In a quest to make iconic modern buildings more accessible (and portable) to those who do not benefit from a history of architecture survey course or seeing them in real life, Michie Cao took it upon herself to illustrate and explain the importance of some of the most well-known modern architectural buildings and their architects. She calls the project: Archigrams. The idea came to her during her time as an architecture student at University of California, Los Angeles while studying for her architecture history exams. We got to chat with Michie recently about her design process, from inspiration to prototyping and, finally, to her highly successful Kickstarter campaign. (Psst, she’s also the designer behind our IMadeThat logotype.)
What is an Archigram?
Archigrams is a print series of famous modern architectural buildings, available in the form of posters and a print card pack. It started out as a school project that I launched on Kickstarter and is now an online shop that I manage on the side.
Who did you create this product for?
I made Archigrams for anyone who is interested in architecture. This is not just for architects or architecture nerds. That was really important to me. I feel that architecture—as it is typically represented in the media—isn’t portrayed in a very inviting or accessible way. And the content usually involves a lot of archi-speak jargon and that tends to alienate people.
Tell us about your design process.
Before arriving at my final concept, I went in a lot of different directions and tested out many prototypes. I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to make when I started – I had a basic idea that I wanted to make something related to architecture, something educational, but fun, and something that would eventually be launched as a product. My first idea was to make architecture flashcards for students. That prototype was simply a set of cards cut out of stock paper that I then printed my illustrations on. (Interestingly, it’s quite close to the end result.) Because my initial choice of audience was for kids, these cards were really colorful. To get some feedback and gauge market interest, I showed this to my friends and family in teaching and architecture, and I also shared this more publicly to related forums on Reddit. Almost everyone loved the designs, but architecture fans hated the idea of flashcards, expressing interest in a more tactile way of learning, and teachers questioned whether it would really be applicable to their teaching curriculum.
What I took from that was that people loved architecture for its physicality, so I looked into the idea of pairing the cards with tangram-like building blocks. I prototyped this using foam core and gave it to my classmates to play around with.
Verdict: they definitely liked the playfulness of it. This direction started to look interesting, so I made two more prototypes, the first of which was made out of acrylic. People said they liked the weight of the pieces, but they didn’t get satisfaction from putting the slippery pieces together as they would from, say, putting a puzzle together. So, I made a second one, made out of wood and magnets this time, so that there would be a more satisfying experience when putting the pieces together. This time, people really liked it.
Then came the hard question: how will I actually produce these and sell them on Kickstarter? I eventually realized that doing so at a large scale and a reasonable quality would require a level of resources and time that I didn’t have as a student. This led me to further explore my first direction, the printed cards. As it turned out, the idea of presenting architectural buildings on cards with bite-sized information is appealing, so long as they’re not labeled as “flashcards” but rather marketed as collectibles or display pieces. Hence, my next iteration had a more subtle and cohesive color palette.
Not long after that, I committed to this direction and continuously refined and tested the designs. A few weeks before my Kickstarter campaign, I went back to the Internet for feedback and posted the entire illustration series on Tumblr to see how people would respond to it. To my great delight, and relief, the response was incredibly positive. I also reached out to all my friends and family to gauge their expected price point and quality for the prints. Then, I launched! I wish I could say there was more intention or direction in how I got to the final piece, but there aren’t a lot of hard rules in the creative process. Ultimately, it was just me making something, putting it out for people to see, and learning from that experience. This whole thing was as stressful and unpredictable as it was thrilling and rewarding.
Share a resource that helped you in this project.
My network of peers, mentors, friends, and family. It was crucial for me to put my work in front of people with different perspectives and to get their feedback. They were who I went back to over and over. And perhaps, more importantly, they were also the people who pushed me to launch my project publicly, despite my crippling fears that it would not be perfect, ready, or well-received.
Tell us about your school’s architecture program.
My program at UCLA is an undergraduate two-year B.A. degree program that starts in the junior year. The goal is to give students a good understanding of the architecture discipline, architectural history, and to prepare them for architecture graduate school. The curriculum includes studio courses and covers topics ranging from architecture history to digital technology to urban design.
What advice do you have for students interested in studying architecture?
It’s important to study something you’re truly excited about and that complements your skills and personality. So if you think that architecture is that something, go for it! Embrace the culture, the space, and the cool maker tools you’ll get access to. At the same time, be proactive in thinking about what you’ll want to be doing once you graduate. Take on internships so you know what the actual practice of architecture is like; stay looped in to the broader architecture and design community so that you have peers to depend on and learn from; and, above all, stay open minded to all the opportunities that will present themselves to you. Architecture, and the greater design discipline in general, doesn’t come with a predefined career path, so there are many things one can do and be with that quality of education. As it turned out for me, architecture was not my final career destination, rather a stepping stone to one in tech and product design.
How does your architecture background differentiate you from others in your field?
My undergraduate architecture education was where I first learned much of the design practices that I still use today. This includes: prototyping and iterating, using different visual techniques and elements to communicate specific things, giving and taking (sometimes harsh) feedback, presenting the story of my work, and defending my design decisions. On the whole, it’s given me yet another way of thinking and approaching problems that I might not otherwise have had as a product designer.
What do you do now that you’ve graduated?
I now work at Twitter as a product designer for the home timeline.