’tis the season

These two got it done last year…a Strunk and White presentation if there ever was one…

Review season approaches.  (What, there’s some other season that happens in December?)  For several years now I’ve issued my design studios a list of helpful advice as they’re preparing their final projects, and I think it’s reached a critical mass that might be helpful elsewhere.  It’s not quite the Twelve Days of Christmas, but reading it year after year it does have a certain rhythm.  Consider this public domain if it’s useful to your colleagues or students.  Or if you see Comic Sans showing up anywhere within fifty paces…


How Not to Get Killed on a Final Review:

  • Show the site. Your ground level plan, every section, and every elevation should all be extended past the adjacent streets to show the relationships between your scheme and the surrounding buildings and streets.  These should also show the shape and scale of the outdoor areas around your building.


  • Animate your drawings and models. I can’t emphasize this enough.  Show the project as you imagine it being occupied—not standing empty.  Put dozens, if not hundreds, of people in your auditorium, your lobby, and your plaza.  Put cars in the street.  Put furniture and material joint lines in the plans and sections.  Your goal should be to put so much intuitive information in the drawings that text labels seem superfluous.  People should be in groups of 3-5 (this sounds ridiculous, but you’ll be surprised how much more friendly this looks).  And show trees, site furniture, and paving patterns in outdoor areas, including sidewalks.


  • On a related note: to clarify, add detail.  In other words, if a material in your plan or section has a grain, or has standard fixings, or comes in standard sizes, indicate those.  You may need to do this with very light linework (or linework that is a mid-tone gray instead of black), but these details communicate information intuitively.  Tilework in bathrooms, handrails, door handles—all of these help the observer see the building instead of trying to figure out the drawing.


  • Think about graphic coherence. All of your drawings are going on a wall, together.  They should relate to one another.  If you use color, or even a palette of grays, the same color should mean the same thing on every drawing.  Text should be in consistent, legible fonts and sizes.  Not sure which font to use?  Gill Sans, Avenir, Century Gothic, and Helvetica are bulletproof choices for clean, modernist designs.  For designs that are more traditional try Palatino or Garamond.  Use light versions for notes, bold for titles.  If you use Comic Sans, I will do everything I can to kick you out of our program.  We have standards.


  • Make a Storyboard. Think about what the logical presentation order will be, and take some time to compose your drawings so that they fit into a grid on the wall.  Put a cartoon set together on 11×17 and use this to design the presentation.  Where will you stand?  Will the boards tell a story from left to right?


  • Line weight, line weight, line weight. Plans and sections should have 4-5 distinct line weights on them, ranging from plan-section cuts through structural walls (heavy) through plan-section cuts through partition walls, doors and fixtures, furniture, and animation and material joint lines.  BE SUPER RIGOROUS about these.  If you are, your drawings will read.  Want your plans to look organized and thoroughly worked out?  Include overhead structural elements as dashed lines—this makes your drawings look tight and thorough.  Elevations should be flatter, but even here you can distinguish between structural elements, cladding elements, and animation with subtle distinctions between line weights.  Glass façade?  Show animation behind it with grey lines.  Multiple layers of cladding or columns?  Show people walking between them to make the layers “pop.”


  • Bonus points?  Add shadow to your elevations.  If it’s done right, the drawings will read like three-dimensional views, and the massing will seem crystal clear.


  • Most importantly: “Strunk and White” every drawing.  The Elements of Style is the best book on design ever written, even though it’s a handbook for writers.  Don’t know it?  Get a copy.  It’s five or six bucks online and it’s full of advice that can be boiled down to this:  say what you need to say as clearly and as briefly as you can, and then get out of the way.  Don’t use unnecessary words (or lines).  Try to explain, don’t try to impress.


“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Substitute “design” for “writing,” “drawing” for “sentence,” “line” for “word,” and “presentation” for “paragraph,” and you’ve got a powerful piece of advice for designers everywhere.  This is a tattoo-worthy credo for designers, musicians, and writers everywhere.


  • North always goes up. More or less up.  Or at least in the same direction on every single drawing.


  • No one has ever read more than five lines of text on a presentation board. If you need that many words, you’ve done something wrong with your drawings.


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