An optimistic assessment on the future of the design professions

Often, I get letters and calls asking questions about the future of the design professions. Most of the time, these requests target content and data from our nearly one dozen annual research projects. This information is often used for organizational and professional practice strategic planning.

However, there is also increasing interest about careers and design education. I’m convinced that design and architecture can be excellent career choices as we look to the future. It’s not for the masses. But for people with talent it is a path worth serious consideration.

DesignIntelligence is published for the Design Futures Council. Ninety-five percent of our circulation is among partners, principals, and leaders of professional practices as well as others in corporations and client organizations. However, each November we put together an issue devoted to design education. This results in an altogether different reader profile. Thousands of copies of DesignIntelligence are circulated outside our regular professional audience.

Our research on education was originally motivated by the need of hiring firms and organizations to understand which schools are best preparing their students for the future of the design professions. But it has taken on another life: to better inform future students of their options.

This open letter is for parents and students who are looking to the future with a curiosity about the design professions and about career choices. These are my thoughts on design and architecture education looking forward to 2015 and beyond.

1. Architecture and design has a future.

Our design, construction, and real estate industry will be one of the fastest growing in the world. With the world population exceeding 7 billion and about 75 million people to be added next year, housing and servicing the world’s people presents a global challenge and opportunity.

The trends point to increasing demand for architects and designers for generations to come.

Architects and designers are expected to be in increasing demand worldwide. And even with new technologies aiding productivity there will be a shortage of talent. Research reports by the Design Futures Council and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics point to the need for architects and designers outpacing many other occupations and professions. There will be economic cycles of course, so expect dips from time to time, but the trends point to increasing demand for architects and designers for generations to come.

2. Architecture and design’s rigor can be tough but satisfying.

You will pick up valuable lessons not only about design methods but also having to do with people, communications, leadership, and service. These often last a lifetime. The inner drive to create a better world and re-engineer how we inhabit our planet is at the root of what it means to be a designer. For some, it’s an innate desire. After all, architecture and design is the residue of civilization.

Structures that were erected thousands of years ago still astound us. Beautiful cathedrals that were fashioned by thousands of hands and minds over many decades are just as audacious and dazzling today as when they were first erected.

Students in architecture and design work hard. And most will come to love it.

Today there is a new awakening in the design professions; design changes everything. We’ve learned that if we can imagine something, we can create it. Learning in this realm is tough but gloriously satisfying. Students in architecture and design work hard. And most will come to love it. Some will immerse themselves in these studies and in the process discover who they really are and what they can contribute in the future.

3. Architecture and design is a great professional education.

The essence of design is creating value. Whether it’s in the making of a new product or building, solving a technical problem, devising innovative ways of doing things, or finding new uses for conventional materials.

Design takes us out of the realm of the familiar and into new territory, creating something valuable in the process. Design changes the way we see the world and the way we move and work within it. It redefines our sense of what is possible and bolsters our sense of worth. As a professional education it is second to none — and it is durable; A lifelong sense of leadership, service, and innovation.

4. Architecture and design is a good generalist education.

A few years ago we did a study of more than 3,000 graduates of the college of architecture, landscape architecture and planning at one of the most prestigious universities in North America. We researched these graduates and tracked 18 data points, ranging from type of workplace to compensation and leadership titles. What did we learn?

Former students headed major banks and Fortune 500 organizations, served as leaders in education, and were deeply involved in public service. One of the major investment banks carefully selected half a dozen graduates for officer positions. Design education creates bridges and the skills are valuable in a wide variety of ways. There is a realization that just about everything that we hear, smell, taste, touch or experience has been designed in some way.

Design provides a common bond of communications across a broad spectrum of populations, linking many minds together. All design exists in relation to its context. Design always has a social dimension because many people feel its impact. The more people who experience it, the more powerful it is and the more it is worth.

Architecture and design education incubates a leadership voice. It is this voice that endures, regardless of the professional track one takes in life.

Architecture and design graduates enter many fields, as it can be a stepping stone to a variety of options. It’s an education that incubates a leadership voice. It is this voice that endures, regardless of the professional track one takes in life.

5. Architecture and design requires travel and plenty of your own personal homework.

The degrees in design are a lot of work. No nonchalance permitted. Design always has a cultural dimension because its impact is felt by many communities across the globe. Travel and work will help you begin to understand various value propositions in different cultures.

What is a good building really worth to a community? The answers are complex and varied. Everything we see, touch, or hear has undergone a profound transformation in how it’s designed, manufactured, delivered, and become a part of our everyday live. Design creates experiences and communities.

We encourage students to get out of the class room and travel outside their comfort zones. Value creation is the organizing paradigm of design education. And keep this in mind: everything we now know will change. Not because it is wrong but because it can be improved.

A cogent world view is imperative in order to give a mature contribution. Many aspects of the world are ripe for reinvention. When this happens the benefits will be huge. Good design is a win-win for all concerned.

Today’s students are the smartest in the history of the profession. They will be leading the way not only in what gets designed, but how the entire process is managed, from beginning to end. As one travels and does homework, there is often an unfolding trait: collaboration at an über-level. When this happens, we get a more functional and empathetic world. Good design can be powerful.

Architecture and design rankings are flawed. Our rankings are of value and yet they are far from perfect. Some parents and students put too much emphasis on numbered rankings. Sometimes we get calls from people who just want to see the list. They will say, “Just tell me if such and such a school is in the top 20?” That thinking can be dangerous. We want to stress that it is possible — even likely — that an unranked choice may be the best option for some students.

Indeed, there are many dimensions to consider. Don’t be the parent or student who ignores the fact that smaller schools, newer schools, and state schools may not have built up as strong of brand repute with the hiring firms. It takes time.

America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools from DesignIntelligence is an attempt to size up educational options in four of the design disciplines. We use triangulation to gather perspective from the key vantage points: practitioners who hire graduates, deans of architecture and design schools, and students.

The results of our surveys should be only the beginning of a broader-based evaluation of whether a school is right for you. As veteran secondary art educator Greg Stanforth wrote in last year’s issue, the choice of schools should include considerations as wide-ranging as the geographic setting, availability of co-ops and internships, quality of campus life, and your observation of classes in progress.

While it may be tempting to reduce the criteria to a set of survey results, the decision of which design school is right for you is not so simple. But the complexity of the decision mirrors the scale of the potential reward as you find the place to launch you to a lifetime of fulfilling professional service through design.

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.