Future Landscapes
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This freelancer’s tangentially related musings on the fields of architecture, landscape architecture & urban design. Useful sometimes. Acerbic always.

Other writings: City Blogs / Urban Nature

On Talent (Becoming a Designer)

Photo by  Ezekiel Elin  on  Unsplash



October 2008.


I'm 23. I'm interning in Amsterdam and applying to grad schools.


Just by being in Amsterdam, living there, working at Tekton, I am discovering how much I don't know about my field. All of my bachelor projects until that point have started out with a methodological, research-based approach, all to be overturned by my design tutors for something with a slanted roof and wood-slat cladding... 


(Good God, when will I learn that all you need to do to impress architects is to copy the Barcelona Pavilion?)




I have tiny seeds of ideas and plenty of creative motivation, but I get so overwhelmed by the task of turning my ideas into structures with some kind of over-arching 'guiding concept' and no one has shown me how to get from A to B in a sensible manner. 


One thing is for sure, I don't belong at Dalhousie anymore. I'm not sure if I ever did. The teachers are crap, the students are crap, Halifax is crap and... basically my whole life is crap.


So I'm looking for something new... but being a rather jaded undergrad at this point, I'm scoping my potential Alma Maters with laser-precision & clear-headed objectivity.

At the same time, being 23 and having my fair share of personal self-doubt... I wonder if I'm really cut out to be an architect.

Back in those days I was in regular contact with my former art history prof, who remains one of the most inspiring people I know. She's one of my reference letter-writers, and I seek out her guidance re: talent.

Quoth I:


Instructors, architects and visiting critics talk about 'talent' and this idea of having 'it' or not. I get the feeling there's a concerted effort to mystify architecture to the point where it becomes something that only comes naturally to a gifted few, and makes it unteachable to those who aren't born with 'it.'

In that case, the very idea of architectural education is irrelevant, and there should be some kind of 'talent test' that people take to see if they have 'it', and then they can just go straight into internship. Right...?

I'm definitely not one of these gifted few, but... The more I find out about architecture & design, the more excited I become, the more interested I am, and the more aware I am of what goes on around me. I think I learn a lot about architecture just by being interested in it.

I think I'm more of the opinion that architecture is a skill that can be accrued with dedicated practice... so,


How do you quantify talent, and who is qualified to say whether you have it or not?

Quoth the Goddess of Utmost Wisdom (aka, my instructor...):


In architecture, the basic ability needed for the discipline is exceptional spatial awareness—hence the tendency of good sculptors (Michelangelo) and geometers (Wren) to be fine architects, regardless of their degree of specialist architectural training—and yes, there would almost be certainly some sense in testing prospective architectural students for various kinds of spatial and proportional awareness.

But talent is essentially a propensity for learning a particular area of endeavor.

So, on the one hand, good training will develop the most outstanding talent; and, on the other hand, relative lack of talent can, to a considerable extent, be compensated for by a combination of rigorous training and hard work.

This has implications for choosing a course: teachers who actually know what they're talking about, and are able to talk about it clearly and from various different angles (so that different learning styles are accommodated), are absolutely vital.

In particular, empirical research shows that the quality of feedback a teacher gives is the single most important determinant of learner outcomes—considerably more important than the learner’s innate talent.

This advice has stuck with me, literally stuck to my brain word for word, from the time I first read it. Not just because I wanted to hear it at the time, but because it mirrors the way that 'talented' people get where they are.


Here's my theory. 


1. Very few people start out in life as prodigies.


They exist, of course, but in such small numbers that it would be ridiculous to expect everyone else to just step aside and let the prodigies handle all creative tasks.


2. Most people have at least an interest in something...


Whether it's to play the piano, to draw, to play tennis, etc... But how many people would actually get to the stage where they do something well without constant practice and instruction? Why should it be any different for design? 


3. If you want to get good at design, you have practice constantly.


This is what architecture school is good for - it forces you to set your mind to lots of different design tasks that you might never have the motivation to undertake on your own. 


4. Most of the work you do in school is probably worthless and crappy.


You are working towards developing a methodological, replicable process and from all that worthless & crappy work, you will eventually find that process. If I could change any single thing about architecture school, I would switch the focus from teaching 'design' to teaching 'design process & presentation.' One puts the emphasis on an elusive skill. The other puts the emphasis on an achievable method and manner of delivering the method.


5. The hardest part of practicing design will be seeking out good feedback.


I don't mean seeking out praise for what you're doing - that comes easy enough from your family, who will think everything you did is good enough to be framed on their mantlepiece. I don't believe you can rely on instructors or guest critics, either, unless you go to a magical school where all instructors actually care about what they are doing.


6. My experience has been that the best feedback comes from your peers.


One thing about aspiring designers is that they have the ability to recognize good design when they see it - even if they can't quite achieve good design themselves. They have enough compassion not to tear you down needlessly, but can often spot weak points in your process. Plus you don't feel the pressure to impress them like you might with an instructor or boss. 


7. You will probably find that you have one good skill that you resort to when time is short. A secret weapon, if you will.


Develop this as a way to aid your design process. For me, that skill is visualization. I didn't start out good at visualization, believe me. But it was a side interest that kept growing and growing until I had to recognize that this had become my personal 'secret weapon.' Maybe yours is the ability to interact with people. Maybe you have a way with words and can present really well. Maybe you can build awesome 3D models. Maybe you like working in the woodshop. Maybe you make collages from stickers. I don't know! But when you discover where your ability lies find a way to harness it to help you design. 


8. Recognize your weaknesses as soon as possible, and work hard to improve them.


The biggest weakness in students is usually procrastination because they don't know how to get started with design. Drawing on multiple sources of inspiration and conducting relevant subject research is a fantastic way to begin a project. Go back to grade 3 and have a brainstorming session, and for once, don't worry about what the end product of the brainstorm looks like. Addressing your weaknesses head-on is the only way to get past them.


9. Most of all, don't be afraid of bad ideas.


I see bad ideas as just the forerunners to really good ideas. They are like those styrofoam nuggets surrounding something precious in a box: seemingly endless, but you just have to dump them all out to get to the good stuff. And believe me, there is something good inside you - why else would you want to be a designer?