Managing change is where it’s at for today’s leaders. This is true in professional practice as well as for deans and faculty in architecture and design schools. Leaders understand that change is about renewal, growth, and relevancy. Change in some places is radical, in others gradual. Change may go unnoticed by some but, in fact, change happens constantly in every firm and in every program.

Managing change is where it’s at for today’s leaders. This is true in professional practice as well as for deans and faculty in architecture and design schools. Leaders understand that change is about renewal, growth, and relevancy. Change in some places is radical, in others gradual. Change may go unnoticed by some but, in fact, change happens constantly in every firm and in every program. Organizations continually struggle to remake themselves. Each firm and each education program is either getting stronger or getting weaker by the month. And where complacency is tolerated, relevancy erodes.

Not all change is progressive. Several years ago the University of Idaho merged their professional school of architecture into a much larger campus unit during a massive reorganization. It made sense to them at the time, for it brought about new efficiency; it served the needs of the administration and the bursar well. But, it tore the heart out of one of the Northwest’s historically finer colleges. Several months ago the University of Idaho board of regents reversed its decision after considering direct appeals and protest by students, faculty, and alumni. More than 250 concerned stakeholders met to tell the stories of the unintended negative consequences change can sometimes bring; they comprised a courageous leadership group, these stakeholders. The wisdom and advice of people who have lived through mistakes to discover new ascendant success is fundamentally what this issue of DesignIntelligence is all about.

Bob Dylan’s verse, “he not busy being born is busy dying,” affords some insight, of sorts, into why the Design Futures Council initiated an annual study of America’s Best Architecture and Design Schools. Early DFC board-level discussions, led by presidents of architecture and design firms, addressed concerns over the failure of local schools of design in teaching to a level of desired satisfaction. Firms, as a result of this, were recruiting from schools outside their region; firm leaders began to share information with each other about the most relevant programs. The one primary question posed by leaders in professional practice was: “in your hiring experience, what college or university programs in architecture and design do you believe are best preparing students for the future of professional practice.” For several years the results were not published but rather shared privately between firms. Then, seven years ago, the results became more transparent, with the express purpose of stressing the importance of quality and relevancy in design education. The DesignIntelligence report is essentially a customer satisfaction survey.

Warning: this survey has flaws. This research should only be used as a part of a comprehensive analysis. For instance, we receive more than 400 survey responses from firms and organizations employing architects and designers; the actual number of office responses is higher, however, because we survey select firms, including SOM, Gensler, HOK, and NBBJ, several times, recognizing the diversity of office locations and cultures. It can be argued that smaller schools are at a disadvantage because they do not produce as many students and may not be as well known. Programs such as Cooper Union, Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute, Drexel University, Hampton University, and California College of Arts, to name just a few, are smaller and perhaps lesser-known despite the quality of their programs. Students should not consider this survey as a single resource for answers to vital questions concerning their education. Students should visit campuses, talk to students and recent graduates, sit in on classes, and very importantly, interview practitioners who will provide a point of view. All of this information should then be collectively weighed.

Let’s say you are a student from Rapid City, South Dakota, and you wish to enroll in an accredited architecture program. Right away you understand that there are no accredited programs in your home state. But there are a variety of accredited programs in the region, including Montana State University, North Dakota State University, University of Colorado, University of Nebraska, University of Minnesota, and others, depending upon your definition of the greater region. Each of these campuses has produced architects of international importance and each of these colleges has enthusiastic alumni boosters who could wax for hours on the attributes of their programs. Can a graduate from these schools land jobs in New York, Los Angeles, London, or Hong Kong? Definitely. It happens all the time. In fact, many of the country’s leading firms are headed by architects from smaller schools, less prestigious schools, schools not on the DesignIntelligence top 15 lists, and schools with brand recognition below the top 25.

Regular readers of DI will notice that new to this 2006 survey is the professional education in industrial design. It is a hot field. And, as design professions continue to morph and blur boundaries, we have discovered that professional practices and other organizations have an underlying bias towards educational programs that offer integrated discipline options. Architecture students at Virginia Polytechnic and State University in Blacksburg, for instance, benefit significantly from the model building tools and sophisticated laser technology used in industrial design. Yes, the field of industrial design is growing in importance, but so too are the other design professions. Our leading firm surveys inform us that today’s practices are expanding their employee bases to include professionals from both inside and outside the design fields.

There is a tipping point to keep in mind. It is time for design institutions to squash any negative energy and historical mythology about the future vitality of the design professions. This is not just a time of change, but of incredible significance, of a drive for a more positive transformation of our planet’s future – by design. The intrinsic link between professional practice and design education necessitates the discovery of new means of communication and new methods of strengthening our leadership and value propositions. A stronger profession needs stronger schools, and our schools need stronger support from architects and designers.

Thus, we see ahead a new epoch, an epoch expressed at higher levels with emerging commitments to quality, excellence through innovation, and integrity through leadership.

-James P. Cramer