In 2014, I graduated from Harvard University GSD (Graduate School of Design, or Get Sh*t Done 🤷♀️). In 2016, I started working as a UX designer in the Bay Area after two years at a large Architecture and Construction company.
In the past three years, many architecture friends asked me about my experience transitioning to UX/Product design.
I had my ups and downs, but overall I enjoyed it very much! 🎢
If you are reading this article, you probably come from an architecture background (Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design, etc.), and are considering a career switch.
With some research online, you’d get a basic sense of what UX/Product Design is about. If you haven’t, go ahead and do some (ideally in-depth) research on the field first! I’ll wait…
As you can see, facts are easier to find than insights. So in this article, I’d like to focus on the seven transferable skills I discovered in the process.✨ Hope you get a confidence boost from this article!
What is Empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings and share their emotions. Understanding the users and their needs is the foundation of a great design because oftentimes we are not designing for ourselves.
Even though architects don’t have tools specified on how to incorporate empathy into the design process (ie. UX has tools like Empathy Map, shown below), this skill applies to the architect’s process as well. Before drawing a single line on paper, lots of time was spent figuring out the needs of both the clients and the future tenants. Architects observe while doing field trips and interview people to get questions answered.
Bonus points for architects, they are trained to care a lot more than just human needs! They also need to have a deep knowledge of the site itself: the cultural traits and ecological traits. Do we disrupt the stale things and preserve the valuable ones? How about the flora and fauna?… You see where I’m going? Architects are good at thinking in others’ shoes and really empathize with it.
Empathy Map. Credit
Architects explore and learn from an intense iteration process. They build lots of process models using whatever materials that best suited for exploring the ideas (clay, wood, corrugated paper, etc.). Things change rapidly for design projects both at school and at work. Architects learned to kill their darlings and don’t get attached to any single idea.
Fast learning through iterations is highly valued in the digital world. While letting go of ideas and constantly exploring is a skill hard to acquire to many, architects are armed with this design process!
Design is problem-solving. It is never just making things look pretty. But visual plays a larger and larger role in product design now! As the discipline of User Experience matures with technological progress, digital products with bare minimal design can’t win user’s hearts anymore. Backed by multiple experiments, the Aesthetic-Usability effect describes a phenomenon that people find beautiful-looking products more appealing than less-aesthetic ones.
Luckily, architects have eyes for visual design elements like color, typography, and layout with years of training. They are also great at using the power of visuals to tell stories and spark emotions!
Rendering of BIG’s Amager Bakke waste-to-energy plant. Image Courtesy of BIG
UX/Product designers spend a great deal of time presenting to stakeholders and collaborating with the XFN team and fellow designers.
Not surprisingly, architects do the same. For each studio at school, there are weekly 1:1s, monthly group reviews, and studio Mid-and-Final reviews where they need to present the design progress and final results to an audience of various sizes. At work, architects constantly present their projects to co-workers and clients. All the years of training made architects good at presenting and taking feedbacks!
Third Semester Architecture Core at GSD. Credit
UX/Product designers need to learn new things constantly because technology is progressing at a fast speed. Self-learning is an essential trait that every UX designer should have.
With little handholding learning process at school, architects are never told by instructors about which books to read or tools to learn. They find the design style they admire and the results they want to achieve, then they embark on the journey to test and learn! Maybe that’s why many architects who transitioned to UX are self-taught. 👏
Architects are very comfortable with both analog and digital drawings. They have used Adobe Creative Suites for many many years.
They are fluent with animation tools, because who doesn’t like a fancy fly over or a walkthrough video of the design during a client presentation?
A few even have decent coding knowledge (if you’ve played with processing and Grasshopper/Monkey — plugins for Rhino)!
Most of the technical tools are very similar to what UX/Product designers use. Thus architects have some advantages compared with UXers coming from other backgrounds.
The interface of Grasshopper, a plugin for Rhino
One last thing that I think is super valuable and relevant to both UX designers and architects is systematic thinking ability. Instead of focusing on a tiny part of the design (one small interface component, or a piece of lighting furniture), good designers in both disciplines know when to zoom in and zoom out. They focus on figuring out the big pictures (information architecture, or functional diagrams) before jumping into the details.
Flow Chart Credit
Ready for the new adventure to UX? Credit
I hope you enjoyed this article and had a full confidence boost for your career switch! There are many other articles on Medium talking about the two disciplines, so check them out. Don’t hesitate to comment to let me know what you think or reach out with questions!
Links to my other articles: