Blueprints vs Models (and design processes)

18 Nov 2004 - 7:04am
1398 reads
H Taylor

Andrei wrote:

> Why avoid them? Would you tell an architect to avoid making blueprints
> and just skip to the model building stage? And how are wireframes
> contributing to design by committee any more than anything else
> designers do?
> Wireframes are fine as part of the design process if used for what they
> are good for: deciding on structural and architectural pieces of a
> design without having to build a full on prototype. Wireframes are
> *not* low fidelity prototypes, and to use them such is probably the
> problem you're having or are referring to. Wireframes are best used in
> the same way blueprints are used in architecture, and in that regard
> should follow the same rules of scale, annotation and structural
> detail. Prototypes are an entirely different animal and have entirely
> different uses in the design process.

To which I respond:

This may be wandering a bit off topic, but Andrei, you've used an
analogy to blueprints and models in architectural practice a couple of
times now; as someone who studied architecture, I'm not sure I support
your assumptions about the role of these things in architectural

Blueprints are essentially construction documents and are used to
communicate a final, detailed plan to builders. This appears to be
unlike your description of the role of wireframes, which (in my
interpretation) serve to establish fairly general and early design
decisions, without detail (but with accurate scale).

Models are generally used in two ways: first, as generally quick and
dirty prototypes to experiment with design ideas, and later, as more
elaborate artifacts used to present design ideas to others (often,
clients, planning boards, etc., and generally accompanied by
orthographic and perspectival drawings).

Some architects are now integrating CAD quite fully into their process,
and it is possible to develop both blueprints (construction documents)
and presentation drawings (and videos) all from digital sketches and
models (design process elements). I believe most architects continue to
sketch on paper, at least at the earliest stages, but I'll leave this
point aside for now and return to it later.

Why is this relevant? Well, architects, in the process of developing a
physical product, require various sorts of abstract representations of
the product, for various audiences (including themselves) at various
stages of the development process. Historically, physical limitations
of media have required that all of these representations be produced
discretely. However, it is becoming increasingly possible to integrate
the production of design-, presentation- and construction documents
into a single process based on iterative development of a digital

Interaction Design is (largely) about design of products which are
ultimately fully digital/virtual. I would expect that the relevant
processes could be at least as (digitally) integrated as those
available to architects. Granted, different representations of a
product are still required and appropriate at different phases of the
process, and perhaps to record and communicate different aspects of the
design. Shouldn't it be possible to generate these from (or at least
integrate them into) a unified digital design process? If you like to
establish certain parameters early in the process, why should they not
be set in the digital realm and either integrated into or developed
into prototypes?

I see two potential stumbling blocks. The first is that tools may not
yet adequately support integration across the formats of artifacts
required by the design process. In this case, maybe it's time to start
establishing a process and specifying the requirements that tools must

The other potential stumbling block goes back to the point to which I
promised to return, that most architects still sketch on paper, at
least in the beginning phases. Why? Either they've been doing the same
thing for a long time and are resistant to change *or* computer
interface technology is still such that the process of sketching with a
computer isn't yet natural enough and hinders the process of designing
quickly, loosely and freely. And this second case, I suspect, is why
Andrei likes working on graph paper. I know some people on this list
(K.C.?) have adopted tablet-PC's; anyone want to comment on how they
relate to this point?

Architecture has a fairly standard system of requirements and
audiences. I would welcome anyone's efforts to further the conversation
here, particularly along the lines of artifacts ("deliverables")
required for different audiences and purposes (i.e. design process
artifacts, presentation of design intent to stakeholders, construction
documents for builders) and how an integrated process (current or
imagined) could support the entire process. I know there have been
discussions (in a piecemeal fashion) about tools and processes on this
list. However, I suspect that, as architecture has more-or-less
answered these questions in a general way, these same issues should be
"solvable" in this field.

- Hal Taylor

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