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How to get your head round being an architect

There’s more to architecture than knowing how to design. Randy Deutsch’s new book has lessons on many of the other skills you need to work in practice

Think Like An Architect in use
Think Like An Architect in use

Each year thousands of young people take the leap from mainstream education to an architecture degree  and commit to a subject that few post-16 courses can prepare you for. In doing so, they sign up for three years which strip away the comfort blanket of regimented and grade-driven learning, and expose them to the ambiguous world of design.

I sympathise as much with the tutors of architecture school as with the students. How do you teach a cohort of young people not only how to design – like it’s that simple – but also the soft skills that are called for in the practice setting, such as critical thinking?

There is a reason why a growing number of architecture students are taking practice based routes through qualification, such as the apprenticeship scheme and collaborative practice courses. Pursuing the latter route, I am one of many who have recognised how the skills required in practice have progressed my professional capabilities far beyond that experienced in full time education.

Randy Deutsch’s ‘Think like an architect’ addresses this learning gap.

Through 68 points, spanning themes of critical, creative and collaborative thinking, Randy Deutsch provides a guide to understanding our thinking capabilities and how to action them, and in doing so, to fulfil the much needed societal role of the architect in an ever changing and complex world.

Whether you are considering pursuing architecture, are crossing the qualification finish line, or are 40 years into your career, the book is the tool to activate your metacognition, enabling a better understanding of the potential people have when they think like an architect.

If the prospect looks daunting, it’s not. For every point made, Deutsch concludes with suggested actions to try, questions to ask and resources to read, stimulating engagement and reflection in action.

  • From left: Knitters with hopelessly tangled yarn-detanglers; Situations that each architect confronts in the early stages of a project can be compared to a complex tangle that cannot be unravelled in a linear, methodological or systematic way; To persevere – like Sisyphus – architects must wake up each day to roll their tangle up the hill again
    From left: Knitters with hopelessly tangled yarn-detanglers; Situations that each architect confronts in the early stages of a project can be compared to a complex tangle that cannot be unravelled in a linear, methodological or systematic way; To persevere – like Sisyphus – architects must wake up each day to roll their tangle up the hill again
  • Where do architects do their best thinking? For some it is outside the building, for some it is in the shower, and for some it is when cycling.
    Where do architects do their best thinking? For some it is outside the building, for some it is in the shower, and for some it is when cycling. Credit: Bruce Bondy and Randy Deutsch
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Starting from point 1, the statements are brave – ‘Architects need to think of everything’ – but are followed up with insight to provide context and anecdotal evidence to clarify and comfort.

The emphasis Deutsch places on the contrast between ‘think’ and ‘know’ in this section is an urgent lesson for every incoming student.

It may look like a conflict as education situates you in the very opposite reality, but since ‘architects don’t design in isolation’, you need not be the source of all the answers. In the process of every project, you will go from a state of not knowing to one of knowing – Information gathering (point 16).

Although the knowledge attained may seem like the prize here – and to some extent it is as you retain and will call on it in the future – it is the process of learning how to find this information that is of the greatest value.

Seeking clarity (point 17) is fundamental to the processing of such information and should be the goal of your endeavours. As stated by Deutsch, 10,000 decisions go into the making of a building; that’s a lot of strands of thought to tame and prioritise. It is important to earn to clarify thoughts and ideas, to better communicate them back in an accessible manner.

During this search for clarity, it is imperative to accept the ambiguity of the design process – I say this as someone who repelled that uncertainty for much of my first year.

In Challenges of creative thinking (point 33)  Deutsch acknowledges the anxiety that stems from the alien, open-ended nature of architecture school. It is natural to feel this way and important to recognise it as a major cause of stress. However, it is also critical to see subjectivity as freedom to flex the creative muscles and steer your project into new territory. It is this thinking that the book asks us to adopt to  address the challenges – or wicked problems – we face globally.

Accepting ambiguity leads to a drop in expectation as to how the design process ‘should’ be done.

Design process (point 37), explores the romanticisation of that eureka moment that we feel we must reach. That moment comes from a design process which embodies critical creative thinking – asking ‘what if’ of the project – and is fuelled by your own brief, life experiences and knowledge.

Don’t be pressured to compare – or worse still, compete – in the studio. See your peers as you would colleagues in a practice, a resource to support the process or, as point 62 notes, a body of collective intelligence.

Deutsch states that a conclusion forms when you get tired of thinking – reaching a word limit is also another place this can happen. I may well have read cover to cover several times, but my thinking about this book remains in full flow and my point of conclusion is yet to be reached. All that I can say for definite is: what a gift it is to think like an architect. 

Elle Thompson is a Part 2 Collaborative Practice student, part of a team commended in RIBA Rethink 2025 for its Post Pandemic Exchange


Think Like An Architect: How to develop critical, creative and collaborative problem-solving skills by Randy Deutsch is published by RIBA Books, 224 pages, £30