Scrivener for Architecture Dissertation Writing

Scrivener: a writing studio like no other.

Most architects will be familiar with the concept of BIM. Basically, BIM software allows you to manage an entire building design mostly within a single app – so from a single 3D model you can get all the drawings, specs, details, everything co-ordinated and synced (I’m obviously grossly over-simplifing this; I’ll be posting more about BIM, one of my key areas of interest, soon). But the reason I begin this post with BIM is because I think I’ve found a writing tool that, in a way, mimics those organisational characteristics of BIM.

Scrivener is an app I’ve been using for years now to manage my writing projects. I still think it’s one of the best-in-class apps for managing monstrous writing tasks – of which the architectural design dissertation is such a beast. For architects (who are generally more visually-inclined), writing is indeed a step outside our comfort zones. Scrivener, then, is like a gentle friend that guides you through the treacherous waters of design research, writing, and data collation that are the three heads of the design dissertation Cerberus.

Why Scrivener?

Why bother with yet another piece of software when we’ve already got Microsoft Word to handle writing, I hear you ask? Well, where MS Word is a generally acceptable word-processor, Scrivener is a full-blown writing suite. With Word, you can get away with writing a short piece of text, like an essay. But navigating the long chapters of a dissertation – where there are thousands of words per section –  can become extremely painful. You end up losing your place, you can’t always see the full structure of the project, your research has to live in a mess of folders… it’s a nightmare, in my opinion.

Scrivener, by contrast, is like BIM software: you can choose to see either the project in its entirety, or you can break it down into its smaller chunks and work on the little details (scrivenings, in this case). One of the best things about it is that you don’t write everything in a single document; you have a Scrivener project, but this is actually made up of a series of smaller files, like text files (which become your manuscript), images, notes, even whole web pages that form part of your research folder.

You organise things into folders (and it comes with a plethora of great project templates to get started; I’ve customised one of them to suit my theory and technical papers assignment in a fashion that works well for me).

The outliner (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)
The virtual corkboard (details of my project blurred for obvious reasons)

Then you can set up your structure, and this is what I really like about Scrivener: it gives you some great ways of organising your writing project into the various chapters and sections. You can either use a virtual “corkboard” (like tacking a series of index cards to a board, but in the digital way), or a great outliner (which I used to put the structure of my papers together).

Everything is organised on the left panel in what’s called the “binder” – think of this as a virtual ring binder that’s highly-organised and contains literally everything you need and are working on: your manuscript, that contains the chapters and sections of the dissertation, your research, images, web pages, ideas, quotes… it’s all there.

The writing environment itself is great; there’s no distractions, and you can even go into a full-screen mode that dims everything on your desktop so it’s just you and the words on an empty, uncluttered screen.

Project targets window  – I should probably be doing my dissertation writing to get that session target counter moving for today…

Scrivener also allows you to set project and session targets, so you can visually (hey, this one’s for you, designers!) track your progress. It’s a great feeling when you’ve reached your session target for the day, and often I find myself wanting to push further for that day, just to nudge closer to the final project target goal.


Scrivener + Architecture Writing = 🙂

I mentioned that architects are visual people; our written work reflects this as we’re expected to have images and drawings that are referenced in text to support our arguments. Scrivener deals beautifully with this: you can set an image as the reference for a card in the Corkboard view – which is great to get ideas flowing around a certain topic or case study.

The binder-style organisation of Scrivener also allows you to keep maps and other images well-organised in folders. You can have these opened as “Quick Reference” windows that float next to your writing, so you can see them while you write. This allows you to stay focussed on the writing, and worry less about formatting and images jumping all over the place (something Word is notorious for).


So how does Scrivener fit into an effective workflow for large-scale writing projects? I see Scrivener as a writing studio (much like a BIM authoring tool, where you use it to author the design, but then take that into other tools like Photoshop to further refine the presentation). With Scrivener, I can just focus on getting the draft done; it helps me to structure complex ideas and write in a non-linear fashion (so I can quickly jump between sections as ideas come to me, without worrying about intensive scrolling through thousands of words).

For referencing, I use EndNote. Like Scrivener, EndNote allows me to see all my references together, and I can easily switch referencing styles if needed. When I want to reference something, I simply drag (or copy) that reference from EndNote into Scrivener, placing it where it needs to be in the text. The reference will look a little weird – EndNote uses a strange code system to identify text as references. (This gets fixed later, as you’ll see…)

My preferred workflow is: Scrivener (draft writing) –> Word (text-style formatting) –> InDesign (presentation and layout

Going from Scrivener to Word

Scrivener can export to a host of formats, including Word. What I’ve found, however, is that the formatting styles don’t translate very well.. For this reason, I’ve found some easy to use methods to get your draft out of Scviener, into Word, ready for formatting and bringing in to InDesign for page layout and presentation.

The problem is that you need a Word file to bring into InDesign, and to ease the formatting hassle, your Word file should be correctly formatted with styles (headings, body text, quotes etc). This allows you to quickly apply the correct fonts and styles to different kinds of text. There’s a simple go-around for this: simply export form Scrivener using a custom compile setting (see below), open the resulting Word file, then run a macros (see below) that will automatically convert the Word file into the correct styles which you can use in InDesign later.

Félix Chénier has an awesome tutorial here that contains the macros you need to copy into Word. But here’s the process:

  1. Go to his website (link above), and download the compile setting for Scrivener; this is a .plist file that you can easily import into Scrivener at the Compile window. This will output your manuscript in a format that can be easily styled with MS Word styles (headings, body, quotes etc).
  2. Copy the macros code, following his instruction, and place it in the Word macros editor. (Macros is just automated actions, and in this case, the instructions you’re copying into Word will allow you to easily convert your Scrivener export to the correct Word styles).
  3. Run the Macros (Tools -> Macros -> Macros…, select “FormatScrivener”, click “Run”).
  4. Voilà! Now, all you need to do is go to the EndNote tab in Word, and turn “Instant Formatting” on. All your references will be correctly formatted baed on your selected referencing style; a bibliography is also auto-generated at the end of the document and you can even switch between referencing styles on-the-fly. How cool is that!?

Closing remarks…

I really think Scrivener is one of the best tools out there to help navigate dissertation writing. It keeps you organised, and allows you to be flexible in how you manage such a large-scale writing task. Yes, my workflow might appear a little convoluted. But there is a method to this madness: Scrivener allows me to write the way I want to write, without the messiness and annoyances that come from working in Word. EndNote allows me to keep the referencing streamlined and organised, and everything comes together in Word, which is simply a go-between from raw text to the formatted product in InDesign.

Scrivener is available for macOS, iOS and Windows; it’s well worth the $45, and there’s a free trial as well. It’s developed by the wonderful people at Literature & Latte – click here to find out more.

Disclaimer: this is in no way a product endorsement of Scrivener; I’m simply a long-time fan of the software and thought it might be useful to any architecture students out there curious about ways to navigate design dissertation writing.



Space, Life and Architecture

What is architecture but the deft manipulation of space? The forms we design seek to contain, and to define, spatiality such that life may be lived. Space, then, is the canvas for urban life.

Space is therefore a critical component that demands attention. As an abstract thing, it becomes challenging to define. In some ways, perhaps we can understand “space” in terms of Laozi[1], specifically, his idea of wu; emptiness.

Space commands a philosophical perspective. Through this we may unpack its ambiguity. The means of encapsulation, then, derive from this abstraction. If we consider it an entity, just like any other architectural component, then we can begin to use it as a mechanism. Here, digital tools can begin to take space into an entirely new dimension. Generative systems can rapidly reconfigure, and biomimetic algorithms can transcend space from this abstract, invisible entity into a a responsive idea that reflects a series of dynamic, evolving characters.

I think here of the neo-plasticists, who, perhaps more than any other, really pushed this idea that space is an entity we can mould, that architecture is truly, at its essence, an organisation of space.


  1. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Myth of the All-Nighter

I’m entering my sixth year of architectural education very soon. It’s been a long, often frustrating, but fruitful journey. At such a time as this, reflection becomes a key point as the final stretch looms. One of the things that has intrigued me so far, both looking inward to the profession as an outsider (before I began my architectural education), and as a young “newbie” to the professional world of architecture, is this fascination with the all-nighter.

It’s sort of expected that the architecture student must labour continuously on their projects, whether their body yearns for sleep or their mind has become a tangled mess of meaningless mulch. The architecture student is expected to pull off countless all-nighters whilst still maintaining a particular standard of work, and failure to do so means instant discrediting of one’s entire stature as a student studying this field. It somehow suggests that one is not putting in the requisite “effort”, that a little more time spent on the work might have meant a different letter grade – and in an abstract field such as design, doubt becomes a prevalent spectre that haunts the self-critique of ongoing work.

I feel that this fascination is disturbing and entirely unhealthy, both physically, and in its fixation on working hard rather than working smart. The subtle distinction between these two things means the difference between a productive, happy young architect who is energised to start a promising career in the profession, and a burnt-out student who might be on the verge of giving it all up for something else.

A serious paradigmatic shift is necessary to move the mindset from working hard, where the number of hours somehow correlates, to some degree, the quantity/quality of work produced, to the idea of optimising workflows, exploiting the benefits of technology and ultimately adopting a smarter way of getting things done. Of course I’m not arguing for a generation of lazy architects who find every excuse to avoid work. Work is an essential part of our culture, and it’s a fundamental aspect of living, of building something meaningful both to society and to the builder’s life, of leaving a true legacy to benefit future generations. But this morbid fascination with a culture of sleep-deprivation, which itself propagates an aura of anxiety, stress, and unpleasantness, needs to stop. Right. Now.

Much needs to be done in reforming architectural education today. One aspect we can begin with is a critical rethinking of what studio culture is. Lack of sleep and deriding physical and mental health runs diametrically opposed to the kinds of environments that we as architects are expected to produce for the betterment of society.

Judgement of work based on the hours put in does not paint a proper picture of the final product. Rather than overworking oneself in order to satisfy this arbitrary time-centric idea, a more intelligent workflow is needed. This is the exciting part: designing is intrinsic to us, so why can’t we design better means of production? Instead of shirking from advanced computational technologies, this is the time to be adopting those tools. Truly understanding the power of BIM technologies, parametric tools and modern productivity strategies such as Pomodoro are just a few examples of the potentials lurking beyond that sleep-deprived horizon.

It’s time we got over this myth that the all-nighter is a necessity to architectural education, and embraced a healthier, smarter way of learning and working.

Life in Technicolor: “La La Land” Rewrites the Musical Genre


Contemporary cinema is all about nostalgia these days. But where most films recede into self-referential tedium, along comes a fresh, beautiful little marvel that not only provides an entertaining cinematic experience, but, I think, rewrites the concept of the musical entirely.

La La Land is the darling of the current awards season, and rightly so. The film has an interesting (if somewhat a bit predictable) storyline, excellent music, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in recent years. It is not just a musical love story, but a love letter to the idea of Los Angeles itself: the hope, the dream, the romance and the craziness that is the “city of stars.”

Approaching the film from a design perspective, this has to be one of the most gorgeously photographed pictures I’ve seen. Linus Sandgren, director of photography, did a knockout job in capturing not just the remarkable colour tone of the film, but setting that against the backdrop of Los Angeles made for a dynamic pairing. The use of primary colours and accents stood out for me in creating the hyper-reality that contributed to the dreamlike narrative. It’s certainly refreshing to see such attention to detail paid to subtle things like colour (especially after watching the washed-out tones of recent DC and Marvel superhero movies). That photo above captures this aptly: the costume designer expertly manipulated the perfect colour tone to complement both characters; the bright colours for Stone’s Mia and the stylish yet subtle hues for Gosling’s Seb perfectly complement each other whilst making the characters pop on-screen; it’s hyper-real cinema at its best.

The entire picture feels surreal; the breakouts into song and dance, coupled with these vibrant colour tones, truly transport the viewer to this alternate reality. They heighten the sensory experience of the city, and in this exaggeration emphasize the relationships between the characters and magnify an otherwise standard plotline.

Director Damien Chazelle did a good job in getting sterling performances from the leads. Gosling and Stone have undeniable chemistry (this isn’t their first on-screen pairing), and their voices aren’t that bad either. The songs, composed by Justin Hurwitz, are catchy. I loved the use of jazz as a metaphor for the entire film – being used both literally as a narrative device for Gosling’s character Sebastian, and more abstractly as that moment of magic, that tension and dynamism that is Los Angeles and the romance with this city; the romance that emerges from this city. The refrain that becomes the film’s theme is beautiful; it carries the gravitas of the narrative whilst imbuing a certain nostalgia, a subtle longing for that golden age of cinema (this is how you do nostalgia: with classy subtlety, rather than in-your-face rehashing).

Here’s that theme:

That same feeling is conveyed in one of my other favourite numbers, City of Stars:

John Legend’s character Keith captured it best when he said:

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

In a way this is what La La Land is about: using mechanisms of the past to proffer the idea of a bolder, new cinematic experience: one that uses the traditional tools of cinema (writing, music, cinematography) to create compelling new narratives and entertainment. As much as it is a love letter to the city it’s named after, La La Land is also a homage to Hollywood itself: capturing the frenzy, the absurdity and the magic of showbiz through the perspective of our heroes and their whirlwind romance.

In a world that’s getting darker each day, it’s refreshing to see a bit of technicolor injected into a movie experience that is true, unabashed escapism. La La Land transports you to a time when cinema meant something: losing yourself in the romance of the magic unfolding on the silver screen, getting catchy (but still good) songs stuck in your head, and reveling in the chaos of Hollywood and its bright colours, all in glorious Cinemascope.

As Seb says, “I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”


Going SSD: Breathing new life into a 2012 MacBook Pro

ssd-drive-iconI’m not the first to extol the virtues of upgrading one’s computer to a Solid-State Disk. But man does it improve your computing experience.

First, some context: I use my Mac a lot. I constantly push it to keep up with my digital projects that range from simple word processing (like writing this blog and some academic essays for university), to really complex tasks like desktop app development via a virtual machine using C# in Visual Studio, manipulating 3D geometry in ARCHICAD, SketchUp, Rhino and Grasshopper, drafting and graphic design with AutoCAD and Illustrator, and some heavy Photoshop work; even the occasional render with ARCHICAD’s CineRender. Then there’s the side stuff like some motion graphics work and video editing for SKKSA.

So the kind of tasks this mid-2012 MacBook Pro has handled have been quite diverse. But the machine was showing its age; boot times were extremely slow, ARCHICAD took forever and a day to load-up, and it was generally a very rough experience toward the end-days of the “old” MacBook Pro ride. There was also this annoying bug where stock Apple apps would crash after a few hours (and I think it had something to do with ARCHICAD or its BIM Server component…)

Without forking out the new Apple tax to get a completely new machine – and my Mac is indeed old enough to justify a full computer upgrade, being in service sine the beginning of 2013 – I’ve managed to extend the longevity of an already solid machine with the upgrade of my RAM earlier this year (to 16GB), and now adding an SSD as the boot drive.

Here’s the run-down. I found a good deal on an SSD from a local Apple service center in Durban. So earlier this year, on the recommendation of my good friend Bryan, I upgraded the RAM from the stock 8GB to 16GB while I was in Cape Town. According to Bryan, macOS (or OS X, whatever you prefer) loves to be fed more RAM. This OS is RAM hungry, and my first upgrade definitely showed it: I used Activity Monitor to check up on my system, and it was evident that the system wanted to push past the 8GB limit; I was frequently hitting 11GB at times after the upgrade.

Adding RAM allowed me to do more with my Mac. But adding the SSD… that just made this thing feel like a new beast altogether. SSDs, as you know, read data via flash storage; there’s no spinning platter hard drive that needs to spool-up before you can access data. To give a simple example: it used to take over 2 minutes for my MacBook to fully boot-up and be ready to use; sometimes longer, as the Finder and other media took a long time to initialize. With the new SSD installed, my boot time is 20 seconds – that’s 20 seconds from the time I press the Power key to having a fully ready system waiting for me to give it commands. This kind of speed means a heck of a lot to me, as I spend most of my life on this machine.

The Setup

I opted to remove my Superdrive (CD/DVD drive). I reasoned that I hardly use optical media these days. So I moved my existing 750GB hard drive over to that bay, and installed the new 280GB SSD in the original hard disk slot.

macOS Sierra now boots from the SSD; I’ve got all my apps installed on this drive as well. My documents, iTunes library, pictures and other media are sitting on the old hard drive, which is permanently attached to the system (think of it like an always-connected external hard drive). I used a few Terminal commands to create symlinks (System Links) from the folders on the SSD to their corresponding folders on the HD. This ensures that Time Machine backs up all my data correctly. Having my larger media files on the HD allows me to take advantage of all that space, whilst still having the lean speed of the SSD for booting the system and other apps.

Going forward I might use the SSD to store ongoing project files for quick access, and then move them over to the HD once those projects are done.

Going SSD on my Mac was indeed like night and day. I’m still amazed how snappy ARCHICAD is now; AutoCAD is operating like a dream, as are my other creative apps like Photoshop and Illustrator.

I’m still finalizing a few minor apps, and I need to re-do my Bootcamp partition for Windows 10. But overall the system is functional, and I can’t wait to really put it through its paces as my Mac accompanies me on my Masters of Architecture journey starting next month.

Architecture and the Art of Storytelling

All architecture is a story: every space a paragraph, each detail a sentence. Design is a form of communication – perhaps the most effective, succinct system of conveying abstract ideas into tangible solutions.

Over the past year, I’ve come to value the importance of the story when engaging in the design process. Developing an idea and following its progression from abstraction to detail can be a daunting undertaking. As architects we are taught various methodologies for overcoming this, various design strategies. One of the most effective, I’ve discovered, is the art of story.

I’ve always loved writing, and coming up with stories usually through the process of writing them down, rather than explicitly planning everything from scratch before engaging in the creative act. This almost serendipitous act can yield interesting results, and often is a satisfying endeavour. So as I began to engage in the various design tasks of the honours programme, I decided to abstract this storytelling process into an architectural design process.

By distilling the key findings on-site, and first creating a sort of “knowledge hub” comprising site data, social findings, environmental issues (just to name a few), you begin to create a narrative landscape within which your story can begin to form. I find it important from this very early stage to begin thinking about how the presentation will flow; this may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps to set end-goals and delimits certain aspects in order to progress the workflow. This won’t hinder the explorative nature of conceptual design thinking, but rather enhance it by establishing certain parameters within which to work. And this is not obviously set in stone; this narrative becomes flexible and evolves alongside the design.

By actually thinking of the design as a story, you begin to perceive the project as a more tangible, dramatic and emotive thing; even though the project may only exist in a virtual sphere or on paper, your story is adding an abstract, emotive layer that breathes a certain life into the thing.

What this ultimately does is ensure you’re developing a coherent narrative to tell your prospective client about the work you’ve designed. Humans love stories; its something that is ancient and inherent in our evolution. By using the craft of storytelling to guide the design process you’re intricately linking two very potent forms of communication, which can really help sell someone the idea, which is, after all, a key part of our profession.

Super (under)powered Cinema

So I’ll be honest at the start of this: I was a huge fan of superhero films. Browsing Life in Pixels’ archives will testify my adoration of the genre. But recently, I’ve become tired of these films. They’re formulaic (which is sometimes not such a bad thing… but, you know). Netflix does a great job of producing some actual substance in this field, but for the most part the television side of the genre leaves much to be desired.

I would watch, week in week out, the latest episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., … until it all just got too much. How much of my life was I willing to invest in this? There comes a point where entertainment becomes a chore, and I think I’ve reached that. In its response to mass-consumption, itself a product of the success the genre has felt since the first Iron Man hit theatres, superhero films and television have since departed the gravitas that once underscored the category.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a voice with final-say in what people should be watching or consuming. We live in a free(ish) society; we can do what we want. But I’ve since become uninterested in this genre, a part of pop culture that at one time was a powerful critique on society, and that formed a big part of my own life.

Take Nolan’s Batman films. Yes, I know. It’s a cop-out whenever a critic of contemporary superhero cinema brings out Mr Nolan and his work. But with this succinct trilogy, he crafted a piece of cinema that is both powerful as a work of art, a strong series of examinations on our society – a society that is plagued by fanaticism, crime, terror, rogue ideology and fear. The Batman becomes the lens through which we examine what it means to live in such a world. Tom Hardy’s Bane represents that strong, terrifying faction that can, at any moment, shake the very foundations of our civilisation. Ledger’s Joker, of course, just wants to see the world burn.

The point is, these films carried substance. Gravitas. And Nolan knew when to stop. He set out to tell this legend, this mythos of the Batman, and he achieved it through those three films.

Superheroes are, I believe, a potent vehicle for exploring very human issues: politics, race, culture, power… historically, they have been used as a critique on society. But in the commodification of the genre, as Hollywood’s prying fingers tear through the metaphor to mine the cashflow, I fear we’re losing that very essence. Yes, on the print side, things still seem to be alive and kicking. But I’m arguing from the cinematic perspective, and the state of things in that arena leaves much to be desired.