12 steps to provide design students, educators and professionals the best opportunities for success in a changing landscape.

You could argue that architectural education is pretty good the way it is. In fact, it is most likely the best that it has ever been. But it’s not good enough. Just as architects and designers need to deliver more value in the future, the education that supports and gives birth to the future of the profession needs to prove its relevance.

It is the profession’s responsibility to support the evolution of higher education. Human capital is in jeopardy. We have a talent supply problem as we look to the horizon.

There is a changing nature in the work of design. In this context many educators acknowledge that higher education has not kept up with the big changes taking place in the design professions. Who has? Change and uncertainty face all of us. Finger pointing is not going to advance us to a higher place. It is time for architects and educators to adopt a learning, non-blaming approach to change.

Who now doubts that we live in a time of massive change? While we may acknowledge that the future of our AEC industry is fiction, we can nevertheless imagine future relevance based on trends in technology, demographics, urbanization, construction delivery, globalization and economic shifts. The sober reality is that the game of professional practice is changing. It will become stronger or weaker, and education will play a major role in future success levels. We must also prepare for permanent cycles of disruptive changes. There are numerous strategic fronts that need to be addressed. Integrated and multidisciplinary practices have every changing business models. Sustainability is driving design. Practitioners are learning to give even more services and experiences for the money. Contractors are establishing design studios. Technology is showing signs of new artificial intelligence that will not only disrupt but also alter value propositions. We are at a crossroads.

The recent meeting of the Design Futures Council focused on steps to new health in the design professions. The point was made that “change will never again be as slow as it is today.” And so we must act. It won’t be easy for designers or educators or students. Some will say that design education has become too self-absorbed and without its own foresight. If this point of view is blindly accepted without action then it can only mean that the value of architectural education will surely diminish. If so, then the future of the profession will be in jeopardy. Complacency, if it settles into education, will be the enemy to successful transformation of the profession. Fast action is most certainly strategic. It must not be an option. The lack of commitment to continuous improvement alone could kill off future generations of the architecture profession. The profession doesn’t stand a chance to succeed in the future if it can’t get the best and brightest people — the top human capital — regenerating the profession year after year.

I have a proposal. At the base, I believe that there should be a fresh approach and that we should question our current habit patterns. We should do things differently. Call this a next-level approach or strategic alignment. To measure the pulse of the potential of this, one only needs to look at what we see in today’s best-of-class professional firms. Innovation lives in these firms. The fascinating thing is that in spite of the naysayers, the design profession is pioneering into new satisfying realities that include unexpected upside scenarios in career satisfaction and monetary remuneration.

We have discovered that those who embrace entrepreneurialism in the profession are not only dealing with the threats head on but, even more importantly, they also are now focusing on adjustments that will bring growth in the future. They forecast growth for the profession. Not merely survival. Understanding their actions provides us with a sense of the territory ahead where there can be a more robust alignment between the academy and the profession. This could become a sweet spot between the profession and the academy. It is a choice that we now have, to re-energize professional education. Those participating will be rewarded.

Rather than perpetuating bygone and stale beliefs and dogmas, why not bring leadership dynamism to align with today’s construction industry and environmental realities? This could mandate a new contextual competence in architectural education. Moreover, it implies satisfying the new social responsibility that goes with students’ utopian aspirations. Indeed, schools have many opportunities to align with and lead the changing profession. This will mean sidestepping the traps and conveniences of the cloistered villages within the university that in some cases have lost sight of professional education.

Here’s a proposal to bring design education forward into a position for increasingly indispensable value.

  1. Obsess with keeping current. Provide a campus program for faculties and staff that updates the latest statistics and metrics about the design profession. For instance, compensation metrics and the business metrics of success. Bring students, faculty, and administration together to share knowledge on the current realities in the professions. Today’s graduates should come to understand the real opportunities and set goals accordingly. Get rid of the stale mythology of a profession that doesn’t exist anymore. Sadly, some educators are discouraging their students for all the wrong reasons. For instance, students should be provided with the transparencies about latest benchmarks on designer compensation, bonus and ownership equity models. We don’t need to hear another story about Lou Kahn’s business failures as if it’s the end of the story. It is only part of the story. The biggest part of the story is to learn from failure and to study success. Today there are hundreds of stories providing case studies about the successful architect. It’s time to understand this reality.
  2. Teach leadership in addition to design education. Yes, business leadership and communication skills should be taught to every student before graduating. Every graduate should be able to stand up at an AIA or association meeting and provide a confident synopsis of their background and areas of interest. They should be able to establish eye contact and use the current language of professional practice. They should study video tapes of themselves in school (or enroll in a thespian acting or debate class) until they have confidence in their own communication skills. Students should learn that in reality, designers are in the communications business. Without this, the value of the designers in society and around the business table lacks the virility — the voice — to advance the future.
  3. Learning by doing, hands on programs, cooperative education and the like may be difficult, but its value cannot be denied. For when it comes to areas like building on-site supervisory experience, cost analysis, fee and business adjustments to scope changes, and day-to-day project management, the best way to acquire the necessary understanding of how buildings are made is by practicing the art and science rather than studying it. This will not be easy. The recession has hit cooperative education models and internships hard. However, the tenets and principles will certainly evolve. Becoming a successful architect or running a design enterprise are not endeavors that translate well into lectures and academic analysis.
  4. Maximize what I’ll call the design enterprise/continuing-education offerings that bring practitioners into school both digitally and to campus. Create social and intellectual programs that build bridges between the profession and education. A surprisingly small number of successful practitioners actively teach. It need not be a lost resource. The profession also needs high quality continuing education. This provides an opportunity to bring together compassionate and relevant activities between schools and the profession.
  5. Veteran and tenured faculty are in need of renewal. Some schools admit to a percentage of dead-wood faculties. It doesn’t have to be this way. An exchange program between schools could be established for veteran and tenured faculty needing some regeneration and  new surroundings. Every school can participate in this program, which could have a twelve month to twenty-four month schedule. This could be coordinated by one of the associations such as an AIA/ACSA joint staffing model. This initiative is important because complacency has no place in design education if students are to get the value they are paying for. Educators and practitioners alike should always be unsatisfied and hungry to participate in the unfolding future of the profession.
  6. In studio, teach the current metrics in finance, marketing, professional services and operations. This is the Design + Enterprise model. Make it a part of every project in the studio environment. Imbedded into every studio should be lessons that reveal project management information that firms use now to stay accountable. This includes costs, construction time, design efficiency, square-foot metrics and the likely marketing overhead the project brought with it.
  7. Special lecture programs should show the best talent in both design and business practices. Balance them. If for instance there are eight big-name lecture programs in a term, insert the practice management leaders in front of the students, too. The learning objective should be not just to understand what the firm does and its outputs but also how the firm does it and its processes. Ask the firms to cover the budgets of award winning projects and how they work. Ask them about profit and if they are meeting their goals. Ask them to have a candid conversation with students about value migration and strategic planning, fee shifts, social responsibility and new delivery process strategies. Ask them to cover the owner/leader transition issues in their firm.
  8. Faculty should be encouraged to establish formal roles with firms. This would get educators into firms on a regular basis. The profession needs to reach out to educators on this — not unlike affirmative action. Educators can be on the policy board, perhaps, or an advisor on technology or as expert to the firm on a specialty area such as acoustics, lighting, contract negotiation, ethics, etc. There should be more give and take between professors and the professional practice. Firms need to pay for these policy and advisory services from the educators. Schools should set the goal that every faculty member becomes a board member or advisor to a professional practice, a construction firm, a product manufacturers or another industry player. This will provide relevant give and take and provide value and new insight into the system. It will also create rapport, respect and admiration, some things we need to have more of between schools and the profession.
  9. Every firm should make a financial commitment to the college program of their choice. My own opinion is that every firm — even the smallest — should contribute a minimum of $2,500 per year to higher education. And for medium, large and extra-large firms I recommend setting a preliminary budget as a percentage of net profits. A typical firm earns a profit of 9 percent. A percent of that could flow to schools of their choice. As the return on investment grows, even more investments can be made. Underlying this strategy is the attitude that there should be more development flowing from practice to education. Chairs and endowments should be much more aggressively established. Once this happens it will tend to make programs stronger and more valued within context of building the profession for the future. It takes only a little imagination to see how valuable this can be, and it can be argued that the future of the profession depends on it. With discipline, more than $25 million in annual gifts can be provided to our accredited schools of architecture annually.
  10. Establish a meritocracy system of rewards with staff and faculty. It is not time well spent to challenge the tenure system, frankly, but there can be energized leadership coaching around meritocracy, high performance and pay for excellence. The focus should be on what can be done. The profession should support this with endowments and chairs and gifts without strings.
  11. Facilities in colleges and universities should, at minimum, mirror those in professional practice. Good design, good housekeeping and the latest tools should be in place. Spaces in design school should inspire, be well designed, well curated and not be allowed to decline into an anything-goes mess.
  12. Digital and distance learning is a reality and it should have a legitimate role as an option in architectural education. Set a marketplace responsive role to enable the non-accredited degree graduates to catch up and qualify for licensure.

There will always of course be better and worse schools. This is also true in practice. Just as some students get an inferior education, some employees in practice are not mentored well. The future demands more if we wish for a stronger profession. This is one of the biggest opportunities for change. It can re-energize the design profession of the future. Respect for design education can be exponentially enhanced. We should encourage leaders to set targets that they may never meet. We are in a race with change and as new value niches are discovered we need to seize and deploy these. We need a strong link between education and practice around the issues of shifts, foresight and actions that can improve the future.

James P. Cramer is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.