What's the difference between architecture and design?

This topic came up in a discussion on LinkedIn, in which Ron Segal asked “Why are we shy of ‘design’?“:

As an observation, the business and enterprise architecture communities seem remarkably reticent to use the word ‘design’ to describe what we do (e.g. see this group’s ‘what do you do’ discussion). Why is this, as although not all design is architecture, isn’t all architecture design?

There’s a lot of confusion between the two terms and the respective business-roles, so I thought throw in my own view on this, as follows:

Architecture and design are closely related; the main difference between them is really about which way we face.

Architecture faces towards strategy, structure and purpose, towards the abstract.

Design faces towards implementation and practice, towards the concrete.

Most designers and architects will do both types of work; but most will describe themselves as either a ‘designer’ or an ‘architect’ according to which way they most often face.

Architecture without design does nothing: it can too easily remain stuck in an ‘ivory-tower’ world, seeking ever finer and more idealised abstractions.

Design without architecture tends toward point-solutions that are optimised solely for a single task and context, often developed only for the current techniques and technologies, and often with high levels of hidden ‘technical debt’.

Both architecture and design are essential. We may only arrive at appropriate, useful, maintainable solutions when architecture and design are both in use and in appropriate balance.

One of the reasons that good architects are relatively rare is that, to work well, the architecture must cover an ever-wider scope, linking across more and more domains, yet still remain grounded in the immediacy of everyday practice. Designers need only focus on the single task at hand (though it always helps if they pay attention to proven architecture principles such as re-use, re-purpose, consistency and so on).

There are plenty of good designers out there; and a good architect will know how to identify, use and respect their skills. Unfortunately, many designers – even the good ones – often regard architecture as a hindrance to getting the job done. Which, from that perspective, it is – if the only focus is on getting the job done, without consideration for the purpose or appropriateness of the work in the first place… Good design is about doing things right; good architecture is about ensuring we’re doing the right things; we need both to ensure that we’re doing the right things right.

Domain architecture – such as process-architecture, applications-architecture, security-architecture, technology-architecture – constrains the architectural scope within predefined bounds. It keeps the architectural discussion closer to the practicalities, but still needs an overlighting ‘higher-level’ architecture to link it with other domains. In the business context, this is the proper meaning of ‘enterprise architecture’, as the architecture of the whole enterprise – and not solely of the enterprise IT.

By definition, the skills of a designer should lead to practical, concrete results, and hence should be amenable to training and certification-type evaluation.

By definition, architectural skills may cover almost any scope, and hence are not amenable to simple certification. One unfortunate result is that there is no easy way to identify a good architect other than by their work-history, experience and overall attitude: certification indicates only that the person has some grasp of theory, but not necessarily of practice.

All of the above applies to all forms of architecture and design.

28 Comments on “What's the difference between architecture and design?

  1. One way to identify if a person is architectually-focused versus design-focused is by the questions he or she asks. Architects will ask thought-provoking questions that challenge the current vision and strategy. He or she helps define a path. Design-focused individuals tend to also ask thought-provoking questions. These questions resolve specifics within a specific existing boundary.

  2. Tom,

    I would add that they are part of the same development process. Design comes after the Architecture phase and that may explain why it is closer to implementation.
    They may be also seen as two perspectives/rows in Zachman’s.


  3. Hi Tom,

    From my perspective, architecture is design and design may be an architecture, depending on what the scope and objective of the design activity is. Perhaps by distinguishing between “enterprise” and “solution” focused architecture/design activity we’d be in more alignment with what the expected outputs and outcomes are. It really does not matter how you call it as long you get the desired outputs and outcomes.
    See my post How many architectures do you see? on this subject.

  4. Hi I am an IS Manager for a regional rail company in South Africa in the Cape (www.capemetrorail.co.za) and discovered the books by Tom Graves by chance. I am surprised that he does not have a cult following yet – maybe he has, I have just not done enough research lately. Well – I need to get all his books.

    I picked up a quote that states “all architecture is design, but not all design is architecture” . Quote makes one think for a while…

  5. Lovely article. I think I learned something from here. The way I see architecture versus design is that they are same thing. The only difference lies in hierarchical position, not in essence. It is like reasons have reasons also, root causes have also further root causes or our objectives have its objectives too. To illustrate, why do we want to work? Answer:I want to work because I want to live. Is it a suffient answer or am I curious why I do want to live at all?
    Architecture and design are similar terms, depend on where we will stop from further chasing up or chasing down and what question we face. “A 4-bed room building”: does it represent architecture or does it represent a design? the answer will depend on what question we are asked. If we are asked about the general architecture or size of the building, a 4-bed room building will be okay to represent the architecture. If we are asked how many bedrooms we have? a 4-bed room building will represent the design of the building.
    In short, architecture and design both convey information. The less informative part is architecture and the more informative part is the design. If a wall is designed to be “blue-color”, and then someone asks what red-green-bluue composition should that blue color painting have, then “wall should be blue” is architecture and “blue” should be “Red: 100, Grenn:100 and Blue 222”, then this composition is the design of the blue. I am making such extreme example just to illustrate the hierarchical nature in providing more or less information.
    Happy to get feedback from Tom and others.

    • Hi Sainul

      “The way I see architecture versus design is that they are same thing. The only difference lies in hierarchical position, not in essence.”

      Yes, there does tend to be an element of that (i.e. hierarchy), though I prefer to focus more on the point about ‘direction we face’. The hierarchy part comes up because the closer people get towards the point of implementation – as in your example of exact mix of red, green and blue – then the more they tend to focus on design (towards detail) rather than architecture (towards big-picture, re-use, re-purpose and such like).

      We do need detail-design – no question at all about that. For an architect, though, often the critical concern is ‘Just Enough Detail‘. Learning to know when ‘just enough’ is indeed enough – not too little, not too much – is probably the hardest skill to learn for an architect (and, for that matter, a designer) of any type.

  6. Really good article, thank you Tom.

    I am interested in your commment ‘the direction we face’. Would it be a fair statement to say that architecture faces towards ‘ideas/vision’ and design faces towards ‘means/methods’?

    If this is the case, then surely your statement that architecture and design are the same thing may be that ‘architecture is the whole thing’ and ‘design is a part of the thing’.

    The only exception to this is if the architecture was so simple that it would only contain a single desing element (i.e. the more simple the architecture, the less abstract it is from the design).

    • Hi Des – thanks, and good questions!

      “If this is the case, then surely your statement that architecture and design are the same thing may be that ‘architecture is the whole thing’ and ‘design is a part of the thing’.”

      Sort-of… Architecture aims to get a sense of how things connect, so if you start from right at the root, in principle you should be able to get something resembling a total view of the whole. Doesn’t quite work out that way in practice, not least because ‘the Everything’ is just too darned big. 🙂

      Perhaps a better way that I could put it might be that architecture emphasises how things connect; design emphasises how things get done?

  7. Great article, clears up some things for me. But I have a question: If someone is considered and excellant designer of IT projects, could they not architect as well?

    • Hi Lynn – glad the article was useful.

      “If someone is considered an excellent designer of IT projects, could they not architect as well?”

      Yes, definitely they can. There are two key points, perhaps:

      — One (as per the article above) is that design and architecture kind of face different ways: design looks ‘downward’ to concrete and practical, architecture looks ‘upward’ more to the abstract and the commonalities – so to do both you’ll need to ‘look both ways’. Simon Brown (‘Coding The Architecture‘) is particularly useful on this for IT-folks: it’s well worth taking a wander through his website.

      — The other is that designers and implementers tend to focus on the ‘things’ themselves, whilst architects need to pay just as much attention to what happens ‘between the boxes’. Getting the balance right across the whole of that space is a skill in itself, but it’s a very worthwhile skill for a designer to learn.

      Hope this makes sense? – if not, do feel free to yell at me for a better explanation? 🙂

  8. Architecture can be likened to a map. You define a point of origin, and define the destination. The map is provided as a guide to help you get from point A to point B. There are literally a million differnt routes that can be taken to get you to your end destination.

    Design is a more granular level effort, a bit like a set of turn by turn instructions designed to provide the specif route that will be taken to get you to the desired destination.

    While a map (architecture) is a decent guide, it does not provide enough detail. The turn by turn instructions (design), is useless without first plotting out point of origin and intended destination that the map provides.

  9. Hello, Thanks for t information. What cleared to me is – Architect has to do the foundation part & on his mission to complete the project he needs the designer to meet the need of the client .Just as we – add different topping on the Ice-cream – for taste, beauty & need .

  10. I am from ETL background and it is the word “Architect” which is mostly used rather than Designer and that is the reason why I set out to find the difference between the terms “Architect” and “Designer”. While googling, I came across this weblog and it was really helpful. Thanks Tom for writing it down.

    Often in ETL Architecture diagrams, we bring together the components that are involved and describe more about it. It is only in Design phases that we break down further and move towards implementation.

    Tom: So is the Architecture diagram all about depicting the components involved and brief description about each one of them? Is Architectural details communicated only visually or are their any other means? In case of Design apart from visual representation, it is the details which matter the most.

    Kindly correct my assumptions incase they have deviated a lot.

  11. Actually Architecture is the highest and deep level of design that involves the abstraction. Design describe the concrete shape of any system, while architecture goes in deep and describe the abstraction also, that may not understandable without architecture.

  12. In my context architect is more like senior position than design. Having an experience of several years can bring you the architecture view of vision and strategy to the organization. It all depends on the organization to organization, most of them are clearly mentioned that designer is closely related to the technical point of implementation and architect is like to oversee the designers work. In some cases like manager vs leader, do right things and see the things are doing right. It is absolutely the hierarchical positions in the organization with respect to a high level to a low level where designers do high-level tasks and engineers do the low-level tasks, but an architect will oversee only the high-level design and designer oversee the low-level design.

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