Teachers' resource: Explore design processes through the V&A and RIBA Architecture collections

Student designs inspired by natural and architectural forms. Design Processes workshop, V&A, 2009

Student designs inspired by natural and architectural forms. Design Processes workshop, V&A, 2009

This resource explains the design processes used in architecture and shows how they can inspire and facilitate other design projects. It draws on the V&A collections and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) archive of architectural drawings, manuscripts and models. These collections provide an exceptional resource for learning and inspiration, both at the Museum and in the classroom.

Suggested activities in this resource will develop students' design knowledge and skills. With reference to major building projects including Stansted Airport, Sydney Opera House, the Eden Project and 30, St Mary's Axe (The Gherkin), students will learn how to translate ideas and inspiration into practical designs and how to present their designs in sketches, scale drawings and models.They will also:

  • Assess the visual impact and cultural importance of iconic buildings
  • Discover that everyday materials and experiences can inspire award-winning design ideas
  • Try out simple architectural drawing and modelling techniques and learn how to use them in other design projects
  • Develop product designs inspired by the shape, form and structure of buildings.

This resource was created as part of the V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership education programme.

'The trip to the V&A was insightful, interesting and inspiring. Seeing many works of architecture in model form, and seeing the processes by which architects find their inspiration and begin designing was like nothing I had ever seen.' (Student)

Learning objectives

This resource enables students to:

  • Develop thinking and critical evaluation skills that can be applied to any design project
  • Identify the purpose of different types of drawings and models created by professional designers.
  • Improve and gain practical 2-D and 3-D drawing, modelling and manufacturing skills
  • Use research and recording frameworks to evaluate design proposals

Curriculum areas covered

Key Stage 3 Design & technology programmes of study

Key concepts:

  • 1.4 Critical evaluation, analysing existing products and solutions to inform designing and making

Key processes:

  • 2a Generate, develop, model and communicate ideas in a range of ways using appropriate strategies
  • 2d Use their understanding of others' designing to inform their own

Key Stage 3 Art & Design Programmes of Study

Key concepts:

  • 1.1 Exploring and experimenting with ideas, materials, tools and techniques
  • Investigating, analysing, designing, making, reflecting and evaluating effectively
  • 1.3 Understanding the role of the artist, craftsperson and designer in a range of cultures, times and contexts
  • 1.4 Developing individual views and expressing reasoned judgements

Key processes:

  • 2.1a Develop ideas and intentions by working from first-hand observation, experience, inspiration, imagination and other sources
  • 2.1e Explore and develop ideas using sketchbooks, journals and other appropriate strategies
  • 2.2a Use research and investigative skills appropriate to art, craft and design

Range and content:

  • 3 Study a range of artefacts from contemporary, historical, personal and cultural contexts

Curriculum opportunities:

  • 4b Explore new areas, including ideas, techniques and processes

Key Stage 4 Art & Design GCSE coursework assessment objectives

  • Engage with art forms from different times and cultures
  • Develop artistic skills, knowledge and understanding
  • Understand the arts in context.

Key Stage 4 Design & Technology GCSE coursework assessment objectives

  • Develop thinking and critical evaluation skills to determine appropriate methods and approaches
  • Be able to demonstrate these skills in a design and technology project
'Beetle's House' by Terunobu Fujimori, V

'Beetle's House' by Terunobu Fujimori, '1:1 Architects Building Small Spaces' exhibition, V&A, 2010

About exploring the design process

Designing buildings

Architects design buildings and structures, from the Sydney Opera House to shop fronts and conceptual installations.

They make drawings and 3-D models to represent their ideas at each stage in the design process. An architectural design is developed through a series of gradual modifications, explorations, investigations and experiments.

New digital technologies have helped to speed up this process, but buildings and structures still take a long time to plan and design. They must be practical and efficient as well as visually interesting. Most importantly, they must meet the needs of the people who will use or live in them.

Each design project involves fresh problems and new opportunities.

Where do architects get their ideas from?

Architects need to have good imaginations as well as specialist practical knowledge.

The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was one of the most famous and influential pioneers of modern architecture and furniture design. He was also a painter, sculptor, and a writer. He described the architectural design process as 'looking, observing, seeing, imagining, inventing, creating.' (Le Corbusier,1965)

Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Sven Markelius, Paris, 1952

Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Sven Markelius discussing UNESCO building, Paris, 1952 (RIBA Library Photographs Collection, Ref: RIBA3389-55)

Who do architects work with?

Designing and creating a building is a team effort. Architects work closely with clients, builders, engineers and other specialists.

First, the client will put forward a design brief outlining their requirements. The architect will analyse the brief and identify how the building must function to meet its users' needs.

They will develop their design ideas and present them to the client for approval in the form of drawings, models or computer visualisations. This process may be repeated several times before the final design is decided, and more detailed plans can be drawn up to guide the builders.

Drawing and model making are central to the architect's design process from initial idea to finished plan. Some architects might start drawing after choosing keywords to inspire ideas, or shapes and colours that will be central to their design.

At school or college

Scheme of work

Warm-up activity, DesignLab Design Processes Workshop, 2009

Warm-up activity A, Stansted Airport structures, DesignLab Design Processes Workshop, 2009

Design Processes will work well as either a full term or half term project. Introduce the project and design brief and try the warm-up activities outlined below.Schedule a visit to the V&A, where students will be able to view architectural sketches, notebooks and models close up; make drawings and take notes or photographs; gain inspiration for their own designs. Back in the classroom, they can use this information to inspire and progress their own designs.

Brief for students

Give your students a design brief to work from and explain that they will be visiting the Museum to find design inspiration and learn more about professional design processes. Here are two suggested briefs:

  • Design a product (for example, a bag) that could be sold in the V&A shop
  • Design a shelter for a site specific area in your local community or school

Introducing Design Processes

Use this power-point presentation to introduce the design processes topic to your class. Teacher's notes are included in the presentation and can be viewed below each slide on your computer.

Download: Design Processes Presentation (PPT file, 14.8 MB)

Learn about different types of models and drawings

Familiarise your students with different types of architectural drawings and models before your visit to the Museum and the start of their own projects. The Prints and Drawings Study Room page contains links to teacher's notes and more detailed information about the drawings available to view at the V&A.

Warm-up activities

These activities use architect's models in the V&A+RIBA Architecture collections as inspiration. Use slides 11, 17, 18 and 23 of the Design Processes Presentation if you want to project the images on a screen whilst the students do these activities. You could do these activities before or after a visit to the Museum. The activities will help students to explore different ways of designing.

Structural model for Stansted Airport by Arup Associates

Structural model for Stansted Airport by Arup Associates, V&A:LOAN:ARUP.3-2003

A. Stansted Airport model

  1. Students should work in pairs. Give each pair 10 paper straws.
  2. Ask them to create a tree-like structure that can support a piece of A4 card at least 30 cm above a surface (table top or floor).
  3. Sketch the model and use it to inspire a design idea for a product, for example, table/ lampshade/jewellery.

'We looked at the roof structure proposition for Stansted airport … it is very contemporary and asymmetrical … every time we looked at it there was something new to see that we hadn't spotted before.' (Student)


Volumetric models for 30 St Mary Axe, 'The Gherkin', by Foster

Volumetric models for 30 St Mary Axe, 'The Gherkin', by Foster & Partners, V&A:LOAN:FOSTER.1-2003

B. Model for 30, St Mary Axe 'The Gherkin'

  1. Give each student a piece of plasticine and ask them to divide it into two equal parts.
  2. Model each part into a unique abstract shape; one shape could be inspired by choosing a word as a starting point (for example, sustainable, organic, futuristic, ornate).
  3. Use one of these shapes to inspire a design for a product. e.g. lamp / furniture. Use the other to inspire a design for a building. Ask students to sketch their ideas.

Model of Sydney Opera House, 1961

Wooden model of Sydney Opera House, designed by Jorn Utzon, 1961. RIBA Library Drawings Collection Ref. RIBA13231

C. Sydney Opera House model

  1. Give each student an apple to cut into segments
  2. Ask them to combine the pieces to model a design for a lamp, a piece of furniture or a building
  3. Sketch the design
  4. Overlay the sketch with tracing paper and explore how the idea could be developed further

Biome model for the Eden Project by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

Biome model for the Eden Project by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, RIBA Library Drawings Collection Ref. RIBA MOD/GRIM/1

D. Eden Project model

  1. Take photographs of repeated shapes and patterns in the school or local environment.
  2. Print them out.
  3. Overlay the images with tracing paper and ask students to draw a selection of shapes and use them to inspire a design for a product, for example, furniture/lampshade/jewellery.

Start a Flickr page

Why not start a gallery flickr page and upload your students' designs? Email schools@vam.ac.uk with a link to your page too.

To see how other schools used this resource, see the case studies below.

Students exploring the Architecture Gallery, V&A, 2009

Students exploring the Architecture Gallery, V&A, 2009

At the Museum

Visit the Museum to see original architectural designs, from initial sketches to final presentation models, and gather ideas for a design project that students can work on back at school.

Visit the Museum to see original architectural designs, from initial sketches to final presentation models, and gather ideas for a design project that students can work on back at school.

'The visit to the V&A helped me realise that inspiration can come from a lot of places. I had always thought that designing something original was difficult.' (Student)

'The architecture exhibition was really cool, there were some really fantastic models and the exercises we did were very thought provoking.' (Student)

Before you visit

Book Your Visit
All school visits must be pre-booked via the bookings office on 020 7942 2211. When you call, also book time in the Prints & Drawings Study Room and book the Design Processes Resource Box. View full booking instructions online.

Prepare for your visit
Make use of the preparatory activities in the 'At School or College' section of this resource. View the following information and print out notes to help you prepare for the visit.

Download: Architecture Gallery Teachers' Notes (PDF file, 110 KB)

View: Prints & Drawings Study Room: Design Processes Resource Box

Download Worksheets
Find suggested worksheets and activities for use in the V&A here. Please download and print copies for your students before your visit.

Download: Worksheets for Museum Activities (PDF file, 110 KB)

Be aware of V&A regulations
No wet materials or charcoal may be used in the galleries and only pencils may be used in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. Photography is permitted in all areas of the museum, except the Prints and Drawings Study Room, the Raphael Gallery, Jewellery Gallery and special exhibitions. No bags can be taken into the Prints & Drawings Study Room and must be left in lockers in the Sackler Centre.

Student visit to the Prints

Student visit to the Prints & Drawings Study Room, V&A

Your visit

Here's a suggested timetable for the day:

10:00– 10:15
Arrive at the Sackler Centre by 10:15. Your activities will take place around the Museum. A maximum number of 15 students may visit the Prints and Drawings Study Room at any one time. Parties over this number will need to divide into two groups and rotate between the study room and gallery activities.

10.30–11:30 & 11:30–12:30
Rotate groups between the Architecture Gallery (Room 128) and the Prints and Drawings Study Room (Level 4 Henry Cole Wing, access via the Sackler Centre). You will need 40 minutes minimum at each location and around 15 minutes to swap the groups over.

In the Architecture Gallery students can see miniature representations of buildings made by architects to communicate their design ideas to clients. The drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room demonstrate the design process architects use to develop an idea from initial sketch through to completed design. On your arrival, the drawings from the Design Processes Resource Box will be laid out for you to view.(NB: You must pre-book the Resource Box in advance of your visit, as detailed above).

12:30–13:00
Take students with packed lunches to the Lunchroom in the Sackler Centre.

13.00–14.00
Divide your group up into smaller groups of 5-7 students if possible to explore the V&A building. There are examples of structural and decorative patterns in the ceilings, floors, windows, walls, seats, doorways, lighting, signage and structural features such as columns and arches. Look at the extravagantly decorated Ceramics Staircase and Silver Galleries and visit the John Madjeski Garden which is surrounded by a grand and richly decorated façade. Use cameras/camera phones if you can bring these with you to record objects and details to use back at school/college.

Trial shape, Design Processes project, 2009

Trial shape, Design Processes project, 2009

Case study

Graveney School, 2009

Here are examples of work made by year 9 Design & Technology students who used the V&A and RIBA Design Processes resource to explore professional architectural approaches to design and gain inspiration for their own projects.

Design brief
Over a term, create an imaginative design for a shelter or a bag, inspired by the local built environment and the V&A and RIBA architecture collections.

Ideas and inspiration
Students explored the architecture models on display in the Architecture gallery and drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the V&A. They then experimented with hands-on modelling activities to investigate the inspiration and design approaches used by architects to develop buildings such as Sydney Opera House, the Gherkin, the Eden Project and Stansted Airport.

Students also explored their local area, Tooting in South London. They observed and recorded everyday structures and details. They looked at structure, pattern, line, decoration, form, symmetry, materials, texture, shape, detail, colour, light and perspective. These were used to inspire design ideas.

Methods and materials
Back at school, a Wiki was set up so students could share their design work and reflections throughout the project. They contributed their observations of Tooting, their visit to the V&A and their design ideas using sketches, photos and blogs.

Student designs inspired by natural and architectural forms. Design Processes workshop, V

Student designs inspired by natural and architectural forms. Design Processes workshop, V&A, 2009

Design development
Students developed design ideas inspired by architecture and the built environment.

  • They created and annotated inspiration boards using visual recordings they had made around Tooting and at the V&A.
  • Using a range of critical thinking, modelling and drawing approaches, they developed their designs.
  • They were encouraged to experiment with abstract ideas, take risks and work collaboratively
  • After completing prototypes to test out approaches they went on to create their final products.They used paper drafting patterns, stencilling, machine sewing, fabric stiffening techniques and CAD CAM.
'In class, we started to make an inspiration board to show our initial ideas based on the photos we took. I began to get some sort of idea of what designing my final model would be like, having lots of examples to use as inspiration.' Student

Design Outcomes
1. Bike shelter

'My idea is inspired by bike racks and the bushes outside the church on Welham road. My design is a shelter with sections that go up and down like the bike racks but are more in the shape of the bushes.' (Student)
Bike rack model, Design Processes project, 2009

Bike rack model, Design Processes project, 2009

Handbag prototype, Design Processes project, 2009

Handbag prototype, Design Processes project, 2009

2. Handbags

'This design uses crisp packets to show littering in a city and the handles are inspired by leaves just like trees and bushes in a city park. Artificial and natural = groovy bag!' (Student)

'When we went on the Tooting walkabout I took a picture looking down a road. I was interested by the perspective and how the houses appeared smaller the further away they got. After studying the picture closely, I noticed the shape the perspective gave, it looked almost like the shape of a bow. I decided that this was the base shape I wanted for my bag.' (Student)

Student walkabout, 'Perspective', 2009

Student walkabout, 'Perspective', 2009

Shopping bag model, Design Processes project, 2009

Shopping bag model, Design Processes project, 2009

3. Shopping bag

'My idea is a wheelie shopping bag … the goods go in the bag … there is a cover to protect the goods in case of rain or sun. The shape and cover pattern are inspired by the columns and bricks of one of the churches in Tooting. The wire supports are styled as columns, and all the fabric is (going to) be painted with the pattern of red bricks.' (Student)
Drawing of the Sydney Opera House under construction, 1966 © RIBA Library Drawings Collection

Drawing of the Sydney Opera House under construction, Mervyn Smith, artist, Jorn Utzon, designer, Australia, 1966 © RIBA Library Drawings Collection

More information & resources

Use these resources to support the development of projects:

RIBA Collections
Download images fromRIBA's extensive online database. Search using keywords, e.g. sketch, plan, elevation, section, perspective, isometric, detail, name of architect, name of designer.

V&A's Collections
Find more information about the V&A and RIBA architecture collections

V&A Architecture Gallery
Discover more about the objects on display in the V&A Architecture Gallery

Architectural Styles
Find out more about different architectural styles in this interactive picture resource and complete the online style quiz.

Architectural Drawings and Ideas
Discover more about architectural drawings in the V&A collections, and how to access them in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. 

Architectural Sketchbooks
Find out how architects use sketchbooks, and the sort of information and inspiration students may find in them.

The V&A Building
Learn more about the period features, styles and history of the spectacular V&A building

RIBA Architecture Portal

Find information about current architecture, events and careers information

Engaging Places

Discover further education resources to teach students about architecture and the built environment.

World Architecture News
Discover a global resource for what's new in architecture

International Training Course

The Victoria and Albert Museum welcomes applications for ‘Creating Innovative Learning Programmes’, its new one week intensive course. This is a unique training opportunity for museum professionals from overseas who are interested in attracting and programming for a range of museum audiences.

Find out more

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Event - Buildings, Drawings, Designs: a decade of the V&A + RIBA Architecture Partnership

Wed 10 December 2014 13:00

LUNCHTIME LECTURE: The V&A+RIBA Architecture Partnership brings together two world-class architectural collections under one roof.

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