Home > Architecture, Design, Design Thinking, Visual Thinking > Luke Wroblewski on Parti (or the main idea) from Interaction09

Luke Wroblewski on Parti (or the main idea) from Interaction09

Luke Wroblewski, former Chief Design Architect (VP) at Yahoo! delivered a very provocative presentation at Interaction09 titled Parti and the Design Sandwich. The talk focuses on 2 main themes:

  1. The notion of Parti (also referred to as “the Big Idea”, which Wikipedia defines as the chief organizing thought or decision behind an architect’s design presented in the form of a basic diagram and/or a simple statement
  2. The Design Sandwich – which Wroblewski says “is really the way that we can make informed decisions that help us deliver on this big idea, this parti.

His talk borrows heavily from the book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by architect Matthew Frederick.

Furthermore, Wroblewski approaches the concept of parti not from the vantage point of a traditional architect, but from the perspective of someone who architects digital spaces in the role of an Interaction Designer.

The video is displayed below:

The presentation slides accompanying the video can be found here.

I have to say that this notion of parti presented by Wroblewski has really influenced my thinking around modeling and explaining complex spaces lately – as a way to rise above the detail to get to the “essence of the thing”, in a simple and visual form.

Anyway, the rest of this post explores some of the key messages delivered by Wroblewski in his presentation.

Introducing the concept of Parti – or “the Big Idea”

OK, so what is this Parti notion? I mentioned above that Wikipedia defines parti as “the chief organizing thought or decision behind an architect’s design presented in the form of a basic diagram and/or a simple statement“.

Wroblewski quotes Frederick who defines parti as “the central idea or concept of a building“. Here’s the presentation slide:

Parti is much more than just a concept. Says Wroblewski:

The interesting notion behind that is it’s the Big Idea behind a structure. So a structure in the architect’s world could be a building. A structure in the Interaction Designer’s world could be something different.

And in particular, what makes this a little bit different than what traditionally people talk about as product vision, or a mission statement, or a core idea, is the way Fredrick outlines how architects depict this and work through this, in which he says “It’s expressed as a diagram that depicts the overall organization or the overall structure of something. But at the same time really points to experientially or aesthetically what’s the theme of it. How does it roll up together.

And I think this is where that distinction really falls, which is that there’s almost a design artifact this product vision, this big concept – which isn’t necessarily the case when you get some sort of thing coming from someone on the business side or the product management side – that’s a statement right, here’s our vision statement – “we’ll be #1 in 5 years”. It’s a very different kind of articulation of where you’re trying to go.

And particularly the things that really resonated for me is this concept of the small diagram representing the big idea, and its organization and experiential sensibility. I thought that was cool.

Frederick presents examples in his book that illustrate this core concept of a building in a simple and straightforward way. Here’s the slide Wroblewski presents:

Here’s Wroblewski’s comments on Frederick’s illustrations:

So if you look at this “odd shapes intrude on a pure space”, you kind of get a sense of how that might feel, you get a sense of what the core idea is of the building, and how it might manifest itself.

Or “L’s in conflict” – there’s kind of a tension there, you can sort of begin to think about what that might feel like, and how that might act.

I do think that even these simple diagrams – especially the odd shapes and L’s in conflict – they do depict the general floor plan for the building, but they do have an aesthetic or an experiential sensibility. You start to get a sense of how they might actually engage you on an emotional level versus just a functional level. Functional level, it’s like “oh, I can put my office in here”. Emotional level, you might start to think about how you’d actually feel working in that space, the kind of mood it creates, and so forth.

Applying the Parti concept to the redesign of the Yahoo! homepage

Wroblewski then proceeds to discuss how this notion of parti can be applied to his recent work (in early 2009) redesigning the Yahoo.com homepage. I’m not going to elaborate on his discussion around the redesign of Yahoo.com’s homepage. If you are interested, please view the video.

A Parti must reflect its environmental forces

However, I will briefly address some broader concerns that Frederick discusses in his book around applying the parti concept. And the first is that a Parti is deeply related to its environmental context, which is inevitably shaped by several forces. This is illustrated in Wroblewski’s slide below:

On the one hand, this is very reminiscent of the notion of forces applied to architectural design patterns in the manner that Christopher Alexander discusses.

However, I appreciate the reminder that the “core concept”, and the “essential structure and aesthetic design” of “the thing”, must also reflect, and be an expression of, the fundamental forces to which it is subject to in its environment and usage.

A Parti diagram will address the essential concerns for a project in a holistic way

Wroblewski quotes Frederick:

A parti diagram can focus on any specific aspect of architecture that it defines. It could be massing, spatial hierarchy, site relationship, core location, interior circulation, public/private zoning, solidity, transparency, and so on and so forth.

Wroblewski then adds:

But not every little diagram covers all those sorts of things. So if there’s something that’s really defined by its core location or there’s something that’s really defined by its spatial hierarchy, that’s the center point of the little parti diagram.

The key message here is that a Parti diagram will address the most essential forces or factors acting on the design, and it will address those factors in a holistic way.

The Design Sandwich – Using the Parti concept to help guide Design Decisions

In the second part of Wroblewski’s presentation, he discusses how design decisions should reinforce the core concept of the design (i.e. the parti). This perspective is shared by Frederick, as presented in the slide below:

The Design Sandwich

The Design Sandwich is a conceptual framework developed by Wroblewski to provide a framework for making good design decisions that align to the parti (or the big concept or idea) underlying the design. Here’s how Wroblewski describes it:

The Design Sandwich is really the way that we can make informed decisions that help us deliver on this big idea, this parti.

So without further ado, here’s what the Design Sandwich looks like:

Wroblewski describes the different elements of the Design Sandwich as follows:

Design Principles

And at the very top is this notion of Design Principles. And Design Principles, as I’ve laid it out here, are really filters we’re going to use to see if the decisions we’re making line up with that central concept. So if this is a guidepost, a thing to use to evaluate where we’re going, these are the sort of checklists, or high-level principles that we’re going to use to see if we’re going towards it, or if we’re going away from it. And if we’re going away from it, we should probably change what we’re doing.

Design Considerations

At the bottom, you have what I call Design Considerations. These are the factors you weigh when you consider what design decision you’re going to make, what solution you’re going to go with. It could be the environment, the technology, skill level of people, the domain, goals, needs, existing workflows, so on and so forth. There’s this whole slew of things we have to think about when we choose between even simple things like interaction elements.

Patterns and Best Practices

Luckily there’s ways that we can make some informed decisions out of those considerations. And one of the most common ones that people talk about in interaction design circles is Patterns and Best Practices.


So the other set of informed considerations that we get is by Testing.

Design Decisions

And that’s sort of my middle-of-the-sandwich composite, which is this is where we make Design Decisions, right? We go from looking at all these opportunities and limitations, and all this different context and things we have to consider when we decide what to do with a specific aspect of the design. We can test some of that. We can turn to Patterns or Best Practices for some of that. But across the whole board we have to make decisions.

And why do I focus on decisions so much? And why is this sort of the whole “meat” of this sandwich?

Well two things. One is I care a lot about how Design Decisions get made because I see a lot of decision-making squandered to org chart. I see a lot of decisions squandered to who screams the loudest. I see a lot of decisions squandered to things we’ve done before, or things that are out of context, or things that don’t relate to the project we’re doing.

Applying the Design Sandwich – Case Study

Wroblewski then gives a couple of examples of how the Design Sandwich can be applied to organizing a couple of design books that his group at Yahoo! had recently published. The slide below shows how Key Considerations, support Key Principles, support the overall parti – “Fast and Effective Web Forms” – of Wroblewski’s book Web Form Design:

A Parti is subject to change

Wroblewski concludes his talk with a final, powerful message – that the overall coherence and integrity of a parti is subject to change over time. The slides below quoting Frederick really say it all:


In Summary

So here’s the summary slide for the talk.

A truly wonderful and inspiring presentation.


  1. Danielle Shows
    February 1, 2011 at 12:00 am

    The video won’t load. I’ve tried from a couple of different computers and different websites by just searching the video. Any ideas?

    • February 1, 2011 at 7:15 am

      I just tried watching the video, and had the same problem on multiple browsers. However, for some reason, once the video about half the video has streamed to the video player, the video does start playing (it can take up to a minute). See what happens if you give it a couple minutes. It is weird though. I haven’t had this problem with videos on Vimeo before.


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