Creative Process in Design

Paula Hanley reports on a BDAV CPD Seminar on the Creative Process in Design

The topic for the BDAV’s July 2010 CPD seminar was one which is ironically often overlooked in professional development sessions which tend to focus on technical issues. While the importance of the huge body of technical knowledge that building designers require cannot be ignored, it would be a shame if the accumulation of such knowledge were to come at the expense of discussion about the process that is central to the very being of a building designer – that is, design.

Michael O’Sullivan of Vibe Design Group explored this creative process in his presentation, assisted by his colleague Katie Rees. Michael began by giving an overview of how Vibe Design Group functions, from the first contact with a prospective client to completion of the design stage of a project. The practice operates in the upper end of the residential market, and is known for its sophisticated, contemporary buildings.

Working only in this area of the market, Michael is in the happy position of being able to choose his clients. Vibe Design Group will only work with those who have an appreciation of the practice’s design philosophies and are prepared to trust in the creative process offered, rather than coming to the practice with preconceptions of what the finished product will be. Past experience enables Michael and his team to evaluate potential clients and to forge successful working relationships. In line with this evaluation process, the practice has a policy of not providing free concept drawings for prospective clients.

The design brief is formed through discussions that take place at an initial interview, where Michael says that it is important to gain an understanding of how the clients and their family live, and to “plant the seed of excitement”. Once the design brief has been obtained, the design process begins and continues without further client meetings until the completed design is formally presented as a package, usually within three months from the initial meeting.

Michael then went on to explain the importance of carrying out a site analysis where, in addition to commissioning a detailed site survey, he visits the site and takes note of any aspect which may inform the design. As much of Vibe Design Group’s work is interstate, numerous photographs and measurements are taken, and conditions that affect the site noted. Michael mentioned visiting a site in Rockhampton and finding that, at the high point of the site, there were unexpected cooling breezes in an otherwise hot and dry terrain. Such knowledge would not have been gained had he not spent time physically examining the site.

At this point, Michael introduced Katie Rees to explain the research that she carries out to complete the background information for a design. Katie spoke of the importance of carefully reading title information to discover any restrictions on the site which might affect the design. From here she makes use of online resources where zoning and overlay maps can be obtained, along with information from the relevant planning scheme.

An application for Property Information is made at the local Council to determine whether the site is affected by such things as flooding and termites. Katie highlighted the importance of checking for any additional requirements by the municipalities listed in Schedule 5 of the Building Regulations. A prime example of this is Bayside City Council, where, among other requirements, greater side and rear setbacks are required.

Katie recommends collating all of these pieces of information for reference throughout the design process. From the information gathered, she then plots building envelopes on to the survey plan, referring to the tables for side and rear setbacks included in the BDAV suite of Practice Notes. Katie emphasised the importance of ensuring that this information is gathered for each project. It not only provides a background for the design, but is readily available for future reference if required.

Michael then continued the presentation and, in describing his method of presenting the design to the clients, showed how important it is that the design process itself should not be overshadowed by the subsequent technical stages of a project. This is illustrated by the fact that Vibe Design Group’s fees are heavily weighted towards design, with up to 65% of the total fees being applied to the design stage.

The completed design is presented to the client during continued discussion about the project, with formal presentation of plans and elevations, and finally 3D computer generated images. Michael noted that these 3D images are kept spare to emulate the traditional architectural model – a technique that serves to enhance the mystique of the design and the process from which it is derived. In maintaining the formality of the design presentation, Michael ensures that the design process retains its position as the most significant stage of a building project. Giving due recognition to the importance of this stage elevates the building designer beyond the level of a mere technician, a position which all too frequently we occupy in the eyes of the public.

In the light of this, Michael said that building designers should “do whatever it takes” to start the design process – this could be taking a walk, listening to music, watching movies, anything that inspires creativity. Generally, for him, it is anything but sitting at the desk and working to a time frame. He said that this gestation stage should not be seen as down time, as it is of critical importance that the designer opens his or her mind to inspiration. Michael also makes a practice of photographing anything in nature that appeals to him, be it for its form, pattern or texture, for future reference.

Once the inspiration has come, Michael said that the design is on his mind ‘24-7’. This means being prepared for the idea to expand at any time, to the extent of keeping a notebook by the bed to capture any developing ideas. Michael recommended that designers develop their ideas with copious freehand sketching eschew the use of the computer for the design process, observing that after two or three keystrokes any idea that he had would be dead. He said that designers should take the time required to explore all possibilities so that when they are ready to prepare presentation drawings, they are absolutely confident that the design is right.

Michael’s approach to the design process is reflected in the marketing strategy for Vibe Design Group. The practice does not spend vast sums on advertising, preferring to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. As a BDAV award winner, Michael said that having the practice’s work featured on the cover of the BDAV publication Winning Design was invaluable when dealing with prospective clients.

He also believes that having a well-designed website is of great importance to a design practice, as it provides huge exposure.

However, having his firm’s name displayed on a friend’s Audi R8 race car would have to be one of the more inspired methods of achieving exposure, and one that illustrates Michael’s generally creative approach to his work. The car receives great exposure through television coverage of motor sport and is used to promote a production version at up-market social events attended by numerous potential clients. Apart from that, Michael just loves the car.

Many members contacted the BDAV following this seminar, advising how inspiring they had found the presentation. The BDAV thanks Michael O’Sullivan and Katie Rees for sharing their knowledge with their peers. A DVD of this presentation can be ordered from the webshop at the BDAV’s website.