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ARCH100 - A Visual Thinking Pedagogy

First-year architecture design pedagogy based on concepts from George Stiny's Shape Grammars to develop abstract visual thinking skills

Robert Lee Brackett /|\, M.Arch, Adj. Assoc. Professor (Co-Principal Investigator)

Duks Koschitz, Phd, Assoc. Prof in Design & Technology, (Co-Principal Investigator)

Tiffany Pun, Mandy Xe, (Research Assistants)

Sponsoring Agency: d.r.a Lab – Research Topics

Timeline: 2017-2019

Presented: 2020 OU Schools of Thought: Rethinking Architectural Pedagogy (recording)

Type of research: Academic Research in Design Pedagogy and Visual Thinking

In 2017 Robert Brackett undertook a Research Topics course at Pratt to document and clarify the first year architecture design pedagogy, ARCH100. Working with the Design Coordinator, Duks Koschitz, and research assistants ,Tiffany Pun and Mandy Xe, Robert developed a First Year Pedagogy Manual that he would use during his time as Design Coordinator in the follow two years. This manual served to onboard faculty to the techniques and concepts of a visual thinking pedagogy based on the Shape Grammars of George Stiny with underlying lessons of computational thinking and abstraction performed through analog and digital means as a way of introducing first-year architecture students to ways of design thinking. The following is an excerpt from a paper and presentation given at the University of Oklahoma’s Schools of Thought: Rethinking Design Pedagogy conference in March of 2020

The primary pedagogical interface for developing visual thinking draws from Stiny’s shape grammars by teaching the students to develop systems as schemas of elements and rules created in analog layered drawings. This method’s intuitive, structured, and analytical recursive feedback loop helps students learn at their pace and with their strengths. Stiny states, “Whenever I put a pencil to paper, I’m calculating with shapes or symbols, but there’s nothing to code in a drawing, so I don’t have to use symbols in place of shapes to calculate.” (Stiny 2006, 311) The geometry and construction of shapes as visual elements defined as collections of lines in a specific organization provides a syntax for visual thinking and designing. The propagation, manipulation, transformation, and organization of shapes through rule-based systems allows for students to iteratively build complexity from simple elements (Stiny 2006, 194-195). We call these systems Design Approaches, and they are iterative, layered, resilient, and generally substrate independent, meaning they can operate in drawing or model, digital or analog, and at any scale. This independence from the medium is a crucial factor in a visual system’s ability to offer many design solutions at multiple scales as generative abstract systems (C. Alexander 1964, 135). From the foundation of visual elements and rules, we derive a pedagogy of design that can be taught systematically and with consistency providing access to all students.

After completing several semesters under the initial shape grammars based first-year pedagogy developed by Duks Koschitz (2013-2018), we undertook a research and cataloging project to extract useful lessons from what the students were learning. From our observations, we developed an ARCH 100 Pedagogy Manual[i] to clarify the Design Exercises and document the interface of teaching design as a formal and creative process. What follows is a brief description of the first-year design pedagogy based on computation through visual thinking. This system continued to run through 2019 and has now transitioned to a new coordinator with a different pedagogical model, several successful aspects outlined below remain an active part of the curriculum.

Design as Visual Thinking – Additive and Subdivision Systems

The semester is divided into three parts: (1) a dense six-week technique learning phase of Design Exercises, which increase in complexity but repeat common themes of adding parts and dividing wholes with shapes; (2) a 1-2 week midterm curation phase where students analyze and reflect on what they are learning to organize their work into two Design Approaches that include 2D and 3D elements as coherent visual systems; and (3) a six-week final project where they test their understanding of elements and rules as a way of designing a hybrid visual system as a proto-architectural proposal on an abstract site. During this process, students learn to frame and reframe, their design decisions and strategies within the two primary contexts of additive and subdivision systems that work with shapes and rules.


Additive systems work directly with shapes and transformations to build complexity. Students work with many layers of Vellum to design and calculate by seeing and doing. They also develop material translations (models) of their discoveries in drawings focused on the visual systems rather than representation. A shape is any group of points, lines, and or planes and can change and adapt as the layers of the drawing develop. The results produce densely layered fields of visual systems with emergent and embedded forms for further exploration as spatial relationships. This is adapted from Stiny’s schemas of shapes and rules, but the algebra and Boolean math are all handled through the direct interface with the drawing or model rather than at a high degree of symbolic abstraction. The outcomes are abstract, but the process of design is concrete and direct. The pedagogy is also rapidly iterative, and inquiry-based, as students are asked to perform written descriptions and formal analyses of their designs weekly. The transformations that make rules work move shapes around, turn them over, and make them bigger and smaller. They’re operations on shapes that change them into geometrically similar ones. They distribute over the Boolean operations, and may include, for examples: Translation; Rotation; Reflection; Scale; (Stiny 2006, 194)


Subdivision systems operate differently than additive systems with shapes forming from the relationships between closed regions subdivided into recursive parts. Again, layers of vellum are used to allow for rapid iteration and design development while seeing and doing. This is difficult to learn on a computer where the shape elements lose their flexible visual relationships and transformational freedom. Computers turn the shapes into symbols, which impede direct visual manipulations as a way of thinking, but with practice, this can be learned. Shapes offer a visual interface to computing since they can be translated into symbols for a computer. Stiny explores thinking and doing with the hands and eyes to learn creativity and develop a visual interface to the initial abstract schemas that define computational processes (Stiny 2006, 6-8). We remain analog for these exercises since we are not teaching students how to write computer code, but how to think about design computationally. We start to introduce more material tectonics and the boundary between additive and subdivision systems is challenged by the material translation. The artifacts of the process can become quite visually rich and rigorously controlled while still producing a high degree of variability and individual design research. These exercises derive from Stiny’s research into Chinese lattice designs, turning an analytical process into a synthetic process.

Each subdivision is made in the same way: attach an appropriately sized stick between two edges of a previously constructed triangle or quadrilateral or pentagon so that it does not cross previously inserted pieces. Each stage of the construction is stable; each stage follows the same rules. Indeed, the steps in the ice-ray lattice generation given in figure 5 could well comprise the frames in a motion picture of the artisan creating his design! (Stiny 1977, 97)

Design as Visual Thinking – Hybrid Design Approaches

The Design Exercises continue to introduce new fundamental principles of geometry, tectonics, organization, and ways of designing in 2D and 3D based on elements and rules. After the first eight weeks, a student should be able to define two Design Approaches as visual systems that operate via schemas of formal relationships generated by shapes and rules of transformation in 2D and 3D. The remainder of the semester is spent discovering and defining the interface between these two design approaches and testing the results as a proto architecture of forms, space, and material. This pedagogical model further builds on Stiny’s investigation of thinking with shapes as a creative medium based on visual computation.

There’s creativity in combining shapes and in dividing them. But the one without the other is just reciting by rote, merely counting out. It’s all memory when shapes are divided in advance, but otherwise, everything is always new. No one took any notice of this. Maybe the difference between sets and shapes in calculating – between identity and embedding – is too subtle. Or perhaps rigor and formality don’t work. I’m less technical now, and as informal as I can be. The message is the same, and I don’t want it to be missed. It’s all about seeing – there are no units; shapes fuse and divide when I calculate. (Stiny 2006, 53) This hybridization process is open and non-linear. Because a visual system is interactive and defined with shapes and rules the students explore multiple simultaneous methods for interfacing the design approaches in models and drawings. A drawing-based design charrette that rapidly forces the two systems to intersect, swap shapes and rules, and resolve complexity by searching for spatial relationships is an effective system for generating hybrids. This is performed in parallel with the creation of small sketch models that bring a tangible spatial dimension to the 2D drawing systems. Models are simultaneous translations from 2D to 3D with unique formal-material speculations that can inform 2D systems. Neither the drawings nor the models should be representational analogs to each other, but instead, discrete visual artifacts of a system at play. A challenge we have faced when onboarding new faculty is that they tend to treat the hybrid process as linear and continuous, which maintains high visual integrity but loses opportunities for invention. Here we can draw on the conclusions of Stiny as he states, “…shape grammars treat [shapes] as spatial objects; they require no special parsing of [shapes] into fixed [parts]. Spatial ambiguities are thus allowed, as given compositional units in [shapes] can be recombined and decomposed in different ways.” (Stiny 2006, 53)

While the process may be open and full of ambiguity, the interface of elements and rules provides a rigor that allows students and faculty to access the design decisions within the project and incorporate feedback iteratively. Since the medium and material palette is limited, the results can be discussed in an objective framework while still offering a wide range of formal and aesthetic invention. This helps students play an active role in the design feedback process and better interpret the discussion of their work and the work of their peers. The proto architectures remain abstract and malleable, yet highly controlled and specific. The lessons prepare students to integrate more complex architectural considerations within a computationally driven process as inter-related systems of form, space, structure, and site.

[i] The ARCH100 Pedagogy Manual was developed by Robert Lee Brackett III, Duks Koschitz, Tiffany Pun, and Mandy Xe in 2017-2018 as part of Pratt Institutes d.r.a. Lab.


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