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Why Can a Design Still Fail with Clear Goals and Objectives?  //  AR Zhang


Illustration by iStock/dane_mark

Abstract:This article is about lessons learned from Design & Make studio.
When we first got in touch with our client, we explored the idea of building an artist residency. We had dozens of iterations working our way from the southern-most house to the house we have now. We were uncovering the infinite potentials in Volland. Through the many design proposals, the lesson I learned is that whatever design you come up with, it’s better to have a clear goal or purpose to support it. A lawyer cannot win a case without solid evidence supporting their claim, the same is true for architects.

Audience: Anyone making an argument to sway an individual on a design opportunity.

"Why Can a Design Still Fail with Clear Goals and Objectives?"

Using goals to lead your life can be applied to the way we approach clients to understand and accept the proposals. Just like when you say, I want to wake up early or I want to save money. These “what to dos" are just some options that can be applied on any objectives such as a healthier lifestyle, or desire for wealth, but what’s the reason behind all of these? What’s the goal for your objectives?


Having a clear understanding of the goal that will be achieved from a design move makes it much easier to accept that design solution. The goal is what ultimately sells an idea. For example, while we were designing a house for artists, where they can stay and experience the prairie for a couple of weeks, the goals were lost in many of the presentations, making them much weaker proposals. When a proposal is presented, it is not so convincing if the presenter goes directly into the design decisions and begins listing every move made to change the house.

The delivery of an idea needs to be broken down into steps so that the client can follow the same thought process. It’s essential to always tie the goal-objectives-solutions tightly. Referring to the book series, Architecture Dramatic, the design process is divided into 3 steps: set up a goal and think about why you want to do it; set up objectives to achieve your goal; list detailed solutions which are detailed options.

One design proposal I came up with had the goal to create a house that became a place for people to experience the prairie. The objective was focused on the experience, so I set three objectives: who is experiencing the prairie? Why would they come to Volland? And what is there to experience. I clearly listed the answers in the presentation. The brainstorm chart is listed below:

However, when brainstorming further about the design, the decisions being made slowly began to steer away from the objective once new issues arose that did not relate to the goal and only introduced new objectives that were irrelevant to the goal. Like how to fit two artists at one time? After fixing this issue, neither of the artists will have a desirable experience in the house any more.

Early design proposal plan

The yellow line indicates the sliding panel which separates the two artists from each other, and they both have their own bathroom so that they won’t disturb each other at night. Seems like it works in the plan, but in reality, will people be comfortable sleeping next to a stranger with just a sliding panel in between? Is it comfortable that two artists share 500 sq.ft. of space? The green  line highlights an outdoor gathering space.


Honestly, when I came up with this space, I just wanted to make the foundation a good looking square, then make up some excuses to make it reasonable. Does the house really need this large outdoor area? What would it be like when it is not in use? Do I consider the smell from the rancher that could occur in the outdoor area? After a few more visits to Volland, the smell from the cows didn’t give me a good experience, needless to say the future residents’ experience. From these solutions, we can then track back to the original design intention, and ask am I still trying to keep the original goal: “making a good experience” anymore? Obviously, I’m off track.


The further the proposal was developed, the less relevance the design decisions had for improving the experience. The objectives lost its connection between the goal and solution, which turned the design into a problem-solving strategy.

I found that, not only I, but the studio sometimes failed the objectives during the design process. Everyone wants to design a good artist residency, and we just jump right into the solutions: “The building should face north since direct sunlight is unfriendly to artists”, “The interior wall should go away since artists need open space”, “the counter space can be large since I’ve never seen people complain their working space is too large” these design decisions, or solutions, are all right, and they all have a reason to support it. But can we create a good overall design by just combining whatever we want together? These solutions seem like we are fixing the parts we don’t like, instead of the bigger objectives and goals. Clear objectives are needed to support the goal.

Countless times we failed to follow the original design intention, and instead to “make the program work” became our the first priority. Everything would work. The owner or the contractor can also design whatever they like. But what I learned is, as a future architect, the goal should be the chain to link all design movements to be a whole, strong idea instead of rubble and chaos.

Written by Aoran Zhang

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