Using A Message Box to Clarify Your Designs

Another tool architects can steal from science communicators is the message box.  The message box helps sift through the mountains of information in your mind and distill the main points that will really interest your audience.  This planning tool is particularly helpful when preparing for meetings, interviews, or Q&As because it uses a non-linear organization so you can answer questions in whichever order they come at you.

The message box consists of four quadrants surrounding a central issue.

MessageBox-01Issue:  Generally speaking, what is the topic?

Problem: What is the specific problem of the issue?

So What?: Why does this matter to my audience? What will happen if the problem isn’t solved?

Solutions: What are the potential solutions to this problem?

Benefits: What are the potential benefits of solving this problem?

The message box helped me present an incredibly complex studio project from last year. I designed a very large building, on a very hilly site, very far to the North (near the arctic circle), and with very little sunlight, all with the goal of consuming as little energy as possible.  I found my massing strategy using a parametric, evolutionary problem-solver (Grasshopper + Galapagos). When I began to describe the design process in my portfolio, I was dumbstruck.  How could I possibly fit this project into just a few pages?  I was overwhelmed by the tricky equations I had solved, the unique behavior of an arctic sun, the clever programming, and the concept of parametric form finding itself.  Filling out the message box helped me find the following main points:

Issue: How can we build sustainably on hilly, arctic sites?

Problem: Hills are difficult to build on, especially when they are remote.  There is not much opportunity for solar gain this far north.

So What?: If we can’t build in northern, mountainous areas, we limit the number of people who can study and experience them.  If we can’t do it sustainably, we contribute to the degradation of the environment we long to experience.

Solutions: We can use computers to test thousands of possible massing strategies, and determine which ones provide the most solar gain, lose the least amount of heat, and avoid the most unbuildable portions of a given site.

Benefits: Using this method, we can model and test thousands of massing strategies in a matter of minutes as compared to examining just a handful without parametric modeling.  This helps us build more sustainably in near-Arctic, mountainous regions.

After struggling for months to describe my process in 2 or 3 pages, I managed to find the main points of my project in just a few sentences.

If you’ve ever ever struggled to simplify the narrative describing your design process, consider using the message box to help you focus on just the parts that really matter most.

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