Let’s talk for a moment about talent—the talent that employers desire of graduates and the talent we aspire to cultivate in emerging professionals. Arguably, there has rarely been a better time to enter the architecture, design and planning professions. This is especially true as more evidence is discovered supporting the role of our disciplines and their impact on the physical environment, thriving and productive human life, and supporting health and wellness in our daily lives.

Design and planning education today must prepare global citizens who foster synergy, embrace successful collaboration and recognize interconnectedness. These citizens must be prepared with an awareness of the responsibility of individual and collective actions in personal, social and environmental arenas. This preparation positions graduates with the critical and collaborative leadership skills to serve them throughout their careers. Griff Davenport, CEO of DLRGroup notes: “The lines of the disciplines we teach (interior design, architecture, site planning, urban design) continue to blur. Intentional collaboration of these specialties, along with integrated engineering and construction science disciplines, rest at the heart of eventual project success. The ability to collaborate is an essential skill and role within the profession. Integrated project teams are becoming even more complex and diverse, and project success, measured by the client or the design team, is dependent on a collaborative project team culture.”

The public (including our clientele) is more informed about design and design-thinking, in large part due to the proliferation of information popularized by the d.school at Stanford and readily available information throughout the media. With this newfound awareness, one might envision the world of higher education for future professionals to be ultimately easier or more straightforward; but that isn’t the case. Information available to the public is not curated or vetted, and often, the first role educators have is to debunk preconceived notions about the professions. Helping students develop a comfort level with ambiguity is perhaps one of our biggest challenges in higher education today, coupled with imparting information literacy and developing a strong work ethic.

To prepare students for their future lives, as educators we need to develop thoughtful, agile collaborative leaders. Future professionals must be prepared to embrace new technologies, be versed in virtual and augmented reality, understand artificial intelligence, yet be grounded in traditional skills of design thinking, spatial understanding, hand sketching and model making. Students need exposure to and experience with open source design, public interest design and a thirst for learning extending well beyond their college experience. Griff Davenport agrees: “I do believe these attributes need to be fostered as part of the educational experience. I think most design studios are already functioning this way in many cases. I also believe as practitioners … we do look for these qualities as we recruit and hire these young professionals to our practices and expect that students will come prepared to embrace in collaborative exercise to learn and then to lead.”

In the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we prepare leaders in design, innovation and collaboration. Each of the disciplines represented in our college affect people in profound ways and we are united by a commitment to the transformative power of planning and design. We know one discipline cannot solve all of the complex issues facing us; it is only through collaborative, synergistic and trusting relationships with diverse partners that we will, together, find or create answers. Our four academic programs are united by an unwavering belief in the transformational power of design and planning and our ability to effect positive change in this world. We begin early in our student recruitment efforts by emphasizing that our disciplines affect every minute of people’s lives—where they work, where they live, worship, and play, as well as their safety and that of their family. This includes long-range planning for communities encompassing zoning, transportation and amenities, mitigating hazards, conserving energy, creating healthy communities, and exterior and interior spaces.

As program director Lindsey Bahe indicates: “We think about our students as future professionals who are here to learn how to be leaders and difference-makers for people, communities and our built environment. We are an academic community that offers unparalleled support to our students due to the collaborative and attentive nature of our faculty, staff, administration and student peers. We are a network that strives to create a culture and a place fostering creativity, challenging one another to be the best we can be, and together seeking opportunities to advance ourselves and the design disciplines.”

Collaboration is an essential skill and attribute; one with intentional preparation, and reinforced by modeling at every level of the College and University. Cross- and trans-disciplinary collaboration is occurring with increasing frequency on grants, research and scholarly activity and, importantly, it is accepted as a valued approach. This has not always been (nor is it always now) the case across academia. Additionally, the upper administration of our university actively engages in a transparent and inclusive management style, valuing each constituency for its inherent strengths and contributions.

How do we intentionally prepare students to engage in effective collaboration? It begins as we recruit students and talk about the important role of designers, architects and planners in our world. On campus, our first year includes architecture, landscape architecture and interior design students engaged in design-thinking, design-making, drawing, history of design, introduction to the design fields and an introduction to digital programs. The common curriculum at the first year level (d.ONE) is specifically constructed to develop creative intelligence, to give students the tools they need to work together solving problems with innovation, to learn the basic tenets of both analog and digital approaches (yes, we place a high value on both drawing and model craft as well as knowing computational approaches) to process and product, and to become familiar enough with each of the disciplines to make an accurate assessment of appropriate “fit” as each student selects their academic major. The second and third years of each curriculum call for rigorous exploration and knowledge coming from disciplinary depth. At the fourth-year level, we bring students from each of the disciplines back together in an interdisciplinary design studio termed “Collaborate.” Differing models of collaboration (negotiated, integrated, unified) immerse teams of students to address significant concerns in complex problems. Examples include:

• “Learning Spaces”—This studio focuses on the question: how can design create environments that transform the elementary learning experience? The proposed design solutions aim to create spaces that support social engagement, individualized development and respond to multiple learning styles. (Nate Bicak and Vanessa Schutte)

• “Open Design” (exploration of opensource design)—Co-Lab is an interdisciplinary exploration into the potential of open-source design for the built environment design disciplines. Student teams engage in a “research through design” process aggressively challenging the traditional mindset of copyright with regard to authorship. (Brian Kelly and David Stasiuk)

• “Living Suburbia”—Starting with the idea of recasting a vision of the future of the suburb, the Living Suburbia studio uses the Boys Town site in Omaha to develop strategies for new ways to live in suburbia. Students are reimagining land use and housing to design neighborhoods that encourage social interaction, connection to open space and nature, and agricultural uses. (Kim Wilson and Emily Andersen)

We believe future design professionals should be prepared with both analog and digital skills, and to be able to not only communicate effectively with each, but to use each as a tool in the creation of viable and humane solutions for our environments. Whether we find ourselves working to improve conditions in a third world country with no electricity and a different language where the power of a sketch or orthographic drawings takes on new meaning, or working to envision how a new robotic building process might occur in the heart of one of our most connected and progressive cities, graduates should understand and be able to communicate within each context. This doesn’t happen by accident; it is a carefully planned series of scaffolded experiences throughout their education.

Importantly, we do not engage in this effort alone. Matthew DeBoer, managing principal of HDR’s Omaha office concurs: “The connection that the profession has with the college in engaging as professors, critics, and as employers plays a very important role in the development of well-rounded students. Students have the benefit of harnessing the energy, creativity and freedom that is afforded to those studying architecture and design while getting firsthand knowledge of what it takes to be a successful (and collaborative) professional.”

We believe that students should have the ability to develop (not merely be exposed to) the soft skills associated with collaboration and leadership and to be equipped with the tools that prepare them to take effective roles in any situation.

Katherine S. Ankerson is dean of the College of Architecture, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.