Monday, May 26, 2014

Vitruvius was right about design knowledge (2000 years ago)

Many who have studied design theory know that Vitruvius was one of the first practicing designers (architect) and design thinkers who formulated thoughts and theory about design. At the same time I believe that there are not as many today who actually have read Vitruvius' writings. He is most famous for his "Ten Books on Architecture" written sometime in the first century B.C. Most of this book consists of specific directions and guidelines for detailed architectural work.

[The whole book is available online at]

I will here only focus on the first chapter of the first book "The Education of the Architect". It is a fascinating text that I find extraordinary full of wisdom in a straightforward and simple way.

I would like to copy the whole chapter, but I have instead chosen to copy a few excerpts from the chapter, just to give a sense of what it contains, and maybe it will lead you to read more. The whole chapter is only a few pages long.

Vitruvius has a clear idea of what knowledge an architect should be equipped with. In Vitruvius text it  is possible to exchange "architect" with "designer".

The first paragraph in the chapter is this wonderful statement:

"1. The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test. This knowledge is the child of practice and theory. Practice is the continuous and regular exercise of employment where manual work is done with any necessary material according to the design of a drawing. Theory, on the other hand, is the ability to demonstrate and explain the productions of dexterity on the principles of proportion."

It is clear that to Vitruvius the notion of "judgment" takes the position as the most important form of knowledge. It is through a designer's judgment that "all work done by the other arts is put to test". Judgment brings everything together. Judgment is the "child" of both practice and theory, both which Vitruvius eloquently explains. He presents the role of both practice and theory even more clear in the second paragraph where he states:

"2. It follows, therefore, that architects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow, not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both, like men armed at all points, have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them."

Vitruvius also mentioned more detailed knowledge needed but he returns to the larger areas, such as history, philosophy and medicine:

"5. A wide knowledge of history is requisite because, among the ornamental parts of an architect's design for a work, there are many the underlying idea of whose employment he should be able to explain to inquirers."

"7. As for philosophy, it makes an architect high-minded and not self-assuming, but rather renders him courteous, just, and honest without avariciousness. This is very important, for no work can be rightly done without honesty and incorruptibility. Let him not be grasping nor have his mind preoccupied with the idea of receiving perquisites, but let him with dignity keep up his position by cherishing a good reputation. These are among the precepts of philosophy."

"10. The architect should also have a knowledge of the study of medicine on account of the questions of climates (in Greek κλἱματα), air, the healthiness and unhealthiness of sites, and the use of different waters. For without these considerations, the healthiness of a dwelling cannot be assured."

Vitruvius is aware that his list of needed knowledge is long and ambitious, so he adds:

"11. Consequently, since this study is so vast in extent, embellished and enriched as it is with many different kinds of learning, I think that men have no right to profess themselves architects hastily, without having climbed from boyhood the steps of these studies and thus, nursed by the knowledge of many arts and sciences, having reached the heights of the holy ground of architecture."

and he adds later:

"For, in the midst of all this great variety of subjects, an individual cannot attain to perfection in each, because it is scarcely in his power to take in and comprehend the general theories of them."

Of course, for Vitruvius, this type of knowledge is only for men and only for a certain class of men. This is a consequence of his place in history and place. However, this chapter touches on so many issues that today are discussed when it comes to the education of designers, such as, breadth versus depth and practice versus theory. I find this text exciting and a good read for anyone who wants to engage in the question of what a designer should know!


Irith Williams said...

Thank you for introducing this book. I agree it is fascinating and as a local UX Book Club facilitator I hope we can make it one of our texts.

Vintage Leather Bags said...

Lovely book

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