On nurturing design talent and creativity

Nurturing design talent and creativity is something I think about a lot. I have to because the future of the architecture practice that I lead depends on it. At the same time, it is a subject I’m personally passionate about, because the future of the profession I love depends on it too.

And while I could wax prolifically about the role and responsibility of design firms in developing creative talent, my discussion here is focused on where the seeds of this ability are formed: in the classrooms, lecture halls, studios and collaboration spaces at colleges and universities around the world. As a profession, we have to be aware of how we are educating our future.

After more than two decades in this field, and through my own experience earning a BA and MA in architectural studies, I remain steadfast in my belief that a student’s journey is a time for dialogue, collaboration, risk-taking and innovation. This is when a student’s critical thinking and problem solving abilities need to be honed. Architectural studies should help shape and mold young learners into the purveyors of great ideas that can have a positive influence not only on the built environment, but society in general.

I subscribe to the philosophy espoused by Scott Simpson in his article, “School’s Out. Now What?,” which was published by DesignIntelligence in November/December 2014. “We live in a world where credentials carry a great deal of weight. Degrees, certifications, and CEUs are all a necessary part of professional practice,” Simpson wrote. “However, they should not be an end in themselves. Mere access to information doesn’t make us smart; these days, anyone can Google anything in a matter of seconds. What really counts is creative problem solving and an ability to think critically about a wide range of issues.”

Knowledge Versus Wisdom

A year or so ago, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) endorsed the concept of an additional, structured education path that leads to licensure in a U.S. jurisdiction upon graduation from an accredited program. This path will integrate the rigorous internship and examination requirements that aspiring architects must fulfill into the years spent completing a professional degree. It is the pilot for a new concept that pursues the education/experience/examination elements of licensure in an integrated rather than sequential manner, yet without diluting any of the criteria for the three elements.

This path has the potential to shave years off the licensure process and help young designers ascend more quickly to the ranks (and salaries) of full-fledged architects. According to the most recent NCARB data, 2014’s class of licensees took an average of 7.4 years to complete the Intern Development Program (IDP) and Architect Registration Examination (ARE) — not including school. Thirteen schools accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) have been accepted for participation in the Integrated Path Initiative and are now developing curricula that roll internships and the ARE into their coursework.

I applaud NCARB’s efforts to apply critical thinking to the exploration of new paths to licensure. Yet I remain unconvinced that this particular path is the right one for the future of the architecture field.

I agree that licensure is critical to the integrity of our profession, that we need to have professionals who are licensed, who are well-trained and knowledgeable about the production of buildings and who can produce construction documents that ultimately result in buildings that are safe and perform as they were intended.

But I also recognize that our profession is changing. As recently as 10 years ago, our profession was based solely on the production of those documents in order to construct buildings. Architects were expected to design a building, produce the construction documents based on that design and turn those documents over to a contractor to build it. That was the typical delivery method.

But now, many times, architects act solely as the designers. The introduction of design-build, integrated project delivery and other alternative delivery methods have changed the building process. So too have advancements in building information modeling, which has resulted in the growing trend of the contractor or even a subcontractor producing and owning the construction documents. As a result, that part of our business is becoming more and more commoditized.

Architectural licensing is fundamental to our profession but not to our business. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Where architects bring value to the world is through the wisdom we bring as designers of more than just buildings. We bring value when we assemble multi-disciplinary teams that foster progress. We bring value when we design complex and integrated building systems that support advanced discovery. We bring value when we design communities that enrich the ways people work, live and play. We bring value when we create architecture that enhances our day-to-day experiences, that creates a sense of place that is meaningful to the society it serves. We bring value when we design systems that are regenerative and restorative, that respect the human impact of our work.

What happens to this value if a speedier path to licensure fosters a new generation of professionals who are simply the reciter of facts instead the purveyor of ideas like the ones above? If the rigor to become critical thinkers is circumvented, what happens to the value of what an architect brings to the world?

In the education issue of DesignIntelligence one year ago, James Cramer reported that the design, construction, and real estate industry is estimated to be one of the fastest growing in the world. With the world population exceeding seven billion and about 75 million people to be added in the coming year, housing and serving the world’s people presents a global challenge and opportunity.

Will architects be up to help solving this challenge if they are singularly focused on passing an exam and haven’t been encouraged to explore and, yes, even fail?

Experience Counts

I am also a firm believer that learning from one’s mistakes is one of life’s greatest lessons, and that the best place for architects to incubate and to grow their understanding of the design process and make mistakes is in school rather than working for an architectural practice. The economic forces that drive architectural practices today demand efficiency, not exploration. (But that is another article.)

That said, I believe the best way to learn about a building is when you are working on one. So while academia is the place to nurture critical thinking, the experience gained “on the job” is needed for maturity and responsibility. I have yet to meet a graduate ready to take on professional liability. They do not have the knowledge, experience or skills to seal a set of documents. The bottom line is that you can’t teach real-world experience.

Trying to fit that experience into the already challenging coursework that is required of an architecture major is equally troubling. The necessary perspicacity takes years to develop. It cannot be rushed.

Finally, I worry that this alternative path for architectural schools will someday lead to all of them being evaluated not by how well they incubate an understanding of design, but simply by the number of graduates who have passed the ARE exam. And that, in turn, will eventually lead to a profound shift in the way we measure curriculum at all major architecture schools.

The latest data in NCARB’s 2015 “By the Numbers” report lead to a single, positive conclusion: the architecture profession is not simply healthy, but thriving. Major findings in the report include a record-high figure for aspiring architects, and growing diversity within the profession in terms of both women, and racial and ethnic minorities. It also shows that the number of licensed architects is steadily increasing, while the average age of architects upon initial licensure is falling — making for an expanding, and more youthful, professional community.

We still have work to do, but we are improving. This is especially heartening in light of past years’ statistics that cite the potential brain-drain in the architecture profession because of architects leaving, architecture grads pursuing other career paths, and too many high school graduates not even considering architecture as a vocation.

I believe that we must remain relevant; we cannot become commoditized. We must insert ourselves into public dialogue as instruments of change. Young people want to enter a profession where they feel they can make a difference. The study of architecture certainly provides a vehicle to do just that. Let’s not fall off in our determination to execute it properly.

Doug Wignall spent the first part of his career designing healthcare facilities throughout the U.S., and from that, started focusing more on business development. He is a senior fellow in the Design Futures Council. In 2006 he became the director of HDR’s healthcare program, and in 2012 he was named the president of HDR Architecture.


Scott Simpson. “Schools Out. Now What?,” DesignIntelligence, November/December 2014; http://www.di.net/articles/schools-out-now-what/

“NCARB Endorses Additional Path to Becoming an Architect: Architect License Upon Graduation,” May 30, 2014; www.ncarb.org/News-and-Events/News/2014/05-BODendorsesLTF.aspx

“NCARB 2015 By the Numbers,” www.ncarb.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Special-Paper/2015NCARBbytheNumbers.pdf

“Inaugural Integrated Path Schools Named by NCARB,” August 31, 2015; www.ncarb.org/News-and-Events/News/2015/Aug-IntegratedPathSchools.aspx

James Cramer, “Architecture and Design Careers: Great Today, Better Tomorrow,” Design Intelligence, November/December 2014; http://www.di.net/articles/architecture-and-design-careers-great-today-better-tomorrow/

“NCARB 2015 By the Numbers,” www.ncarb.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Special-Paper/2015NCARBbytheNumbers.pdf