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Matters of Taste: Determining Your Style


When embarking on a new design project, an important question that will inevitably come up is, “What’s your style?”. While describing a fashion trend such as ‘punk’ or a general life attitude like ‘laid back’ can be done easily with buzz words and catch phrases, such terminology within architecture can have a profound impact on the project at hand. Terminology within architecture implies specific detailing, material choices and an overall look and feel. It is important to recognize the various styles of architecture and determine what best suits your tastes when approaching a design professional with a new project. The challenge is understanding which styles are most appealing, why they stand out from the rest, and what they are called. Through an exercise of discovery, a style can be defined and categorized, leaving the individual better equipped to articulate their needs, desires and tastes. Clear communication is essential to a successful project.

The world of architecture and design if full of named styles, movements (both theory based and aesthetic based), and historic eras. Writing about each of these could take hundreds of pages, and they are already well documented in history books. When thinking about the term, ‘style’, it is important to remember that style does not necessarily need to have a name. While this may seem counter-intuitive to discovering your style, keep in mind that naming a style, movement or historic aesthetic simply helps us identify those elements which are common to a group of designs. Naming, in essence, is a way to categorize that which is unnamed. To determine one’s style, it is helpful to first remove the traditional style terminology such as ‘Craftsman’ or ‘Colonial’ and instead focus on something more simple: reactions.

Reactions are a window into emotions and the subconscious, and as such, they are a good ‘first look’ at determining tastes. As an exercise in discovery, start by viewing a series of architecture and design photos, magazine clippings or browsing through an online image collection. While browsing, divide the images into three categories: Love it, Indifferent, and Hate it. An online image organizer such as Pinterest can be especially helpful for discovering unknown images. Once there are at least 10 photos in each category, the exercise in discovery changes from a ‘gut reaction’ to contemplative reflection. Many people simply stop at the first step and never analyze their choices to determine the reasons why they enjoy or dislike an image. For those beginning a new design project, it is helpful to understand the reasons behind reactions so that decisions about the project can be informed decisions with purpose and integrity.

Reflection is the next important step of discovering matters of taste. With the images sorted into Love it, Indifferent and Hate it categories, examine each group and reflect on why each image was included in the set. Try writing down words that come to mind when each image is viewed, and see how many times each word appears within a group. For example, one might find they write the word “Bright” or “Open” for all of the images they love. Conversely, they may discover that they write the words “Dark” and “Small” for images they do not like. In addition to writing quick words that come to mind, asking a series of questions tends to help us linger on the deeper reasons behind our subconscious choices. Questions might include: How does this image make me feel? What does this image remind me of from my past? Do I enjoy this because it is popular or trendy? Do I dislike this because of preconceived ideas or prejudices? Would I want to live with this look every day? etc. Deeper questions will lead to meaningful reflection, and eventually to distilled concepts of what styles are most appealing. After thorough reflection, one can summarize their likes and dislikes with a short series of words and images, which is very helpful to show to a designer in the early stages of a new project. A designer can even help you walk through a series of thought-provoking questions to help you arrive at the reasons behind your reactions. After the steps of reaction and reflection come the final step in the discovery process: redefine.

Redefine your preconceived styles into something that is personal, practical and much more accurate. For some, they may find their personal tastes are best described by an existing historic style or popular aesthetic, such as “Shaker” or “Mid-Century Modern”. However, many will find that their tastes are a mixture of many named styles across multiple decades or centuries of history. For this reason, it is important to redefine your style from preconceived terminology to a more accurate description based on your discovery process. This will ensure clear communication during a design project. There are plenty of people who mistakenly think they like the “Modern” architectural aesthetic. However, historic Modernism is often a shock to those who are unfamiliar with the low-lying flat roofs, minimal interiors and industrial-like qualities. The term Modern can be mistaken for the concept of contemporary design, which is very different in aesthetic and theory. As you collect your reactions, refine them into reflections and begin to redefine your style terminology, try making a condensed list and image collection that tells a story of your tastes in the most succinct way possible. An image with a single word can help pinpoint the most important aspect of a particular style or design. Use these images and words to describe your redefined style to a design professional. Once they have a clear idea of your reactions, reflections and redefined terminology, they can educate you on the various historic names that apply to your tastes.

Understanding your style is important not only to communicating clearly with a designer, but also to building confidence in your decisions as you go through the design process. The discovery process will encourage you to eliminate ideas that were preconceived, explore new design aesthetics, and clarify your needs, desires and tastes. Each of these steps will help create a confidence that the direction you’re headed is right for you – the most important aspect of a project!

To start your style discovery, check out this handy tool for categorizing images by your reaction:

Brinn Miracle holds a Masters of Architecture and works as an architectural designer at PDR in Houston. Brinn writes for her blog at and has a passion for residential design and architectural education.

February 20, 2012


Leave a comment
  1. Lee Calisti
    February 20, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Brinn, I hate the word style…but after reading this, it begins to deal with my reasons for disliking the term so much. This is a great way to get past the baggage that comes with a loaded term. It is smart practical advice.

  2. Brinn Miracle
    February 20, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by. I agree, the term ‘style’ is overused and misunderstood by many. On top of that, each style itself is often misunderstood or misrepresented to a point where we don’t know the meaning of the terms we use in everyday conversations. Hopefully this helps break down those terms into something easily understood that can be a starting point for education and understanding of true style.

  3. Curtis L Biggar, Architect/CGP
    August 16, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Frank Lloyd Wright said the best. ” It either has style or does not.”

    On the other hand I am an expert on octagon shaped buildings which had a strong run in the mid 1980’s Many historical societies are located in these buildings. My website details this effort including a utube home

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