2019 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Design Futures Council! Over the years, the DFC has grown a very strong legacy of leadership and transformational change. DFC’s leadership in key trends includes sustainable design, technology, process innovation, management and design, and international practice. We wanted to share some of our articles from our 25-year history—from the beginnings of DesignIntelligence (1995) through today’s DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Enjoy!

 

Each and every new design commission comes with its own unique circumstances and parameters. There are always issues of site, program, budget, schedule, zoning requirements and other regulatory restrictions, plus of course aesthetics—form, material, color, texture, proportion and so forth. When we add the interpersonal dynamics that prevail among clients, consultants, and contractors, not to mention our professional colleagues, it is easy to see why the design profession is so resistant to “management”—there are just too many variables. Since no two projects are ever the same, each and every one is ripe with exploration and discovery. A good designer will ask many questions, seek alternative solutions, and withhold judgment as long as possible. This is because each design decision, once made, forecloses others, and so there is an understandable reluctance to commit too early.

Yet commit we must, because without commitment, there can be no design. The great joy and challenge of design is that it requires imagination, creativity, and elasticity to see problems from many different angles in order to arrive at an integrated solution. But while peripheral vision is important, the key word here is arrive.

Alternatives and options live only in the future; they are only potential solutions. A real design solution—the only kind that really matters—lives in the present tense. It is not “could, would, or should.” It is. In the game of design, it does not matter so much what might happen or what might work—it matters most what will happen and what will get built. This means that to get concrete results, concrete decisions must be made, and made to stick.

When water cools to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a change of state—it condenses to become ice. At that temperature, water is no longer a vapor or a fluid. What the molecules lose in freedom, they gain in structure. The same is true in the design process. There comes a time in any project when the array of alternatives, no matter how seductive or intriguing, must be put aside in favor of a commitment to a single solution. Without the confidence to make this commitment—to freeze the design—the designer has nothing to deliver.

Sometimes it seems that clients understand this better than designers do. They are willing to pay for creativity, to be sure, and they value problem solving skills. However, clients also understand that of the many options that could be developed, only one can actually be built. Which one? When is the right time to “stop designing”? That’s where professional judgment comes in, and that’s when architects really earn their paychecks. We all know that it’s just as easy to ruin a cake by taking it out of the oven too soon as by leaving it in too long. Either way, the results are marginalized. Good design, like good cooking, takes skill, judgment and timing. This is especially true when we consider that design decisions are the necessary precedents for other critical parts of the building process. Consultants and contractors cannot do their jobs properly until designers do theirs first. Clients understand this. Do we?

Design has many dimensions—form, function, aesthetics, economics, time, and politics, to name a few. Successful designers understand how to align these factors to create an integrated whole. They understand that there is always more than one way to solve a problem, and that the real value of their services lies not so much in thinking up yet another clever option, but in bringing the process to closure. This is not to suggest that designers should take shortcuts, or that the process should be artificially abbreviated, but it does mean that without closure, there is no design solution and hence no design value. This is counterintuitive to the way in which most professionals have been trained. Students are encouraged to keep exploring and refining until they “get it right.” This makes sense for students, who pay tuition to learn what they don’t know. However, for professionals, who presumably have acquired the requisite knowledge and experience to create real value for their clients, the opposite holds true. Their job is to “get it right” in the first place, and the sooner the better. That’s why they get paid.

Producing quality architecture requires the confidence to make thousands upon thousands of decisions. Each one is like a brushstroke in a painting. The first few are likely to be tentative and exploratory. Later ones will modify or even cover up those made earlier. As the painting takes shape, the effect of the brushstrokes—the “decisions”—is cumulative. Each one depends on those made earlier and each contributes to the total effect, preparing the way for others to follow. No single brushstroke makes or breaks the painting all by itself. Without thousands of brushstrokes there will be no painting at all. The same is true in design. Any design decision—even one that will be changed later—is better than nothing, because it advances the overall process. Good design avoids ambiguity and requires commitment to a defined outcome. It is this commitment which is the essence of design skill.

When designing, many confuse process with product. Process is the way in which something gets done, and product is the tangible result. The design process, for all of its charms, is not why architects get hired. Process may be important, but it’s only a means to an end. The essential act of the designer is to decide—to make the choices that define an outcome. Without closure, the potential for a quality outcome is lost. Deferring decision making unnecessarily can be just as poisonous as moving too quickly, and is often more so. Simply put, when faced with the opportunity to make a good decision, choose it or lose it, and then move on. Good design depends on it.

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by Scott Simpson

This article originally appeared in DesignIntelligence on 3.31.2000.