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How to use architectural parti in digital design

As an architect turned user experience designer, I see the many parallels in the design processes of an architecture firm and a customer-experience agency. Architects and digital designers both take on enormous projects, which often begin with abstract concepts. Both aim to keep internal teams and clients aligned as we evolve these abstract ideas into tangible, specific solutions—all while working under defined deadlines and budgets. But at the core of our efforts, and beyond the project constraints, we’re all aiming to create memorable experiences for our users. Architects do this from the outset by establishing a common language for all parties involved with the project. We call this language or core concept a Parti. I see a valued place for Parti in the digital design process, because in essence, digital products like websites aren’t too dissimilar from buildings. And whether physical or digital, all designers work to create memorable experiences.


Our Point of Departure

Put simply, a Parti is the central idea of a building. It comes from the French term Parti Pris, meaning departure point—a place to begin. Its ultimate goal is to give us a grounding, a launch point to consider as we design and build an experience. Every building has an exterior expression and an interior experience, after all. But it’s up to us, the designers, whether that experience is memorable or forgettable.

Establishing a Parti is like following the path toward achieving a goal: once you’ve set your goal, the ultimate victory is not reaching the goal, but in some way changing and growing in the process of achieving it. In other words, the journey—not necessarily the destination—is the purpose. A Parti works in the same way in guiding a design project. It helps launch and shape our ultimate design path without overly constricting the precise end form of where that path takes us. It also helps users, clients, and teammates establish an emotional connection to our collective work. Humans are emotional creatures. In fact, a number of ground-breaking studies have shown we typically make emotional decisions first—before the brain’s logic centers kick in. A Parti uses this physiological truth to the project’s collective benefit.

To best understand a Parti’s power, we should discuss its various facets:

  • A Parti is ever-changing. We can change it, merge it, or abandoned it if necessary. Remember, its value is as a launching or departure point.
  • A Parti is abstract. Architects take on big and broad subjects like space, time, memory, culture, politics, and sensations. That all boils down to defining the experience of a three-dimensional space, which is often abstract. And that’s okay.
  • A Parti is scalable. It can inform design both at global and highly detailed levels. Architects may use it to help give consideration to how their buildings affect a larger neighborhood and also impact choices for closet-door handles.
  • A Parti is imperfect. Just because it can inform all levels of design, does not mean it has to. You don’t need to force it. Advancing the project is the point, not perfecting the Parti’s precise use.


A Parti in Architecture

Parti in architecture

We’ve talked about the concept of a Parti in abstract terms. Now let me give you a more concrete architectural example. Consider the familiar blueprint: a two-dimensional drawing of lines, letters, and numbers intended to communicate a three-dimensional space. This drawing cannot possibly communicate the potential of the space as it intends to. It’s why we, as emotional creatures, find it difficult to imagine what these spaces can become. This is often when you hear the common refrain: “It might make more sense to me when I see it.”

Now, imagine we used a Parti to communicate the experience of that same space as the experience of a diamond—where each room, siteline, and structural element changed depending on your angle, your vantage point, or how the light strikes it. In this case, the diamond acts as our Parti to help envision a space as multifaceted, impacted by light, and ever-changing. Sure, it’s still abstract, but I bet you can probably start to see it.


Establishing a Parti to Inform Web Design

Using Parti to inform web design

Now let me give an example of Parti in digital design. Consider a wireframe of a website’s homepage—the digital equivalent of our two-dimensional blueprint floor plan. A homepage will typically feature a navigation system, a large hero image, and supporting content down the page. Before this website comes to life, it’s difficult to emotionally connect with the two-dimensional drawing of boxes, lines, and words.

Like our diamond concept above, imagine our website’s Parti is the sense of place and texture off California’s coast. From this concept, we then build a design language that includes abstract vocabulary like light, time, pace, and texture—precise to our geographic sense of place—for our homepage. We use ample white space and gentle scrolling to add pause and to set a pace—to give a sense of calm and serenity. Content subtly eases onto the page with smooth micro-interactions, which conveys a level of lightness. Zooming in and out of the on-page content reveals perspective—spatial and textural dimensions. The Parti is abstract, but it guides us to a holistic design users can emotionally connect with during the design process and end users after release.


How to Use Parti in Your Digital Design Process

As a web designer, without the experience and practice of architectural training, how do you begin to apply Parti in your process? It’s actually not all that hard—it simply requires a little faith and experimentation, and depends on a few key factors worth discussing at a project’s outset.

There are three basic points to define when using a Parti in your digital design process:

  1. Who. As always, we must first understand who the client is, what they’re looking for, and consider any existing conditions (existing site and brand, company culture, availability of assets and content aligned with the company’s brand, willingness to experiment and take risks with digital products, and of course—business and end-user objectives).
  2. What. Based on these initial findings, we then come up with overarching ideas about what the experience could be, even before considering any design element. This abstract phase must still align with the project’s objectives, and serve to improve the customer experience—but it’s key to remember not to focus overly on the destination. At this stage, the departure point, commencing the journey, is key.
  3. How. With a working and evolving Parti in hand, we then define a central design vocabulary and visual language that will inform our project and anchor our approach.

Perhaps among the most rewarding aspects of designing incredible experiences is the ability to take chances and experiment with concepts that achieve goals, but also drive a memorable, emotional response. Our challenge as designers is to consistently evolve our approaches to achieving these goals, lest we fall into a dreaded cycle of a templated repetition of form.


Keys to Remember as You Commence Your Parti

By using Parti in your design process and project’s foundational design language, you’re offering users something they can feel and internalize, even if they can’t quite articulate it. You’re also further galvanizing a project methodology, which fosters alignment, makes it easier for teams to collaborate, and easier for clients to understand each step of the way. Ultimately, effective teams and happy clients give you a better chance of creating distinct, memorable experiences users can internalize and make their own.

And remember, what matters most is not that precise articulation of the experience you designed, but that users, customers, people, have internalized and interpreted its conceptual cues to help make the experience their own.

If we can achieve that, we’re truly on our way to creating holistic and memorable design experiences that add value to people’s’ lives.

To learn more about how our design team can help you establish your own winning design Parti, contact us.

Photo credit: -I-Kanda Architects