The Design Parti – A Communication Tool

October 5, 2010

A concept that I have been intending to write about for some time is “parti”.   A parti is usually a sketch, diagram, drawing, doodle, or some other graphic that represents the direction, concept, or theme of a design.  The concept of parti is common in architecture.  It is also used in other design disciplines.  It is seldom mentioned in conjunction with landscape design however.  That is part of the reason why I have not written about this concept until now.  The other reason is that a parti is a vague concept.

A parti diagram does not necessarily represent what the design will look like when it is done.  It is usually not a polished diagram.   It can be very rough; the proverbial back of a napkin sketch.  Parti has been defined as “the big idea”, “the central concept”, “the essence of the design”, “the design approach”, “the core element” and numerous other ways.  In almost every case a parti is described as conveying the meaning, form, direction, essence, scheme, approach, or some other aspect of a design.  If you are confused about what a parti actual is, I was too initially.

The first thing that was unclear is when in the design process a parti is actually created.  The answer is that you create a parti after you have some analysis completed.  You have to know where you have opportunities and where you have limitations.  You have to know the client’s requirements.  You should understand what functionality you need to provide.  You should have created at least some bubble diagrams and prepared an adjacency analysis.  In most cases a parti is going to come after some level of form composition analysis also.  You may create several form compositions that you evaluate as potential starting points for your design.  That being said, creating a parti comes after having a thorough understanding of the site, the client, and the functional and spatial aspects of your design.

The second confusing aspect of a parti was how it fit into the creative or generative portion of the design process.  A parti is described as a vision and/or an inspiration.  A parti is also shown as being a result or an output of one or more design concepts.  Creating the parti comes after developing conceptual designs.  Your source or inspiration for your conceptual designs may come from the site, the surrounding area, the client, the environment, or some other source.  Your client may have a love of camping that leads you to develop a concept based on nature.  The client residence may be of a Spanish style architecture that leads you do develop a Mediterranean theme concept.  There a numerous possibilities.

So what exactly does a parti do?  Why should you create one?  I think a parti is a communication tool.  It communicates the intent of your design concept.  In A Visual Dictionary of Architecture (1995), Frank Ching defines a parti as “the basic scheme or concept for an architectural design represented by a diagram.”  The parti should communicate something about the form as well as the concept.  Ideally, your parti will communicate the experience you intend to create.  It should depict something about the functional, sensory, and/or emotional aspects of your design concept.

I am not convinced a parti has to be a diagram or sketch.  A picture, an object, maybe even a simple storyboard may serve the purpose of a parti.  Which leads to the second question; why create a parti?

Anything that we can create that will make conveying our design intent to the client easier and more effective is a good thing.  We all live in a world of headlines.  We are flooded with information.  We scan e-mails for important subjects.  We skim newspapers for headlines.  The 30 second sound byte is the norm.  Imagine the power of a diagram or simple graphic that you can show the client and they will immediate see what you want to do.  Maybe your plan view does that.  Or maybe you created a perspective illustration that conveys everything the client needs to know.  You may not need a parti in every design.  However, if you can create one, it would certainly add value to your client presentation.

There is one very important difference in how and why a parti is used in architecture versus landscape design.  In architecture the designer is working in a third dimension in creating a building or structure.  That is not to say landscape design does not involve height or structural elements.  The mass of a structure just does not impose upon our designs the way it does in building architecture.  This is why I think our use or interpretation of a parti can be different.

As I said earlier, a small storyboard may be what you need to convey your parti.  Maybe there was an object or something that you saw that inspired your design concept.  A picture of that object may be your parti or a part of it.  Maybe one of your form compositions can be modified to express more fully the design concept.  Again, what we are looking for is a communication tool.  The format or media does not really matter.

One last point about the value of a parti.  I have read in several places that a parti should “anchor the design”.  In other words, when a design issue or question arises, you should be able to go back to the parti for answers.  In other posts I have mentioned the value of graphic tools such as a client profile, journey boards, inspiration boards, etc. to facilitate the design process.  A parti can serve the same purpose.  It communicates the intent of your design concept to your client.  Having your parti in front of you while you are designing will serve as a constant visual reminder of your design intent.

4 Responses to “The Design Parti – A Communication Tool”

  1. Ros Says:

    Hi Mike

    Cool post – i think you would enjoy looking at – it lets you create digital mood boards for landscape designers! I’ve noticed there is not a lot of online design tools for landscape architects so we’ve added Landscaping as a design discipline to our Creative Industries.

    Let me know what you think.

    • Mike Says:

      I remember looking a some time back. Probably before you added the landscape design discipline. Very nice tool.

      I agree there are a real lack of online tools for landscape professionals. This is one I will be mentioning.


    • Mike Says:

      Rosslyn, thanks for your comments. I will definitely be including your site in an upcoming post. I have not posted anything for a couple of months as I am in the middle of a business startup. However, your site looks like a great tool for landscape professionals and is very much in line with the types of tools and techniques I have been promoting in my blog. I added your site to my blog roll already.

      Just as a side note I think I saw your site a couple of months ago but the link to in was from a blog on web site design or e-learning design.

      Mike Swift

      • Ros Says:

        Thanks for the mention Mike! and good luck with the startup.

        Let me know if you want me to design some landscape boards for you to use in your blog as examples

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