What is the value of critique in structural design?

Practicing chefs in the kitchen can revise and refine a recipe to their own satisfaction, yet their progress need not be limited by their own opinion. What might result from allowing a fellow chef or a mentor to taste their recipe? Each taster might give his/her own personal feedback – too salty, not crisp enough – and the aspiring chef, filtering through the responses, may modify and further improve the recipe to a level otherwise unattainable without outside feedback. We find this occurrence in countless other fields; why else might athletes have coaches, and musicians have private instructors? One may be able to accomplish much through individual work, but a trained eye (or ear) observing from the outside can potentially coax an even better performance out of an individual.

critique
Image credit: arch20

It is no different in design. Some design principles that we espouse to our students (such as constraints as drivers of design, drawing as a means of clarifying thoughts, the usefulness of studying precedents, and the iterative nature of the design process) primarily concern the designer as an individual. However, like the chef or the athlete or the musician, designers can only improve on their own to a certain degree. No matter how experienced the designer, outside feedback can add another dimension of considerations that enhance the design.

In structural design, the feedback of a more experienced engineer can be especially important in verifying the suitability and feasibility of the structure. However, that’s not to say that critique from a less experienced engineer is not useful; anyone who has not labored over the design process already has the advantage of seeing the design with fresh eyes and may perceive problems or solutions with greater ease. The act of critiquing is also a valuable exercise for the aspiring engineer, revealing the opportunity to jump into another’s design process and explore the different design decisions that were or were not made.

We emphasize that critique is an opportunity to improve a design; rather than shy away from a critique that may bash on the flaws in a design, designers would benefit from embracing the critique as a way of learning and improving from both peers and mentors.

The Happy Pontist blog discusses in detail the challenges of critiquing works of structural engineering and how to circumvent them. Read more about them here.

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