Imagine a design process where idea generation, design value and criticality are privileged above all else. A practice that fosters an environment of creativity, and where the best idea ultimately wins. With a commitment to good process, this environment is possible. But what does a design process look like and how does it apply to architecture and design? And perhaps most importantly, why does it matter? These questions and the conversations surrounding them became the genesis for an internal exploration of the design process at Gresham Smith. The purpose of this study was to rigorously think through, and then clearly articulate, ways in which we could be thinking about our projects.

Gresham Smith designers developed a process that provides the framework for design decisions to be holistically viewed and systematically explained, with the goal of enhancing design conversations both internally and with our clients. The four components of the process: Ideate, Iterate, Align, and Document involve rapidly expanding the realm of possible solutions, weighing them against the criteria for design success, iterating on those ideas, and then validating the direction with the client. This system promotes the generation of ideas and provides a clear line of thinking that allows architects to effectively maintain design intent, manage project issues, and leverage the process to elevate the overall design outcome.

The benefits of the process have been evidenced in a number of Gresham Smith projects, including the award-winning High Street mixed-used development in Columbus, Ohio, where iteration allowed the City Review Board to understand how a design idea could be scaled to fit the size and spatial context of an urban neighborhood.  This concept of exposing all ideas—the good, the bad and the ugly—not only generates a level of trust but also reveals expertise. Including the client at each stage of this process means that extraordinary design solutions are not surprising or intimidating. It also reveals that ego has played no part in decision-making, and in the case of the High Street mixed-use development project, that the building was uniquely formed to meet the needs of both the client and the community.

Creating improved architectural quality, better internal communication among designers and more enthusiastic client buy-in, Gresham Smith’s design process methodology has already begun influencing the work being performed at the firm in a positive way. Based on the belief that you can only improve your outcome by paying attention to how you got there, this commitment to process for the sake of better architecture is helping us unearth more innovative and elegant design solutions by formalizing the typically informal exercise of decision-making.


Internal Research / Study


Nashville, Tennessee