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.



BIM: It’s a State of Mind

Building Information Modelling is not a single software system. It’s not a debate of Revit vs. ARCHICAD. It’s not a process, either.

It’s a way of thinking. 

A state of mind.

2D CAD was merely a digitisation of an age-old process: the act of putting pencil to paper, using a slide rule to draw. CAD merely replicated this using a keyboard and mouse. BIM, by contrast, is a vastly different beast. BIM is as much about data and information as it is about “drawing in 3D”.

The organisation, parsing and manipulation of information encoded into the digital “virtual building model” is as important, if not more so, than the act of designing and modelling in 3D. This is the inherent power behind this next phase in our industry. It’s perhaps, also, why many architects have been so reluctant to jump onto the BIM bandwagon.

The failure of BIM in practice could thus be traced back, in most cases, to the adoption of BIM by a company. One cannot assume that they can simply flick a switch and transition an entire workforce from 2D CAD (or the common 2D CAD/3D model – generally the fan favourite SketchUp-AutoCAD tag team) to a sleek new BIM package. This is corporate suicide, in my opinion.

A cleverer, discreet and scaled process is far better. First, understanding the limits and capabilities of BIM is essential. BIM is not the answer to every single problem that we face as architects. Yes, it will accelerate productivity, but only if one knows how to tame this beast. The implementation of a company template, for example, is absolutely critical to unlocking a percentage of the power inherent in BIM. Not using a template would mean reinventing the wheel with every project. Working smart and not hard is the holy grail of our profession; the mindset that the quality of work is directly proportional to the hours spent labouring over a drawing needs to change. As architects, we need to understand that there are better, faster ways of doing things.

Changing one’s perception of technology in the realm of architectural design is the great challenge of this new generation of designers entering the workforce. If we are to succeed in this economy, to thrive as architects and assert our role as a key agent in the AEC industry, then the courage to venture forth into this digital age is paramount.

F.lux makes your computer’s screen a sight for sore eyes

flux-icon-smI wish I’d found out about F.lux sooner. After using this little app for just a week now, it’s already transformed the way I work with my Mac during long-haul overnight sessions with looming deadlines.

Being an architecture student, I’m well-versed in the All Nighter. This phenomenon means staring at an LCD screen for hours on end, a concept that would send any optometrist into a fit. But it’s a necessary evil, something we need to do in order to get through a mountain of work.

F.lux makes this ordeal bearable.

I was compelled to download the utility after reading about it on the Sweet Setup. What F.lux does is simple, but incredibly effective. It’s based off intense research, and whilst its method is yet to be scientifically proven, I’ve personally found that it has made my staring at the screen late into the night far easier than before.

F.lux basically adjusts your computer’s display in accordance with the ambient lighting conditions. You’ve just got to enter your location, and it will do the rest. As the sun begins to set, your screen will gradually begin to tint to an orange-reddish hue. This means that as you get deeper into the night, you won’t have to stare into the obnoxious blue glow of the standard computer screen. Of course, this isn’t conducive to any graphic-related work where colour accuracy is of importance. But F.lux has a series of options allowing customisation, so you can, for instance, disable it for an hour, or for a specific app (like Illustrator or Photoshop). From the app’s description:

“f.lux makes your computer screen look like the room you’re in, all the time. […] Tell f.lux what kind of lighting you have, and where you live. Then forget about it. f.lux will do the rest, automatically.”

F.lux goes on to claim that it can even help you sleep better. According to the developer: “We know that night-time exposure to blue light keeps people up late. We believe that f.lux adjusts colors in a way that greatly reduces the stimulating effects of blue light at night.”

Whilst I haven’t noticed changes in my sleeping pattern (all nighters for days here), I have found that using my Mac at night is now a lot easier.

F.lux is available to download for Windows, OS X and Linux for free. You can even get it for Android, and jailbroken iOS. Your eyes will thank you.

Building Osaka

Osaka's "Welcome Screen" which displays the various things you can do with the software.
Osaka’s “Welcome Screen” which displays the various things you can do with the software.

Osaka is a new software system I designed and coded in December 2013/January 2014 to significantly overhaul the SKKSA admin system and update the existing software architecture (which had been conceived as a modular design in June 2012, and had been in use ever since).

It replaces an app called “Nexus” which had been showing its age, and which desperately required an integrated philosophy to ensure scalability and enable a critical new feature – the Student Profile.

The Technologies

Three major technologies were used to create Osaka:

  • Visual C# (programming language/environment)
  • Microsoft SQL Server Compact Edition
  • MySQL Workbench (to design the database architecture)

C# is a language I’ve been using for some time now. I’m comfortable with it, hence I chose it as the best and most efficient way of undertaking this considerably complex project. Say what you want about Microsoft, but their developer tools are great. Visual Studio was an excellent IDE to design Osaka’s UI, and execute the entire project – from bringing the interface to life with UX code, to linking the screens to the database backend.

The Project

Osaka was a big step up in SKKSA’s digital systems. When we introduced SKKSA ID with the Nexus app back in 2012, we were one of the few karate organizations in South Africa to have a digital student database. Barcoded student numbers could be used to scan-in to sessions and validate registration for a seminar. But it was still very limited in its capabilities. My ultimate goal was to have a holistic solution that captured a student’s entire karate record in a single place.

Thus arose the idea of the Student Profile. A single screen could display the selected student’s records for their tournaments, gradings, Saturday senior training attendance, seminars and affiliations. This would go along with their contact info, and data central to their karate life – i.e. their dojo affiliation, current grade and SKKSA ID (their student number).

Design began with the welcome screen. I mocked-up a basic UI, and then decided what elements were critical to Osaka’s initial release. However, due to logistical reasons – me being in Cape Town and the software being in use in Durban – the development process required me to design the initial release with as many critical features as possible to avoid potential usage problems down the line.

At its heart, Osaka is really a dataset with various tables linked to each other. Each table holds data specific to a part of the student’s profile – there’s a table for their gradings, their affiliations, their tournaments etc. This all ties into the “primary” table, the “Students” table. Then there’s various other tables that hold data about seminars – seminar names, locations, dates; Saturday training – dates etc. It was complex to think about, and so I resorted to designing the dataset using, first, pen and paper (very tech-savvy, I know :P), and then migrating those initial sketches to MySQL Workbench, where I mocked-up the dataset’s tables and relations. This allowed me to see what the overall database would look like.

Designing the UI

From there, things started to get very messy. Moving over to Visual Studio, and armed with the database design, I began building the user interfaces. I chose to go with as simple a UI as possible given the time constrains. Designing for simplicity is actually really complex. I believe that the more pedantic you are about designing things and the more work you put in, the simpler the overall result will be. So with Osaka, I wrote many lines of code for the most mundane things, like automatically moving the cursor to the next textbox once a student’s ID number is captured, and using their ID number to automatically write their date of birth. In the end, these little things save a lot of time when it comes to capturing registration forms.

I attempted to tie SKKSA’s new brand image into the software. The organization’s primary colours – deep red, gold, silver, white, grey – were the basis for the colour palette. I ended up using a third-party designed icon set to minimize design time.

In future updates, I hope to focus more on making the UI design even simpler. The Profiles screen is my next focus, and I want to change the cluttered look into something cleaner, readable and information-rich without any complexity. This is what the Profiles screen looks like with Osaka 3.0.2: (certain info blurred for obvious reasons…)

Osaka's Profiles screen
Osaka’s Profiles screen

The most critical feature, though, was the TrainingBook module. This system replaces the traditional pen-and-paper register. Now, students just scan their cards, and their name is automatically added to the day’s register and to their profiles. TrainingBook was perhaps the main reason for designing Osaka. It’s where a lot of the development focus rested, and its UI inspired other aspects of the software, including the new Seminar module which functions almost exactly like TrainingBook, but for training courses instead.

TrainingBook ready to scan student cards.
TrainingBook ready to scan student cards.

Registers can be printed on a daily basis.

With an all-digital register, lots of interesting data can be extracted. While Osaka alone can’t manipulate data and provide in-depth analysis, by exporting the lists to Excel as CSV files, reports can be compiled for the instructors so they can chart their students’ progress.

Next Steps…

Osaka, like any software project, is not complete. Nor do I think it ever will be. But in its current state, it’s already significantly more powerful and feature-rich than anything we’ve had before. I’m really interested to see how it will be used; from that, I can begin mapping out the software’s future and next feature set.

And then there’s the next project I’m contemplating: an online web portal for instructors first, and then students. While Osaka is not in any way connected to an online web service, this website would take periodically exported data from Osaka and make it available as a personalized online profile page for each student. I’m still in the earliest stages of planning that project, but I know it will be based in PHP, use MySQL as a backend, HTML5 and the Twitter Bootstrapper for front-end design and UX, and in its first iteration will be exclusive to the instructors. It’s an exciting project – my first “Web 2.0” (if they still call it that) project.

Student Card Design

Along with the new software, I designed a new student card that again tie this new design aesthetic of SKKSA with their new digital systems. Here’s a collage of the initial designs:

Six designs were tested for the new student cards.
Six designs were tested for the new student cards.

The challenge with designing the new student card was that it needed to succinctly convey SKKSA’s identity, whilst also remaining functional and eye-catching. A bold design would mean that the SKKSA ID brand image was powerful, and a noticeable object that would distinguish it from other documentation a student might carry to training or tournaments. In the end, a design similar to the fourth card above was chosen. And instead of grey (which I initially chose to be subtle and “professional-looking”), I went with a deep red and radial gradient that framed the famed tiger graphic. It’s simple, bold and carries the new SKKSA aesthetic.

The final design choice.
The final design choice.

The modern writer’s toolbox

The modern writer sits at the intersection of the digital and the analogue. Both sets of tools have their equal power in enabling the writing process.

Throughout my (short) writing career, I’ve walked the fine line between digital and analogue tools to facilitate getting words out of my head and into the world.

I try to maintain the philosophy that no tool is superior to another; I try not to engage in the epic battles of technology – Windows vs. OS X, Android vs. iOS… Etc. You’ve got to discern for yourself what setup is right for you, what combination of tools will help get those words down on the page. At the end of the day, it’s the content that matters far more than what was used to create it. Technology – both digital and analogue – is just a conduit for ideas to transfer from the mind to the page (or screen).

My setup isn’t perfect, and it’s constantly evolving – such is the nature of technology – but it works. And I like it.

When I’m on the go, I capture thoughts on Evernote. It’s on my Mac and iPad too, so my ideas are with me no matter where I am. I store ideas for possible blog posts in there too, but if I have to write a post while away from my laptop (such as now with this post) then the WordPress app for iPhone is great. In landscape mode it offers a nice typing experience on a touch screen, and helps productivity by only showing a few lines at a time.

I’m still busy on that elusive manuscript, and Scrivener by Literature & Latte is unparalleled for complex, exceedingly long form work. Coupled with my MacBook’s chiclet keyboard, it’s the best creative environment for weathering the storm of words that is a novel. My drafts are always backed up automatically with Dropbox.

But like the great postmodernist architect Robert Venturi posited, complexity and contradiction adds wonderful colour to the palette of life. So when things get too loud, when the chatter generated by tech gets too much, it’s time to break out the Moleskine ruled notebook and my trusty Parker Sonnet. Writing longhand with a fountain pen is a deeply meditative experience. It slows down life, allows you to contemplate things wonderfully. There’s no live word count, hyperlinking, hastagging or entire Internet. It’s just you, the writer, your mind, and the infinite possibilities of the blank pages.

The digital is quickly overtaking the analogue; as a techno person myself I love embracing new ideas and software. But I find mixing digital and analogue tools adds great variety to my writing pursuit and keeps things fresh.

The modern writer is faced with a world that is changing at an unprecedented rate. Writing is becoming a critical way of chronicling this new dawn, and the right system of tools – from both the analogue and digital worlds – will be the weapons of choice to face this battle.

Using Feedly as a Google Reader Replacement

Despite being a heavy user of RSS feeds, the announcement of Google killing their Reader app didn’t affect me much. While I used to use Reader a lot, since I moved to BlackBerry in 2010, I found that the lack of a single good, free RSS reader app that synced to Google Reader forced me to search for an alternative platform. That’s when I discovered BlackBerry News, a Blackberry-designed app that synced with my BlackBerry ID and allowed me to keep up with my favourite blogs and topics – except that it didn’t sync to Google’s services.

But my move to BlackBerry News mitigated my reliance on the Google Reader platform, to the extent that I wouldn’t even login to the service for months at a time.

Since Reader was axed on July 1st, and with the sudden renewed interest in RSS and reader apps, I decided to check out an alternative to Reader, just in case I wanted to stop using BlackBerry News, and also because I plan on moving away from the BlackBerry platform in a few months time and will be in need of a good reader.

That’s when I found out about Feedly. It’s a free, web-based service that is beautifully designed and also has apps for iPad and iPhone.

Feedly uses your Google account credentials to sign in, and allows you to add feeds by categories (so far I’ve got three categories – News, Tech and Business). You can read your feeds in various formats, including a Flipboard-esque “magazine” view.

Feedly has many traces of the old Google Reader design, which means that us veteran Reader users will feel right at home using it. But it’s also got some awesome new additions, such as a “Today” view that creates different “editions” with top stories collated in a beautiful interface.

I’m enjoying using Feedly, and look forward to trying it out on iOS soon.

Automator: The Unsung Hero of the Mac

There is an app that comes standard with Mac OS X – in fact, it’s been there for many of the operating system’s iterations – that is, for me, an unsung hero of the power of the Macintosh.

It’s called Automator. According to Apple,

Automator is your personal automation assistant, making it easy for you to do more, and with less hassle. With Automator, you use a simple drag-and-drop process to create and run “automation recipes” that perform simple or complex tasks for you, when and where you need them. (source: apple’s mac 101)

Mac users can access Automator by typing “Automator” into the Spotlight search (top right in the menu bar).

Why I love Automator

As webmaster for SKKSA, I need to prepare hundreds of photos to go online in a single update of our website’s gallery. When a photo is taken by our photographers, the hi-res file size is over a megabyte, making it unwieldy for use on our website (we try to optimize it for as many users with varying Internet connections and technologies). Furthermore, I need photos to have meaningful file names so that I can easily manage them once they’re on our server.

Enter Automator: I design workflows in Automator to take a bunch of photos I’ve dropped into it, and re-size them by a certain percentage factor. Then I arrange for Automator to rename the files sequentially, appending a number to the prefix, and then the named description (usually the name of the event). Clicking “Run workflow” sends this wonderful robot into action, and it diligently executes the workflow I designed.

This process saves me at least two hours’ work.

But Automator goes beyond simple file tasks. You can use it to design PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, rotate images, even execute system tasks such as operating the iSight camera within an app like iPhoto.

Automator is just another reason why I’m in love with the Macintosh, and why I can’t imagine life without my beloved MacBook Pro.