verbal prototyping — The act of discussing your projects and products online, seeking feedback, sharing details, and asking questions of potential customers, in an effort to refine your ideas before you render them. Coined by Dale Dougherty in discussing today’s makers and their ability to communicate and connect online, and the tremendous advantage of that. — Make: Newsletter, March 2010

The concept of verbal prototyping comes from Make magazine. For me, there’s a lot to like in the whole Maker movement. The idea of knowing how something goes together has been important for me throughout my career, and even in school. I’ve always felt a need to understand the how of putting a building together, at a nuts and bolts level. And I am a strong believer in the Makers’ idea of Freedom to Tinker, the idea that you ought to be able to mess about and modify things you work with.

Verbal prototyping is an interesting idea; engage with the potential customer in advance of project development. For something where there’s a lot of preliminary development at the early stages, and a lot of lock-in once things are underway, it makes a great deal of sense. If you’re building a new product, make sure it’s what people want by talking about it early on, rather than building something (locking in with manufacturing and production, at that point) and then finding out whether or not they like it.

But that same arc of project flexibility sounds familiar to an architect, too. Changes, we tell clients, are much easier to incorporate early in a project. Going back and revising things with something different later in the project is much more expensive.

Can an architectural practice engage in something akin to the Makers’ verbal prototyping? To some extent, I think that architectural practice is, more or less, already incorporating verbal prototyping, along with a host of other tools. Architecture, typically, is something carried out as a process already. Information gathering, programming, sketches, iterations of design, phases of work, with more and more refinement as the process moves along, all of this is part of the usual arc of an architectural project. Where, then, does this more social, networked method fit in with architectural practice?

The difference is that, when applied to a product or an object, verbal prototyping is useful as an early stage, before anything is committed to materiality. But the end product is going to be produced in multiple copies. Manufactured by the thousands or millions. Even for online services and websites, while there may be one manifestation, it is used by great numbers of users, each of whom is an individual customer. But, architecture applies to a single building. (Yes, there are production houses in their multiples, but even a wildly successful one is only going to be built a few hundred times, and the builders of those rubber stamp houses aren’t all that concerned about how well liked and useful their product is.) There may be thousands of users for any sort of public building, but only a handful of them are the ‘client.’

I think that verbal prototyping may be something an architect can engage with a client, before getting into the ‘architecture.’ For the present project I have been working on, I was trying to keep things at this level, without getting locked into particulars. But, in order to prepare even a schematic budget, it was necessary to do some sketches and drawings. And, unfortunately, it will be that much harder to draw back from any part of that, or to take a fresh approach later on. I hadn’t been explicitly thinking about verbal prototyping when I was doing this; it just felt like the right approach for me to take with this project.

I’d like to think that my approach to practicing architecture is going to be innovative and progressive. Maybe some of it is even intuitively so, at least right now. This is something that bears further thought. Ideally, it should be incorporated as a deliberate part of the practice. I’m interested to find out more about how others, especially other young firms that may also be paying attention to models outside other architectural practices, are addressing this idea, and if anyone else has developed similar approaches in their firms.