We have been having some fascinating discussions about how the design professions are evolving, what certain firms are—-and are not—-doing to stay current and how to anticipate some of the challenges that lie ahead.

This month, our new book How Firms Succeed (co written with Scott Simpson) was released and is serving as a platform for some very probing new discussions on the future of the design professions. For instance, as I write this letter to you I’m giving a lecture at the University of Hawaii, Manoa and meeting with their current class of doctoral students in architecture.

The diversity here of the faculty and students is very rich. Many are from Asia including China, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. Others are from Hawaii and other parts of the United States. Some have just returned from their practicum experiences in such firms as Gensler, Stubbins Associates, Kohn Pederson Fox, NBBJ, and others.

One issue is recurring in our discussions; Success in architecture and design does not happen by accident. The strategic choices (and deliberate actions that follow), along with immense persistence differentiate true success from the average experience. These students—many of whom have considerable practice experience—offer fresh insight on new behaviors and technologies that are shaping our present and future. Along with these new insights, we’re discussing how we might all come to understand and cope with the powerful forces transfiguring every aspect of the design professions.

We are probing the thought that some students and their mentors have that there will be “a new rich and successful” but also “a new marginalized professional class” in the design professions. This observation suggests that differences in education—particularly in technology literacy, applied research, and leadership behavior—will create a gap between the new, highly relevant professionals and those who find themselves being left behind. This shift isn’t likely to be gradual, and the sudden onset of its effects may be destabilizing for some firms.

You can construct neither architecture nor an extraordinary career without a plan which includes vision, strategy, and a set of goals. You cannot expect to arrive at success without planning and working hard on your goals. Planning for your future and then establishing goals will determine what you are going to be. The new rich and successful designers will be those who discover new solutions. New solutions are often radically different approaches that can make it easier to succeed.

Productivity enhancements allow designers to multiply their talent in much faster ways than those who do not have the same knowledge or instruments. And clients don’t automatically see architects as being on an even playing field any more. Often, there are major inherent differences among the firm that are interviewed for projects. What makes the difference in the winning firms is often the depth of knowledge on the assignment and whether that knowledge has been consistently and professionally implemented.

The leading firms are racing flat-out to improve productivity, and expand their areas of influence. They are rewriting professional practice.

One thing is clear from these discussions with the doctoral students at the University of Hawaii; the design professions are about to go over a waterfall-—and it will be a wondrous and worrisome adventure.

—James P. Cramer