The design process can be thought of as the use of iterative and cyclical creative problem seeking/solving to identify and analyze ambiguous and complex problems and to conceptualize potential alternative solutions. Given the nature of creative thinking, solutions that demonstrate novel strategies or ideas are highly desirable. But where do such solutions-or ideas- originate?

Conceptual design is the portion of the design process where creative thinking skills- such as ideation- are utilized in the identification and exploration of a wide range of potential alternatives in response to a stated problem. Creative thinking skills such as ideation rely upon the reciprocal use of divergent and convergent creative thinking skills. Divergent skills are necessary to expand the breadth of potential alternatives beyond the immediate "solution"; convergent skills are necessary to evaluate the alternatives (and cycle into refinements, etc).   

Conceptual design relies heavily upon divergent thinking, defined as "thinking that moves away in diverging directions so as to involve a variety of aspects and which sometimes lead[s] to novel ideas and solutions; associated with creativity." This is in contrast to the more logical evaluation methods of convergent thinking found in pre-design, analysis and problem definition. Divergent thinking allows the designer to critically examine a given context or problem and to explore a wide-range of creative alternatives that provide unconventional, novel and innovative solutions.   It is important to note that creative thinking skills- including divergent thinking skills- can be learned (or "re-learned"; see herehere, here, here or here for examples) and once mastered, creative thinking becomes an intuitive and expedient process for the experienced designer.  

Critical analysis and lateral thinking are essential to conceptualization as they allow for new perspectives on a problem. These new perspectives requires the designer to serve as a critic and to assume an external position relative to a given subject. This detachment allows for the critical distance so as to examine and question the problem from a variety of perspectives. The ground-breaking work of early 20th-century Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky was based upon a critical analysis method that he referred to as ostranenie (or defamiliarization or estrangement). Critical analysis requires the cognitive ability to detach from the subject so as to allow the critic to assume an external position relative to the subject (or problem). This detachment allows for the distance necessary so as to examine and question the subject (or problem) from a variety of perspectives. In the case of Shklovsky, his theory of ostranenie allowed for entirely new conceptualization and critical interpretations of the literary canon of the time.  In effect, such distance allowed him to interpret work in entirely new ways and derive new meanings (and criticism) of the work. 

In the 1960's, scholar of creativity Edward DeBono identified the cognitive technique of lateral thinking. Similar to Shklovsky's ostranenie, De Bono's theory of lateral thinking required detachment so as to see or perceive the problem from different vantage points (what he referred to as the "6 Thinking Hats").  De Bono noted that use of lateral thinking in the design process enables the identification of multi-various alternative solutions to a problem. Such lateral thinking design methods include first, the conceptual shift of perceived boundaries of a problem, which could also be thought of as changing the rules of the game to allow for a new view of the problem or potential solution; the second method includes the introduction of new information to the problem to expand the realm of potential solutions; the third method is the conceptual re-orientation of the values of a given problem; and fourth, the introduction of other individuals or insights to provide additional insight or perspectives beyond your own. Note that the methods are expansive in that they destabilize the problem framework itself so as to allow for alternative ways of conceptualizing and re-defining the problem. In this manner, the problem itself is problematized.


Sydney Olympics Conceptual Design Study Model. Hargreaves Associates. 1998.

Sydney Olympics Conceptual Design Study Model. Hargreaves Associates. 1998.


The Diagram as Method: Systems and Moments.

Within the scope of professional design services, the Conceptual Design phase is the transitional project phase following pre-design services. It is often seen as the first design phase. The work of Conceptual Design relies upon the initial research, analysis and definition of the physical and programmatic contexts to provide the basis of design. Based on the overall project approach and initial programmatic opportunities, conceptual design utilizes creative problem-solving to transform the problems and opportunities identified in pre-design into a set of speculative conceptual alternatives- or solutions- that unveil new site conditions and potential project trajectories. 

Given the divergent thinking of conceptualization, the work of conceptual design is intentionally expansive and the desired outcomes are not "one" solution per se, but rather a set of potential alternatives.  These conceptual alternatives are just that- conceptual in they are typically somewhat general and blurry relative to the eventual proposed design solution. 

Given the intent to speculate and conceptualize alternatives, iterative techniques of diagrammatic investigation and representation are essential.  Within design, the diagram serves more than its vernacular role of simply recording a concept to communicate to others. Rather, the diagram serves as both method and milieu and is used as projective device in the act of visual thinking and ideation. The diagram is utilized to explore, construct and demonstrate the reasoning- the idea- behind a design proposal.  As a method, the diagram allows for the loose and rapid generation of gestural experiments that investigate, project and record landscape complexity inherent to socio-cultural landscape processes and change.   As a milieu, the diagram records an idea and provides the cognitive territory to deconstruct, reassemble and represent speculative landscape systems, moments and programs. The diagram also aligns with figurative representations of the landscape as a set of operations and processes, which as a composite analytique enables the conceptualization of the landscape as assemblage.  In the same manner that Peter Walker stated in his 2016 lecture "we had an idea, but not a design" (in regards to the initial 9/11 Memorial), it is important to recognize that the diagram in and of itself is not a design.  

The diagrammatic alternatives generated in conceptual design establishes a conceptual framework that articulates the range of potential outcomes and positions the work for further articulation within subsequent project phases, such as schematic design. These subsequent phases rely on a level of precision and accuracy not entirely necessary in conceptual design. Further, the subsequent design phases translate and articulate-with increasing representational precision- the programmatic and operational strategies of concept design into site-specific spatial, infrastructural, material and experiential proposals.  Hence, the aforementioned reference to the transitional conditions of conceptual design.


Beirut waterfront design study. Hargreaves Associates/ George Hargreaves. 2011. 

Beirut waterfront design study. Hargreaves Associates/George Hargreaves. 2011. 


The work of Phase 01 provided an initial introduction into the theories of the Anthropocene; the work of Phase 02 provided a Project Approach and Programmatic Opportunities whereby the site data, stakeholder input and Anthropocene theory are combined into an overall project approach. The research and work of Phase 01 and Phase 02 now provide the basis of design for Phase 03.  

In this phase of work, you will build upon and refine your 3 (or more) potential opportunities for use as the basis of design. These opportunities become the primary point of orientation for design alternatives. The Anthropocene research themes of Phase 01 will provide you the instrument of "detachment" and critical distance necessary for lateral thinking. In this manner, the Anthropocene becomes a primary critical lens (but not the only lens) to re-imagine potential futures for the project approach and programs identified in Phase 02.

Utilizing techniques of divergent thinking, you will develop diagrammatic, conceptual design alternatives for each of the three project opportunities you have identified and refined.  You will utilize analog diagrams to project, maps and test potential landscape changes. These changes should be thought of and expressed as systems, moments and programs.  You may think of systems as landscape processes or networks- both designed and undesigned- that provide an underlying network within the landscape. For example, systems could be thought of in terms of the movement of water or people in the landscape or proposed or existing systems of infrastructure. Moments are those places and spaces that provide significant and direct visceral or temporal human experiences of the essence of the landscape (phenomenological interpretation of place). For example, one might think of the various proposed or existing experiences as providing particular moments on a site. These could be reinforced through material, spatial or other interpretations. Programs are the menu of proposed activities, uses and supporting elements and infrastructure.

Your work will be propositional and gestural with a necessary degree of abstraction relative to spatial form; in other words, the work will avoid specificity found in traditional methods of precise schematic design representation or site plan graphic symbology.   Here again, the work of eidetic mapping as an instrument to reveal and project new landscape conditions may be an essential design tool. 



You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.

— Edward DeBono
Sydney 2000 Olympics- Systems Diagrams.  Hargreaves Associates   

Sydney 2000 Olympics- Systems Diagrams.  Hargreaves Associates




1) Part A: Analog Diagrams

Prepare a minimum of 5 cycles of 3 analog diagrams for each opportunity (15 for each opportunity; 45 total).  The diagrams should consist of systems, moments and programs for the proposed study site and surrounding context. As a starting point, prepare/plot an aerial birdseye or model axon view  of your selected project site.  Utilize one of the opportunities as a starting point and develop three different conceptual designs that explores a site-specific expression of ONE opportunity. Analyze and critique the three concept and develop an additional three alternatives based on the self-critique of the previous concept. Continue this for a minimum of 5 cycles, for a total of 15 per opportunity. Do the same for two other opportunities, for a total of 45 drawings. Allow the work on one opportunity to inform the other two. I recommend you work on all three opportunities simultaneously.  The studies should be completed in soft graphite pencil (2B to 6B) or Pentel Sign Pen atop trace paper (white or canary) laid over the aerial birdseye or 3D model views. Try to use a landscape format between 8.5x11 and 11x17. This size is intentional is it will not allow you to get too precise. Exceptions are permitted to suit.  


Due: 45 analog diagrams, each on a seperate sheet, with your name and date prepared indicated in the lower right hand corner. In the upper left hand corner number the concepts in sequence that they were prepared.  Have these complete before start of class on Friday, October 20st.   On Friday, we will break into small groups of 3 and you will present your work to your peers. After this is complete, you will move into different groups and repeat in round-robin presentation format. 


Architecture design study model. Student author unknown. 

Architecture design study model. Student author unknown. 

2) Part B: Analog Study Models

Based on the analog 2D diagrams prepared in part A, you will refine and combine the three different opportunities into 3 combined alternatives that embody favorable aspects of all three opportunities. In other words, you will investigate 3 conceptual design alternatives, with each alternative embodying aspects of all three opportunities (or more). The development of the three alternatives should be completed using 3D analog study models. The analog study models should utilize an aerial photograph - to scale, such as 1:50, 1:30. 1:20, etc- as the "base" layer. (The aerial should be affixed atop cardboard, foam-core or other study base). Indicate proposed design changes using a mix of analog collage methods. The model materials should consist of the aerial photo itself in combination with mixed media of your choice, including chipboard, basswood, clay, poly-carbonates, canson paper, sponge, and other relevant materials of your choice.  No professional model materials such as model railroad trees, foam dust for grass, etc allowed.  No digital models or laser cut models (you may laser cut buildings, but use your time wisely....)

Due: Three, to scale analog study models representing 3 different conceptual design alternatives. Due Friday, October 27th at start of class. You will present the study models to a guest jury (TBD).  



1013: Phase_03 posted.  Brief introduction and Work Session. 

1016: MINI-Lecture: Conceptual Design. Work Session. 

1018: Work session. 

1020: Part A "round-robin" peer review and feedback.  Peer presentation in small groups (4 groups of 3), each person shares their conceptual design diagrams, focusing on the most recent iterations. 10 minutes per person. 45 minutes total. Then rotate to a new group and repeat. 

1023: Work session. 

1025: Work session. 

1027: Presentation/Review. Present the three models prepared for Part B. 



PHASE 03_READINGS and references

See course folder


Make mistakes faster.

— Bruce Mau