College of Architecture, Planning and Design

A video of this commencement speech can be viewed at

“Thank you Dean de Noble for such a generous introduction.   And thank you Kansas State University for the invitation to be with you as we celebrate graduation 2013.

On this beautiful day I’m going to have a conversation with you about money and your earning power, influence, and your career.  I have new data with me about the options you have in your careers in architecture and design.  I also have a few comments about how dynamic and crazy architecture and design will get and then I want to give a few examples to illustrate the significant new opportunities there will be on the horizon for you. 

Okay, let’s get started. 

What will you do?  

How much will you earn? 

What choices will you have as a designer?  And, what can you make of these choices?

 I should start by telling you what you already know; Kansas State University is a pretty special place.  I have a unique perspective on this.  My firm, the Greenway Group, publishes DesignIntelligence which ranks this college as one of the best in the United States and in the world.  This ranking comes from the firms and organizations who hire designers.  And consistently, year after year, those hiring tell us that the best come from a few schools — and one of those schools is KSU.   You have a celebrated reputation. 

Yes, please give yourselves, your faculty and administration and KSU a big applause.

Students also grade their design education in our DesignIntelligence survey in the top 10% nationally. 

In fact, nearly all of you – just below 100% percent of you say your education has been either above average or excellent.  Emphatically, 80% of you said you say that you have had an excellent education here.  Moreover, over 95% of you believe you will be prepared for your professional careers upon graduation.  71% of you have or are now interviewing to work in private design practices — practice sizes ranging from small to medium to large firms.  You will seek employment in Kansas and all around the world.  Quite a few of you will go further with your education; will work in academia or in public service positions.  11% of you are still undecided on your longer term careers.  And that’s okay, because you will have some interesting choices to make and puzzles to solve along the way.  

Not only do you have a school with significant strengths but you also have strong students.  Smart students.  There is a whole lot of student talent here.    These students have been nurtured by their families and parents and they have proven that they can be successful in the professions. 

Let’s give a shout out for the students and their parents who have sacrificed and invested in this KSU education.  ……………..Yes, a big cheer.

The credential that you receive today will serve you throughout your lifetime — so long as you leverage what you know with discipline and continuous learning.  I’m talking about the discipline of growing – not coasting, not getting complacent. 

Coasting in life goes only one way – downhill.  Going downhill is not a KSU character trait.  Not for students, not for faculty, not for the administration.  Let’s talk then about achievement, not coasting.

Design is a service profession.  At Greenway Group we call it servant leadership.  Design is also a happy profession for the most part.  Architects and planners and designers are in the creation business:  Ideas, new products, landscapes, buildings, cities, and solutions that support the evolution of the human condition.   You’ll be building sustainable cities.  You’ll be optimistic most days.  You’ll face sobering issues.  Still, you’ll be resilient and you’ll be creating.  You will be in a unique position to change the world.

Surveys by the Design Futures Council tell us that clients of designers and most people everywhere for that matter enjoy working with architects and designers.  Why wouldn’t they?  Design is a great profession to win friends, to build quality relationships and inspire people. 

Design thinking offers a cognitive shift in how people think about the future.  It’s humanizing.  And for many it leads to self-actualization.  Ultimately, it makes the places where we live and work more beautiful – places of well-being too.  Design thinking offers hope for the future.

Thus, there is a lot of responsibility that goes along with being a designer.

You will have opportunities to improve the condition of those around you.  Both tangible and intangible situations leading to new solutions can be realized.    Yes, you’ll have what it takes to boost morale in your families and your workplaces.  You will have clients who will trust you to do what’s right.  They will look up to you for solutions. 

And guess what, that will not just be for buildings and products and places but also for processes and attitudes and communities.  Like Kansas State graduates before you many of you will take leadership and social responsibility for making the world a better place.

Now I want to talk about money.

I know from our surveys that the average debt – the amount you now owe – on average is about $36,000.  This is debt you have and some have more and some are lucky to have less.  Many of you have borrowed – or your parents have borrowed — in order to create a future career.  You want to make this a good investment.  Your parents have supported this education.  They have done so because they believe in you. 

Let’s not squander this time.

 The choices you make will determine your destiny.  And you cannot manifest your destiny by making sloppy choices.  You’ll want to focus on getting the most out of the KSU credential.

According to our latest research you will start your career this year earning about $43,000 annually plus benefits.  Some will start below that and some will be in the mid-sixties.  Most of you will also get a year-end bonus adding up to another 3% on top of that.  That is what typical starting salary in design professional practices is today.  It’s not as high we would like perhaps but it’s a start.  A good start.

Actually, many of you will make more.  Let me explain.  The laws of supply and demand are bringing the compensation levels upward.  At the end of last year the unemployment rate in architecture and landscape architecture was just at 5.1% — now it’s half that.  And so salaries are going up somewhat because it is expected that there will be a global labor shortage for talent.  On top of your base salary and bonus salary you will get benefits that will include healthcare, retirement supplements and other benefits.  98 percent of employers in your field of employment offer good benefits.  And the annual compensation increase going from 2013 to 2014 will be about 3.5%according to the latest DesignIntelligence survey.   That is what employers are projecting in North America. 

Let me share with you the differences in compensation from low to high and why you should set your sights on above average compensation.  Once you have five years’ experience after graduation – five years from now the average salary five years from graduation will be about $58,000.  But the top 20% of you after 5 years of graduation will make $77,467.  (In today’s dollars)  The top is a more interesting place to be professionally because it is the zone with the most responsibility.  

The top is where most of you will want to be.  Yes, you can be in that top 20%.  Furthermore, you can be in positions you love and getting top dollar because of the talent you bring to the workplace.  My message then is to prove your value and to set your sights high. 

Let me add something you hopefully learned in your professional practice classes.  If you go into professional practice – that is firms of architects and planners and designers — once you get into an equity position – in other words you own part of the firm you will on average earn $161,000 base compensation in today’s dollars.  But the top 20% will earn over $300,000 dollars.  On top of that the average bonus for architects and designers with equity in their firms is just over 30% in 2013. The DesignIntelligence Salary, Bonus and Benefits Guide is in your library.  Read it and set goals for the future.

I came here from Atlanta to suggest that you stretch yourself and to take on responsibility and to move into the top.  These design professions in architecture, planning, landscape architecture and interior design need leadership.  And this can be your future.  Imagine the title of leader after your name.  Your choices will determine how much responsibility you take on and what your compensation will be. 

Set your goals just a bit higher than you are comfortable with.  Just as KSU is not an average school you don’t need to think your responsibility levels and compensation levels to be just average.  You too can be exceptional and can be well compensated.  And even in not-for-profit, education, or public service work keep in mind that financial responsibility is also of vital importance  because without  financial success the mission of your organization — no matter how important,  will just limp along.  That is why we say at Greenway Group: No margin (meaning profit margin) no mission.  And it’s true.

And where should you work?  Ask these 3 questions when you interview.  These are easy to remember – just three.  And keep in mind that some places of employment are excellent but others are approaching their sell by date.  In other words, some practices are dying; they are not exciting places to work and are no longer competitive.   You won’t get mentorship there.  Some of these people in firms think the design professions are dying.  They are wrong.  They are not.  People and firms are dying but the design professions are growing, expanding, evolving, and creating new value, niche by niche.  Yes, some designers are getting tired and no longer relevant.   You don’t want to work in one of these firms who may have been strong in the past but don’t offer opportunity today.  No, you want to work for an organization that is exciting, energized, and is building for the future.  Here are the three questions to ask when you interview:

  1.  Ask: What is the vision of the firm or organization?  And ask yourself:  Do I find this vision motivating?  Do I get excited about this vision?
  2. Ask: Do I admire the work of the firm or organization?  Their designs?    Can I see myself adding value to this work?
  3. Ask: Do I find these people likable and professional?  Do I feel a kinship?  Can I grow professionally in the organization?  Can I learn there?

These three questions will help you know that you have found a quality organization.  You will matter and you will be mentored.   

As I look out into the eyes I see the future.  I know that you will have many opportunities ahead of you, even more that you can imagine right now.  You will be able to achieve and you can make yourself indispensable as a professional. 

All of this is possible.  This can be your future.  You can achieve it by designing and then making your own career.   

And finally let me close with this as you graduate from Kansas State University.   Take this education and run with it.  Keep your energy high and keep setting goals.  And keep this in mind:  no margin, no mission.”


James P. Cramer, Hon AIA, Hon IIDA