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A Beginner’s Guide to Architectural Design

Updated on August 14, 2015
theclevercat profile image

I've always been fascinated by design and architecture, and I go out of my way to feed my need to learn more.

I’m not an architect. But I love architecture in a very big way. And I work with architects. So in order to sound informed in the office and also to satisfy my need for at least basic knowledge on the topic, I took a few courses and did some reading on my own. Hey, even Frank Lloyd Wright had to start somewhere!

So here are some absolute basics you will need to know to wrap your head around architectural designs, even the simplest ones.

Four figures arranged randomly with the result being negative space.
Four figures arranged randomly with the result being negative space. | Source
The same four figures arranged to create positive space (a square).
The same four figures arranged to create positive space (a square). | Source
The same four figures arranged to create positive space (a crown).
The same four figures arranged to create positive space (a crown). | Source

Positive Space vs. Negative Space

Space is called positive space if it is occupied by the main subjects of the work (i.e. the placement of figures: buildings, shapes, sculpture, even pieces of the landscape).

Negative space is what remains after figure placement and is also known as "unshaped."

“We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”

–Matthew Frederick

For example, there is a missing triangle in this picture, but we can still “see” it.
For example, there is a missing triangle in this picture, but we can still “see” it. | Source

Implied Spaces

A space is implied when something is not there, but has been designed to indirectly suggest that something is supposed to be there, or take place there.

Elements are implied when no element exists, but we can still “see” them. They are still clearly apparent.

Figure-Ground Theory vs. Solid Void Theory

Figure-ground theory states that any space resulting from the placement of figures should be considered as carefully as the figures themselves.

Solid-void theory is essentially figure-ground theory, but in three dimensions. The "contents" of spaces shaped or implied by the placement of solid objects are as important as (or more important than) the objects themselves.

Incidentally, if a three-dimensional area has a definite shape or sense of boundary between in and out, it is considered a positive space. Boundaries can be characterized by points, lines, planes, and solids such as a flagpole, the edges of buildings, the line of a roof, trees... pretty much anything you can think of.

Drawing Basics

  • Use light guide lines under your heavier lines.
  • When drawing a line, begin and end it with some kind of mark, like a kickback, a small "x", or a heavy dot. This will anchor the line and keep it from looking wishy-washy and like it will float off the page.
  • Where lines meet, overlap them slightly to avoid looking rounded
  • If you can't use a straight edge, draw one controlled line instead of shorter ones linked together.
  • When drawing, do it hierarchically. Draw from the most general aspects of the design, across the whole sheet. Then add in the details, checking your proportions and alignments the whole time. Drawing is like cooking in this regard... a chef constantly tastes and readjusts their seasoning, as an architect, engineer, or drafter constantly drills down to the tiniest detail.


Elevations vs. Plans

An elevation drawing is a geometrical projection on a vertical plane that shows the external head-on parts of a building. For example, walls are drawn as if you are looking directly at them.

A plan drawing, also known as floor plans, is a horizontal view as if from above. Imagine floating above a building, with the top cut off. That's the view you get with a floor plan.

Design For a Reason (or More Than One, if Possible)

Finally, design for a reason – for example, to provide a certain experience or for a particular program. Examine the programmatic needs, imagine what will actually happen in those spaces, and then design directly around those needs and experiences. Justify your design in at least two ways… and the more, the better.

Suggested Reading (or Watching)

Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott Abbott, one of my favorite books.

This satirical novel is worth reading for fun, but it also helps with understanding dimensions. In short, it tells the story of geometric figures and the adventures of a square finding its way in Flatland, Lineland, Pointland, Spaceland, and beyond.

Flatland: The Movie - Official Trailer

Suggested Playing

Get a set of Tangrams and knock yourself out figuring the many ways they can fit together within a contained space... or the way they don't.

Alternatively, remove them from the contained space and see how you can create positive and negative spaces and implied elements.

Quick Architectural Definitions Table

(click column header to sort results)
The space of the page, poster, board, canvas, or other medium. Also known as space, residual space, white space, or field.
Any shape, element, or frame that is placed on the page (ground). Also referred to as objects, forms, elements, or positive shapes.
A point is a position in space, but has no dimension. It can be marked, but has no length, width, or depth on its own. It is static, centralized, and directionless.
A line is created by extending a point. It is contained by a point on either end.
When a line extends past its natural direction, it becomes a plane.
Space contained or enclosed by planes.
In architecture, this term does not refer to hardness of matter. It refers to a three-dimensional geometric figure.


Frederick, Matthew. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 2007.

Ching, Frank. Architecture: Form, Space, and Order, New York, NY. Litton Educational Publishing, Inc., 1979.


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    • Waffa profile image

      Margus Meigo Waffa 

      3 years ago from Estonia

      Few notes abut movie menitoned,

      Great movie, about flatland 34 minute one.

      No idea why someone in purpose made 1.35 hour version one that is imitation of original and completly terrible in spiritual vibe.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      thank you!!! i want to be an architect when i grow up! i am 13 and i like to design floor plans for fun!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Denise, I hope you are successful! There are so many exciting things to learn out there! Best of luck in your courses. :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I am going to take my entrance exam this week for my college and I'll take architecture but I am so nervous and I think I am not suited for this course but your post helped me.Thanks for the info.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Jason! Yes... manufacturing is something else I'm very interested in, although sadly still fairly ignorant. I'm glad for your hubs, because they have taught me so much. Great to see you. :-)

    • Jason Marovich profile image

      Jason F Marovich 

      8 years ago from Detroit

      Amazing how similar, yet different architecture terminology is from manufacturing design's. Some of the terms are interchangeable while others are unique. Interesting topic - nice job keeping it basic, so the rest of us could understand and learn.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi, Bill! Thanks for the comment. For a long time I was intimidated by architectural language, until I realized it was no biggie and all I had to do was distill it into non-mysterious points of knowledge. These are just the basics, but they have definitely helped me! Thanks again. :^)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was actually informative AND interesting. I enjoy learning about stuff like this so thank you for presenting it in a way even I can understand. Well done!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hey, Grrl! I like to start with the real basics. ;^) It really is interesting stuff... the positive/negative space thing is absolutely thought-provoking.

      Thanks so much for the follow and the kind fan mail!

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 

      8 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      This is a lot more than I expected as an introduction to architecture. I thought you would write about gables and other parts of buildings maybe. But, your post is even more interesting than that. I have more to think about now with positive and negative space and how they apply to more than just architecture but to my own living space and how I create and write the things I work on too.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, poshcoffeeco! A positive space... now I'm blushing. Thanks for the compliment and the follow. :-)

    • poshcoffeeco profile image

      Steve Mitchell 

      8 years ago from Cambridgeshire

      Hey there theclevercat. You have found a 'positive space' right here on Hub Pages. Nice hub about basics in Architectural Design.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hey, tirelesstraveler! Always great to see you. :-) Thank you for commenting, especially about writing for my audience. I truly appreciate it.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      8 years ago from California

      Voted up and interesting. The thought of thinking about the space and its uses intrigued me. Sounds like writing for your audience. Good work! Love the book" Flatland"

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hey, Doc Sonic! Yup, architecture is fascinating and there are so many ways to enjoy it. And when abstract theories are put into plain language, I find it even more pleasurable. Thank you so much for commenting!

    • Doc Sonic profile image

      Glen Nunes 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      This is a very nice introduction to the subject. It's interesting how many of the concepts that are used in 2D graphic design also apply in three dimensions.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thank you, Brainy Bunny! There are lots of examples of figure-ground theory in everyday life, so you should have no trouble finding the theory in practice.

    • Brainy Bunny profile image

      Brainy Bunny 

      8 years ago from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

      This is an interesting take on architectural design. The bit about implied spaces and figure ground theory really gave me something to think about.

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hey, flashmakeit, great to see you! And thanks for the compliments!

      Actually, my grandfather was a drafter and I work closely with CAD users. So I do come by it honestly. :-)

    • flashmakeit profile image


      8 years ago from usa

      That was interesting. I guess you took up drafting and maybe cad. You are gifted and a very creative young lady. Best wishes!!!!

    • theclevercat profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks, Rimzim. Although it's just the basics, it's enough to not sound foolish when the topic appears in conversation. :-)

    • Rimzim profile image


      8 years ago from Earth

      I am also not an architectur but I think your hub is really informative for all people even they not known about architectur.

      Really simple and informative hub thanks for sharing this with us & keep this good work continue.


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