A $10 Differentiation Between Architecture and Design

Summary: Your project is a cloth. Architecture makes cuts. Design makes the resulting pieces the best ones possible, solving problems toward a goal

Dateline: New Orleans, March 12, 2012. It’s 5:00am CST, and TUG‘s Grand Rapids delegation to the just-concluded, biggest-ever Information Architecture Summit is looking for a cab to the airport. I’m the ringleader of this delegation, and as we approach the revolving door to the curb, an itinerant software developer we chatted up at the bar the evening before with the unforgettable name Crawford Comeaux walks up and offers us a free ride to the airport in exchange for a “valuable insight.”

In my role as early-morning airport trip coordinator, I made what could have been a huge mistake and took the bait. As Crawford walked us over to his car in the adjoining parking lot, he explained that he was just now returning from the SXSW festival. 15 minutes later, Mr. Comeaux completed the transfer of what appeared to be several weeks worth of living-out-of-the-car-at-southby to his trunk, and upon entering the now-cleared vehicle I apologized to my colleagues in advance if what was about to happen did not actually include an airport.


Happily, Crawford was not a serial killer. Turns out he’s a lovely chap with great taste in music and the heart of a true seeker. Jack Kerouac would, I think, approve. Crawford is also an entrepreneur, and as we got to the approximate half-way point between the Hyatt and the airport, it was time to make good on the deal we’d struck. Each of us would in turn pitch Crawford a valuable insight, and he’d decide whether or not this insight’s value was equal to the $10 he would otherwise require for the car service. Fair’s fair.

I don’t mean to embarrass my colleagues while sharing this story, but in the interest of brevity let’s just say that I was the only one to get a free ride that morning. The insight I shared with Crawford proved to be worth at least $10, and this emboldens me to share it here with you.

What’s The Difference Between Architecture and Design?

The insight I shared with Crawford and “won” the $10 valuable insight award for is one I’ve been testing and re-testing with each new opportunity to give a talk about information architecture or pitch business to a prospective client. It’s a visual metaphor to explain the difference between architecture and design, inspired by a brilliant lecture by Peter Eisenman entitled Architecture or Design: Wither the Discipline.

The picture that develops in my mind’s eye as I listen to Mr. Eisenman’s argument for architecture and design being quite distinct from one another is that of a great expanse of fabric or cloth. The project is the cloth. Architecture is where the cuts go, and the architect operates the scissors using an analytical process to understand why the cuts will go where they go. “Measure twice, cut once” is part of that analytical process, as is what Lou Kahn talked about as establishing a “society” among the parts that are defined by the cuts in the fabric. For Eisenman, there are norms in the discipline of architecture to guide the analytical process of determining where the cuts in the fabric ought to go, and the real genius of the architect is in detecting exceptions to those norms.

Your Project Is A Cloth. Architecture Is Where The Cuts Go.


The architecture thing with analysis and the scissors and the search for exceptions is a process that’s distinct from design. And if, like me, you’ve been frustrated in the development of your IA chops and work, perhaps some of that frustration comes from not understanding when you’re being an architect vs. when you’re being a designer.

Design happens with the parts. Design is a process that’s about synthesis. Design, in Eisenman’s words, is not a discreet discipline like architecture. Eisenman’s assessment is that design is fundamentally multi-disciplinary because unlike architecture or art, it starts with an object or set of goals. It’s about making the parts defined by the architecture be the best parts they can be and work together to solve problems and attain goals defined by the architecture. Eisenman’s definition of design is nearly identical to Charles Eames’:

Design Orders The Parts Toward Established Goals

According to the entailments of this metaphor of the cloth and the scissors, there is fundamentally more work to be done in design with the parts than there is with the cutting. And, in the terms established by the metaphor, there will likely be occasions where the synthetic process of making a part be the best part it can be will reveal an exception that the architect missed. Sometimes, the problem you’re given to solve with design is not properly solve-able because the architecture is wrong (can I get an “amen”?). Back to the metaphor, sometimes designers will find their piece of the overall fabric of the project needs to be sewn back into its formerly-adjoining pieces and then re-cut. In this way, the relationship between design and architecture is less a binary zero-sum game than it is a mobius strip.

Your project is a piece of cloth. Architecture is where the cuts go; architects hold the scissors. Design is making the resulting parts be the best parts they can be, solving the problems defined in the act of cutting.

When information architects do their metaphorical scissors work, and when they do it well, they set user experience, interaction, and graphic designers up for success. If you allow that design is ordering the parts of the product or service to attain the project’s goals, you want a skillful architect to be present from the project’s inception to ensure the parts of the system are defined in ways that afford great design solutions. Probably, the information architect should stick around or at least check back in with designers as they move the project forward to see if the synthetic process of design has uncovered any exceptions to the overall architecture that provide an argument or opportunity for refactoring.

What do you think? Should I be sending Crawford a $10 refund? I’m still working this out, and lately my favored medium for working things out is on a chalkboard: