information / Software Architect jobs. At that time, I had no idea what those jobs were, other than being in the tech industry. I joked around that one day, I will send my ‘real architect’ portfolio to one of those jobs.
That is when I started to read about User Experience Design. It turned out, it didn’t differ that much from what I was already doing! I realised that everything architects do has to do with creating user experiences.
The difference is that architecture deals with physical environments, while UX deals with digital habitat. With fewer and fewer jobs in architecture, I felt that Product Design was a natural transition for my career, as it merges design, art, psychology, and technology — the disciplines I’m passionate about and thrive mastering.
It took me a few years to arrive where I stand today, and I know there is still a lot to learn, but I feel that my experience as an Architect helped me tremendously with this transition. I had to learn new constraints and patterns, but a lot of both hard and soft skills I already had.
Changing a career is never the same as starting from the beginning. I quickly realised that this is not something that is obvious to everyone. That is why I wanted to share my list of transferable skills that Architects bring to Product Design.
1- Design Thinking
An iterative, experimental, user-centred process that Architects have been using for ages. While real industry work may get much more technical, Design Thinking is something that Architecture School puts a huge emphasis on. This is how we are taught to think and work.
If anything, the architecture process can be more complex with more iterations — after all, it takes more time to build the end product.
Designing for other humans requires a lot of empathy and going beyond personal tastes and biases. Often, the client has some kind of idea of their desires, but many times, it’s an art itself to figure out what they want.
The human mind is wonderful and mysterious at times, one needs to know how to understand the difference between Do, Think and Feel. Walking in someone else’s shoes is a big part of an architect’s job.
Embracing criticism and using it to iterate and improve is essential to architectural work. Working with constant iteration requires an ability to receive the critic and turn it into improvement.
Architects are criticised every single day of their career. It helps to create products that work. It also helps to distance oneself from the feeling of failure and embracing the fact that the first version of the design is never the final one, neither the second.
I can’t think about a more cross-functional, agile environment. Architects take a leading role in the whole design process, collaborating within the design team and with outside contractors, specialists, engineers and stakeholders. Speaking tech, they serve as Product Owners, Experience Designers and Visual Designers at the same time.
The end product, similarly, will reflect the compromise between vision and development. This is a general truth about construction, no building ever was built exactly the way it was designed. Architects, as Product Designers, must present a great-to-have solution to settle on a good-enough one. It’s a game of compromises and choosing the battles that are worth winning.
The ability to change focus from the big picture (Product Strategy) to a smaller system (details of visual design, like buttons) is something that Architects have to master. From the simple shapes and silhouettes to a window frame detail. From the first sketch to a complicated 3D drawing.
6- Visual presentation
The eye for colour, type, layout. Aesthetics are a big part of all human experiences. This one is self-explanatory, presenting ideas for clients, coworkers, stakeholders and open-ideas competitions is a good practice of working with composition, layout and visual hierarchy.
Architects are very tech-savvy users of design tools. From the old good pen & paper, through standard tools for graphic design, drafting software to powerful 3d tools for visualisations and animations.
In Architecture the Form always follows function. Architects care about how a product works before caring about how it looks. Similar to Wireframing, the first drafts are showing the relations between spaces, and the journey rather than the tiles on the floor.
9- Designing for Sustainability and Accessibility
Architects often design for multiple personas (think of the shopping gallery or library), and must be inclusive and considerate about every single user. It’s also important to be empathetic not only towards humans but also to consider the environment we live in.
While it’s easier to understand the direct environmental impact of the buildings, Product Design still generates a lot of solutions, that not only aren’t sustainable but often also indirectly harmful. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to learn from architects and treat The Earth as just another persona?
So if you are an Architect, and looking into Product Design: fear not, you are up to a good, solid start, and I promise, you will love your new career!