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What We Talk About When We Talk About Design March 23, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in architect, BIM, collaboration, creativity, essence, IPD, management, marginalization, problem solving, questions, software architects, technology, the economy.
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Design. Noun or verb?

Building design? Noun.

Architects design? Verb.

So why do architects keep treating design like it’s a noun?

What architects talk about when they talk about design – is mostly buildings.

Design strategies, initiatives, options?  Design criteria, benchmarks and objectives? Leave these for MBAs.

 “Hiring an AIA architect,” says the AIA website, “could be the best decision you’ll make for your design project.” Yet no client considers their project a design assignment. That’s framing it as an architect sees it.

Design – the noun – is a tool architects use to plan and solve a client’s or owner’s problems: they need more space, they need to move and they need to attract more students or customers or retain the ones they have. They don’t have design projects – we do.

And note: the emphasis is on action  –  not thing.

To a client, an architect may help you to realize, recommend, guide, clarify, define, orchestrate, and help you get the most for your construction dollar. All verbs.

If that’s what we mean by design – then why don’t we say it? Why don’t we remind others that that is what we do?

And with the 2010 AIA Convention on the horizon why don’t we remind ourselves of this meaning of the word?

That said, if design is our core competency – what distinguishes us from pretenders –the act of design takes up a relatively small part of our day.

Over the past 25 years I have worked on several projects where I might design the building in a day – and then spend the next 3-5 years fleshing it out – and everything else that’s required to see to its realization. Some would say fleshing it out is someone else’s design development and another person’s iteration and still another’s level of detail. Sure – there is a great deal more design to do once the client says go. But again – the emphasis is on action – design as a verb – and not on the building.

One of the advantages of the new technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) – the collaborative work process enabled by it (the subject of my other blog www.bimandintegrateddesign.com)– is that design occurs early, involving many stakeholders, and can come from just about anywhere. Yes, the architect may orchestrate the effort – and may be the one person qualified to do so – but she’s still applying for that position, it has not been awarded yet. Design in the near future will happen sooner in the process, by many – including considerable contributions made by non-designers and designers alike.

In fact – architects have been threatened by the role of the “designer” that has been appearing more and more in industry diagrams illustrating construction project teams. Where in these diagrams is the architect? The architect’s very survival instinct kicks in when this happens and what ensues can be unnerving. I have seen chairs fly and voices rise. Someone else is moving in on our territory and the instinct is to attack.

When we talk about design – who is our intended audience? By calling attention to design are we thinking that this will remind others on the construction team who really has the corner on design? Is this the meta-message for making this the year of design? “Don’t forget – architects design, too.” By calling attention to design, are we primarily reminding others that we design? Or – and at the same time – are we reminding ourselves?

Because many architects haven’t designed a building since the immersive studio experience in school and are in need of reminding. All but buried in building codes, zoning regulations, contractor’s RFI’s and change orders, lean construction, green building rating systems –  not to mention BIM, IPD, VDC and a hundred other acronyms that come our way – it’s almost as though instead of announcing to the world who we are, we are announcing it to ourselves. It’s almost as though we’re experiencing a form of professional amnesia or Alzheimer’s – and can’t remember who we are and what we do.

Design: Who we are. What we do.

Part of the problem is that the word design has become ubiquitous. Architects, of course, don’t have a corner on the design market.  Yes, architects design, but so do web designers, product designers, urban designers, environmental designers, business designers, set design, packaging design, game design, exhibition designers, landscape designers, graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers, fashion designers and all the other T-shaped designers to name but a few.

If design is the planning that serves as the basis for the making of every object and system in the universe, then what are we talking about when we talk about design?

How can our purpose, our heart, our core – as design professionals – be such a small part of what we do?

And – if the new technologies and work processes have their way – we’re about to do even less of it.

Or do more of it in our heads.

Or conceptualize in the monitor, using the program’s built-in metrics to ferret out the most cost effective options.

The problem with the word design isn’t that it too narrowly defines what we as architects do. The problem is that the word design is overused, vague, appropriated by too many industries and domains – from MBA’s to makers of medical devices. I can understand the need for a convention to have as its subject a sweeping or enveloping concept to allow for the myriad specific entries and presentation-. As the convention material puts it, the weft through which a number of threads—sustainability, diversity, professional practice, technologies, leadership, communities, typologies, and others—will be woven. Last year’s was diversity. Next year’s – you can imagine – will be selected from amongst the remaining threads.

That design is not enough of a differentiator, whether building, city or global design.

To go from diversity to design isn’t to return to our roots.

Better we should ask ourselves these questions:

  • What distinguishes the architect?
  • What is unique to the architect?

Is it design or is it design thinking?

Is it design or is it problem identifying and problem solving?

The word design has too many connotations and is appropriated by too many industries. Earlier, I did my best to answer these questions here in Ten Ways to Face the Decade like an Architect.

10 Questions Architects Need to Ask Themselves

So, before heading off for the AIA Convention in Miami, ask yourself: What do we talk about when we talk about design?

  • Are we talking about design as a competitive advantage over our competition, namely design-builders and construction managers and other design professionals?
  • Is design enough of a differentiator? Others on the construction team see themselves as designers – including some owners and fellow design professionals.
  • By separating design from the rest of the process are we reinforcing others’ firmly held notions – however erroneous – that architects are elitist, arrogant, isolationists, rarified in some way.
  • Will architects who gather to celebrate design – and celebrate themselves – be accused of navel gazing, reinforcing the scourge of being labeled out-of-touch aesthetes?
  • Will architects be seen by others – disenfranchised and disillusioned architects among them – as reinforcing their already perceived irrelevance in the construction process, by meeting to talk about design they’re proverbially rearranging deckchairs while the rest of the profession goes down?
  • Will meeting to talk about design further sharpen the architect’s already considerable edge by playing-up their cool factor and wow factor?
  • If design can’t be taught and is something you intuit – that you either have it or you don’t – why meet to talk about it?
  • By talking about design do architects risk alienating teammates by remind them of their increasing irrelevance?
  • While the rest of the world is knee deep in design thinking will architects be perceived as focusing on design without the thinking?
  • By talking about the design of buildings as objects as opposed to systems, flows or solutions, will architects – with the Wal-Marting of the world and Targeting of design – reinforce the commoditizing of their skill-sets?

Thomas Friedman perhaps brought this point home when he wrote

If I just have the spark of an idea now, I can get a designer in Taiwan to design it. I can get a factory in China to produce a prototype. I can get a factory in Vietnam to mass manufacture it. I can use Amazon.com to handle fulfillment. I can use freelancer.com to find someone to do my logo and manage my backroom. And I can do all this at incredibly low prices. The one thing that is not a commodity and never will be is that spark of an idea.

Are architects talking about design like fish talking about water?

A San Francisco architect, Ted Pratt, Principal and Founder of MTP Architects, wrote to me today

The idea of Design Thinking is really taking hold here with business.  Last week I attended a panel discussion focused on the topic of Design and Business.  The event was held at Swissnex here in San Francisco.  All of the panel members were business people.  I commented to my business partner that we needed to be on the panel alongside the persons from Clorox and Nestle.  There was an administrator from the California College of Arts’ MBA program.  They have an MBA focused on Design Thinking.

Architects are already seen by many as the makers of pretty pictures. By getting together to talk about design will we be perpetuating this perception?

As Ted wrote, we needed to be on the panel.

Architects – working at many scales, from GIS to doorknobs – are first and foremost design thinkers. Design thinking is a term that some feel is the latest buzzword and by the time you read this will already be past-tense. But the truth is – whatever you call it – design thinking is something we as architects have done for centuries. You can learn more about it here.

What should our message be?

In the AIA’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan, under Vision, it is written:

The American Institute of Architects: Driving positive change through the power of design.

Sooner that contrarian author and Design Futures Council board member, Richard Farson, author of The Power of Design, should speak at the convention.

And under Goals:

Serve as the Credible Voice: Promote the members and their AIA as the credible voice for quality design and the built environment.

Quality design. There you have it. With the focus front and center of the product and not the process.

The planet will always need quality design. But what the world needs right now is not more buildings but the creativity and ingenuity that goes into their design applied to the problems and forces at hand.

We love buildings – we love architecture – that is why we became architects: to be part of their design and realization.

But, as IDEO’s Diego Rodriguez says, Stop Treating Design as A Noun.

Is design even the message we need to be sending? At this time in history, shouldn’t our message be on collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, making our teammates look better, improving the process for all involved, playing well with others and our trustworthiness?

Design for the new decade

The 2010 AIA Convention has as its theme Design for the new decade. Design, a return to design. Getting back to our roots. Reprioritizing. Do what we do best. Which is namely,

Cool buildings, innovative form and materials, sustainable design.

With the selection of Dan Pink as keynote, the message appears to be that we have been spending too much time in the left hemisphere – with all of our focus on the left-brain thinking required of practice – and seek some Florida solace in the sun and respite in the right.

Once architects leave Miami, their brains newly balanced and their hemispheres aligned, perhaps we ought to consider the fact that what distinguishes the architect is the mercurial interaction of our left and right hemispheres. Design is not the domain exclusively of the left or right brains – but the back-and-forth interaction of the two. Our real value as architects occurs in neither individual lobe but in the space between.

Architects already do what the world needs most right now – they don’t need to emphasize one hemisphere over another – they just need to get the word out there a little louder in a world that’s already screaming for attention; that this is what we already do, this is who we already are.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Dan Pink. He spoke back to back at the Design Futures Council’s summit AND my kid’s middle school last Fall. He’s moved on – driven – past design onto more intrinsically motivated pastures. And we ought to take a clue from him and follow his lead.

So it should be clear by now. Design isn’t what we do or who we are. But instead Design thinking. Design deliberation. Design countenance. It’s not design – that’s shared by far too many to have any meaning – but what we do with it. Design isn’t a skill but a modifier for who we are and what we do. We ought to start acting more like it and let others in on the secret.

So go ahead – re-commit yourself to design as the architect’s primary mode of thought and action. Just don’t be fooled by the siren song of designed objects be they places, projects or things. What you are re-committing to is making design thought and design action a priority.

Design thinking and design doing: who we are and what we do.

This is the crux: for the present time – to reinforce the notion that we are team players, that we are relevant, that we are necessary – we ought to emphasize our positive impact on the process, not the end result.

We are designers in that we are design managers and design leaders.

We are designers – we are design thinkers – gathering to re-commit to helping to define and solve our clients’, city’s, community’s and neighborhoods’ problems.

That is design for the new decade.

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