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Skeuomorphs and Architectural Documentation

Architectural Documentation in the 21st Century

There’s a good chance you’re aware of Seth Godin. He writes some pretty amazing stuff. My current favorite is this post: Skeuomorphs = failure. If you’re not familiar with what a skeuomorph is, here’s the first sentence from the wikipedia entry:

“A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique.”

I think this fits perfectly with discussions about output from BIM. Often the discussions and arguments about what we should share from BIM comes down to two opposing views. Either we scrap traditional 2D documentation and just aim to share models or we accept that we need to document like we always did, and the 3D model becomes a supplement to those documents. It’s a little more detailed than that, and I’m open to hearing others opinions, but put simply it is 2D vs 3D.

However, when we start thinking about skeuomorphs, there’s another dimension to this argument. We live in the digital world. There’s no need for our digital products, regardless of their dimensional quantities, to be slavish facsimiles of traditional analog materials. Or is there?

I’d argue no.

Let’s briefly look at both 2D and 3D architectural documentation. I’ll be quick: this is just the beginning.

Architectural Docuemenation - BIM output

2D Documentation

This one is pretty straight forward, and I’m going to be writing about it elsewhere soon. Right now we base on 2D documentation methods on the requirement for it to be printed. That is very limiting because there is a HUGE difference between a 24 x 36 printed set of documents and that same set as a PDF. And that difference equates to so much lost value and potential. Beyond that though even our printed sets are designed to mimic a pile of paper from the 1950s. That’s unfortunate. Static printed documents can maintain connections with the vast web of data on the Internet, both public and private. Clearly we need to discuss further the evolution of 2D documentation and the advancements possible with PDF sets. Here’s something to ponder until next time: if you’re creating a PDF set, there’s no reason that every sheet needs to be the same size. If you’re using the Publisher (or Layout Book) in ArchiCAD it’s amazingly easy to create a multi-page PDF set with as many different page sizes as you’d like. Want some more thoughts on why PDFs are superior to printed sets? Read this post.

3D Documentation

I saw a comment on twitter a few weeks ago that went like this:

“Layers” were an invented abstraction – an antiquated relic when compared with real BIM.

The argument here is that abstractions don’t belong in BIM, just real elements. Without going into the value of abstractions and placeholders in BIM, let’s look at that statement as our example of a skeuomorph. Basically, condemning unbuildable data (ei, layers) is to declare that BIM = physical reality. But why can’t BIM > physical reality? Why can’t BIM = augmented reality. Maybe in an augmented reality layers have real world application. This concept is so much bigger than a single post. So I’ll wrap up this thought with one more concept: Hyperreality. Instead of viewing BIM as a digital approximation of reality, imagine it as a window into Hyperreality. That’s when things really start getting awesome. This all comes back to the idea that true BIM isn’t 3D, it’s 3D+ (4D, 5D, 6D, 7D, etc.). It’s a 3D model with added data. But what is that data? To say it’s schedule, cost, FM, sustainability, in that order is so limiting. There are so many other possible layers of data. Once we accept that additional ‘dimensions’ are not necessarily physical dimensions, but tiny wrapped up dimensions like in string theory, or perhaps other senses—a 3D digital model and a 3D digital model with tactile feedback are two VERY different things—then the relationship all the team members have with the design (via the model) expands exponentially.

update 12/24/13: I expand on this concept of BIM being more than just a digital approximation in a post over on BIM Engine. The article is ArchiCAD-centric, but even if you’re not an ArchiCAD user you should be able to apply the concepts to your tool of choice. And if you can’t…well that sounds like trouble.

If you shared your instruments of service with a time traveler from 1950, would he recognize everything you produce, whether printed or digital, as something architects of his time were doing? If you think so, get busy because that noise you hear is the sound of doom. Follow Shoegnome on Facebook and Twitter to be prepared to bewilder the next Cold War Time Traveler you meet.


  • April 22, 2013

    Brian Lighthart

    You almost blew my mind, Jared. So, I’m going to get you back: Think of every way that every element and combination of elements in a model can vary as a dimension along which the entire model can vary. N-Diminsional BIM … where N is a real big number.

  • April 23, 2013

    I recently talked about this at the University of Coruna. The transition from pencil to CAD systems and from them to BIM is plenty of skeuomorphs. One obvious are layers as those transparent papers we used pencils, but I must recognize that your article hit my mind when you talked about PDF formats, because until that moment I’d always had thought about PDF as printable documents (because most of the times they need to be applied to clients, councils, etc.). and thus I’ve always tried to give them usual formats.
    This new (for me) point of view, considering that they don’t have to be necessarily printed opens new ways to mix different formats and information from BIM systems on them.

  • April 23, 2013

    IMO, the layer system evolved to speed up hand drafting and was the concept in the PEN-BAR system. The clear mylar had for or five holes across the top to align with the vertical 1/4″ diameter +- posts on the pen-bar. First layer was the floor plan, then a sheet ‘layer’ was added with notes and dimensions, another sheet ‘layer’ for structure, another sheet ‘layer’ for reflected ceilings, another for MEP&FP, etc. That was the first floor and was done for each level.

    This was the first I ever heard of a ‘layer’ system. It was the new rage! Then depending on what was needed for printing, the pen-bar would hold the appropriate combination of mylar ‘layers’… Phew!

    Prior to that, base plans were traced up-side-down on vellum or mylar, so the structural, MEP&FP could be drawn on the front without damage to the back-side drawings. Reproduction service eliminated the laborious work printing paper or mylar sepias, on the back-side, for new drawings on the front.

    Guess that shows my age… or my ability for historic research.

    Layer on, layer off…

  • April 23, 2013

    Geoff Briggs

    I will add my dislike for many skeuomorphs, like torn paper, leather, etc., but not all. Many, especially icons, are very useful to quickly pilot software, both new and familiar. For example, how would you replace the ubiquitous stamped envelope icon found in so many applications that everyone recognizes as email? The truth is that email evolved from snail mail and even if/when it has been superseded that icon may endure as its symbol. I may never have used a quill pen but it’s still a more demonstrative image for “pen” than a ballpoint. My point is don’t trash the old because it’s old, or skeuomorphs because they are skeuomorphs. If they represent needless ornamentation then cast them off, if they help us do our work faster and better then keep ’em until something truly better comes along.

  • April 24, 2013

    Awesome as always.

    Here’s a skeuomorphs for you. I was working with a bunch of 1st and 2nd graders about 15yrs ago. I held up a picture of a women wearing a Lab-coat. When asked what she was, they all said a Dr. When asked why they didn’t think she was a nurse they answered “Because she doesn’t have a nurse’s hat.” Now, even 15 yrs ago, traditional White folded nurse’s hats hadn’t been used in the US in years. Weird how that entered their visual lexicon.

  • April 24, 2013


    Interesting point about pdf’s not needing to all be the same page size. I quite like that idea as a way to pressure people to not print the document. It would be such a hassle. But I think I’ll still format for A3. I think even scrolling down the ‘pages’ would be distracting jumping from one format to the next. Some order helps to focus on the information.

    Secondly I work as a designer and don’t own a printer. All work is emailed as pdf. If they want to print it they can suffer the cost and hassle. I decided to buy a projector instead. So for meetings now I quickly set up and orbit the model. I’ve experimented with screen recordings and talking as I orbit the model and then email that.

    I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to just share a model, a detail drawing with notes is still very effective. But BIMx is a step in the right direction.

    Or maybe they need to enhance pdf’s so that when you zoom in more information is uncovered. As you zoom out it disappears. Kind of like how ArchiCAD treats doors at different scales.Then we can worry less about layers and let the computer decide what information is shown at a certain zoom level. Exactly how maps work on iOS.

  • August 30, 2013

    It could be that the wrong question is being asked: What is the most important product of Architects, 2D CAD/PDFs, or 3D BIM? Neither. The final result of our labor is the physical Building. But we don’t create that (unless you’re some type of Master Carpenter/Architect/Developer/Contractor/Genius, or if your BIM software comes with an army of construction robots). Our product is the INSTRUCTIONS that convey a DESIGN for a physical construct. By nature, these instructions must be abstractions, because Buildings are too complex for humans to understand without distilling information into organized, categorized, diagrammatic pieces. If we are simply cutting away at a realistic model, then we have failed to do our job: to provide a useful manual that can be followed by different trades in a coordinated way. In my opinion, our most important products, regardless of the media on which they are created, are exaggerated cartoons that illustrate a story of construction. Our words, arrows, symbols, diagrams, and yes, even layers, I argue, are often MORE important than the model representation of building components found in BIM. The Model only provides context to our story, and the Information requires thoughtful communication.

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