architecture as space: boundaries, connections and the poetry of movement in digital experience

With a background and training in bricks and mortar architecture, I can’t help but be a bit obsessed with the striking similarities between physical and digital architecture. Some of these similarities include working closely with clients in order to modelling a clear vision for execution, defining the boundaries and connections between functional spaces and how people navigate these spaces, embodying the values and hopes of clients and the eventual users of the space in the fabric of its very making… All these things and many more are shared concerns for the physical and digital architects.


It’s one of the first things they teach you in architecture school. It’s a lessons that tells you it’s tempting to focus on what you build (walls, floors, windows, doors) but really counts, what really drives the experience of architecture… is space.

It’s a lesson taught simply by graphic abstraction – in the form of the figure ground diagram. One plan shows what is built, and by simply reversing the image and only showing the internal (or external) spaces the others focus attention on what’s not built… the spatial boundaries and connections that the built fabric defines. (show examples)

Spatial experience is dynamic, and relies not on what’s constructed (bricks and mortar) but on what is not constructed…

Architecture as space is about ensuring you focus on the right medium. As an architect you’re not sculpting building materials, you primary medium is space itself.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, particularly when its seems that 99% of your job is designing, documenting and managing the orchestration of building materials… space seems to come free and arrives whether you like it or not.

Viewing architecture as space reminds us that the Experience of the built environment is primarily the experience of spatial boundaries and connections.

Space Flows, and is primarily experienced “in time”, and this narrative and sequencing of connections and boundaries has been described as the poetry of movement. Rhythm, focus, contraction & expansion, darkness, light, scale, material and colour. The raw building blocks in the orchestration of spatial boundaries and connections.


The first lesson would have to be that we should not be distracted by “what we build”

That while it’s tempting to focus on what you build (templates, modules, menus, calls to action) what drives the experience of digital architecture is also “space”

It’s a lesson I wish I could teach you simply via graphic abstraction – but alas, our field is too immature to have developed a clear and commonly understood language for expressing this notion. I have never had the time or focus to develop this abstracted language… I have been to busy focusing on “building stuff”

But I think we would all agree that digital experience is dynamic, and relies not on what we have constructed (the individual display elements that drive the delivery of content onto a page) but on something else…The multiple paths and journeys that direct digital users on towards achieving their intended, or discovered goals.  We as digital architects need to carve out the space within which users can achieve their goals, pushing aside the debris of interface clutter, pointless navigation and dead end processes.

We should all be reminded that viewing Architecture as space is about ensuring you focus on the right medium. As an IA/UX  you’re not sculpting building interfaces, pages, modules, elements, graphics…. you primary medium is space.

We usually don’t call it space, we call it experience and one thing is for certain, that like space – digital experience comes for free and arrives whether you like it or not.

You can build without an architect, and you can develop without UX… but it’s the quality of experience that you will be giving up on, at it’s the quality of experience that drives peoples real world decisions about where they want to inhabit, live, love and grow.

Like real architects this is a hard lesson, particularly when it seems that 99% of your job is designing, documenting and managing the orchestration of application GUI’s.

I think we would all agree that Experience Flows, and is primarily experienced “in time”, and this narrative and sequencing of connections and boundaries is in fact our primary role and goal… UX is about designing the poetry of digital experience.


How can ensure we stop crafting code, and start crafting experience. Well…I can’t say I have all the answers, but here are a few ways I try have tried to approach it over the last 15 years.

> Rapidly Model Functional Fidelity
The Simplest method is by focusing on functional fidelity via prototyping – It’s the space that your design affords, and the feel of moving thru this space that you need to get a grip on early. Prototyping experience is about understanding, and getting intimate with this space. See

> Accept that it’s the build that’s the design, not your design specification.
I finally think I am starting to mature as a UX practitioner, and one of the defining moments in my career was accepting Agile as my religion… A brief introduction to agile beliefs, rituals, the value of working software, about what team really means, and the transition from design dictator to design facilitator. About AgileUX

> Make your site work without navigation.
Let me show you two photos of building. One photo of a hallway with many doors… a corridor and another photo within a navigation zone of a dynamic, connected and multifunctional space.
Digital Navigation is a chore, and is almost void of experience. It’s time wasted and I know this is harsh but I think once a user scrolls back up to the top of the page and starts using navigation you know you’ve probably done something wrong, and no doubt they are frustrated, lost and probably about to leave and try and find a space that’s more useful.

Your focus should always be “in page”, on driving action through content, or clearly articulated calls to action that offer a clear “view” towards a rewarding journey of exploration. Don’t ask “where would they go now” – trust me they don’t want to “go” anywhere. Ask “what can they do here”.

> Focus on crafting experience spaces where you and your customer can have conversations
This is bold… but I think all consumer sites are the same…. There are often only four real spaces you need to guide them through.

  • :: The foyer… a reassuring and welcoming space, focused on immediately reflecting the values and qualities of the place. Foyers have one simple function… that is to reassure you you’re in the right place and then simply and courteously ask “how may we help you today”. It’s often called the home page. (show examples)
  • :: The grand reception… a magical space of opportunity (if you do it right) where we present the answers we have to your request in a grand boulevard of adventure….where the primary concern of the user is to be able to compare and contrast their various options for investigation… should I go here, or should I go there…. It’s a massive space, perhaps the most important space, your chance to build confidence and encourage them to invest more time and effort sorting and filtering, viewing details, and acquiring items from your service. A turning point… will they enter or just turn around and walk back out the door….Its often called the list, or search results page. (show examples)
  • :: the honeymoon suite… a fairly confined and enclosed space, away from the distractions of the street where multiple voices scream for attention. Where you can guide the focus of your customer towards closing the deal. A private space where you need to convince your customer they have made the right decision, that you can be trusted, that hay… everyone’s doing it!…. Where you can give them the opportunity to say “this doesn’t feel quite right” and clearly respond with “we have other rooms that may also be to your liking, would you like to take a look”. Where, once comfortable, you invite them to take action and get them ready to lay their money down on the table. It’s often called the product details page. (show examples)
  • :: the checkout desk… a utilitarian space, where customers expect their decision to invest time or money be respected with the level of politeness, care and service that it deserves. Often called the check out or purchase flow. The sequence of experiences and actions that facilitates acquiring a service (book, buy, hire, save to “my list”, download, etc) and then the flow for returning to referring list to select another item, or presenting alternative calls to action for triggering the display and acquisition of related items. (show examples)

> We really are in the service industry, and we should be aiming at every moment to be giving our customers a full 5 star experience.

> Focus on your experience of experience design…
Think global, act local…. It may be your experience that you need to focus on, and the best way to start delivering real digital experience may be to take a hard look at the way you, and your colleagues are working together. If you were asked to redesign the experience of creating websites, so that those creating them were more motivated to take action, engaged and ultimately satisfied what would you do… Design this, then implement it, and reap the benefits of being the customer of your own genius… sounds easy – it’s hard to do, but i am convinced it’s the first step towards team leadership and applying design thinking in the broadest sense.

> About Subscribing to an aesthetic…

About how architects quite early on try to move away from aesthetic decisions around small details (how to finish the connection between floors and walls, what type of doors & windows, etc) by subscribing to an aesthetic. An easy way to select a consistent and coherent set of “finishes” that allows them to focus the more important concerns of function and space… and how we could benefit more from this approach. (show examples of aesthetics in physical architecture – classical, modern, post modern and then some examples in digital architecture including my favourite – the default WordPress administration tools design)

> About the personal qualities that can help gaining and maintaining trust…
Taking and holding ground in the decision making space within your organization is vital if you really want to make a difference to users, and the greatest weapon you have in this war is trust. Gaining the trust of your colleagues is the first step to delivering better experiences and here are a few of the qualities I think you need in order to be effective when working with your business and technology partners … see


About Jason Furnell

design thinker . experience designer . lo-fi sketcher . workshop facilitator . visual thinker . diagrammer . agile believer . multidisciplinary collaborator . build sequencer . incrementing and iterating . architecting information . presenting and pitching . master of design (its a degree, not a self assigned title) . dyslexic . misspell-er of many many many things....
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4 Responses to architecture as space: boundaries, connections and the poetry of movement in digital experience

  1. Yosef says:

    The r/n between architecture and space is miracle.

  2. reza says:

    i totally agree with you, in the fact that as an architect we should realize the relation with the space and the actual design, very informative.

  3. lintu says:

    thanks, i’m agree that space is the important thing in architecture

  4. grace says:

    Beautiful analogy of architectural space to describe crafting meaningful digital experiences.. I had to keep taking down quotable quotes while reading 🙂

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