A focused sense of purpose that is embraced by a firm’s people is essential for a high-performance organization.

A common sense of worthy purpose is an essential unifier for any high-performance culture. Most architects’ individual perspective on the purpose of design is shaped by the pedagogy they encounter in school and after that by the nature of their practice experience. Their purpose is typically based on their values and their reaction to those experiences. In starting a practice, they may not give a lot of thought to purpose, operating under an implicit understanding. It is often only after a practice has established itself that the need to be clear about purpose seems important.

The purpose of high-performance design emerges from dealing with projects that have multiple stakeholders, that will touch a lot of users (private, public, or both), and in which clients desire to transform or increase their enterprise performance.

A declaration of purpose should encompass the things that are important to the impact the practice wants to have on the world and yet be realistic in terms of what it actually does. Following are some of the things that come to my mind as important considerations in purpose.

Experience better than that displaced. Since every realized building project shapes the environment, a serious part of design responsibility is to do no harm — that is, to ensure that each project is at least as positive for the ecosystem participant’s experience as that which it displaced. While I mean that seriously, it would be disingenuous if we didn’t admit that, in spite of an understanding of the planet’s biodiversity, we still have a human-centric viewpoint no matter how sincere we are.

Authorship of caring and craft. At the core of why many of us chose to become designers is the desire to create spatial, visual, haptic experiences that are inspiring to human perception. This is where all of our skills in form-making, materiality, economy, craft, empathy, and art come into play. Our authorship is in the uniqueness of the solution as it resolves all of the influences at play in a way that comes from caring consideration of possibilities and execution of appropriate choice.

Authorship for some architects can be intertwined with personal perspective, which imprints solutions on multiple projects. This can add value or not, depending on its influence on the experience.

The brand of many leading designers is inherent in their expression of form and craft of execution, easily recognized in the work of Frank Gehry’s firm or Richard Meier’s. If the work is strongly based on client transformation, it is less likely to create such a strong form-based brand. In his book The Creative Priority, Jerry Hirshberg described NDI as establishing a signature style of “an ‘exo-structure’ that, combined with taut but subtly nuanced three-dimensional forms … achieved a signature style.” But he went on to say that as that style approach was applied to the firm’s second generation of designs for Nissan in what they thought was “another level of maturity and refinement, it was received with disappointment. It did not bring the hoped for surprise and transformation. … The ‘NDI look’ had become the ‘NDI smell’….” A form-focused brand has its downside in pursuing high­performance design.

Authorship is also accomplished by collaboration of multiple personalities, skills, and stakeholders. If well led and enabled, this can produce powerful results. An authorship signature in this case can come from leadership personality, process, or a consistent approach to materiality and craft. So the question for every practice is, How do you wish to have authorship and signature enter into your sense of purpose?

Transformation and optimization. A designer’s responsibility is to make the best and most sustainable use of all the resources committed to the work of creating built environment. There is almost universal agreement that our species has had the greatest impact on the planet and that we are exhausting many resources that are not renewable. To prolong our successful existence, we must be much more efficient and effective in our use of resources. That is the core of green building and sustainability. Beyond what those concepts normally include, however, we need to be effective in the use of human and economic resources as well as material resources. Economics is the engine for enabling all of our intervention. Human resources, which are threatened by age imbalance, unhealthy lifestyles, and abject poverty, are the means of implementation.

Buildings shape the effectiveness and healthiness of the activities they house for as long as they exist. To be responsible, they must be both optimized for initial uses and adaptable for future change.

Ensuring this requires a transformative approach to design.

Building projects are infrequent events for most enterprises, and events that should require enterprises to analyze their entire being to match the building to the needs of their future. This makes the design process an ideal opportunity for enterprise transformation — optimizing organizationally and culturally to its vision for the future — which can be a rewarding aspect of design purpose.

Broad sustainability. A building is one of an enterprise’s most expensive tools, with people and information systems the other top competitors for resources. At another level, basic shelter can be one of the most important survival tools for humankind. Buildings are essential, but they consume vast amounts of resources. So how can they be sustainable?

A broad sustainable purpose might have three aspects to it:

  • Make sure that the resources these endeavors commit contribute to the long-term effectiveness of the enterprise or the betterment of the human condition (justify the use).
  • Ensure minimization and renewability of the resources used (the green aspect of sustainability).
  • Eliminate the waste in the process of creating (design and construction).

It is not moral or rational to do otherwise.

Purpose can be directed broadly as an attitude and intent toward any issue, such as Arup’s “We shape a better world.” Or it can be focused on a narrower range of issues with great clarity. A focused purpose might be architecture in response to human crisis, as chronicled in the book Design Like You Give a Damn or it could focus on cultural, creative, or scientific endeavors. Purpose is likely to evolve over time as conditions in the world and capabilities of the design enterprise change. It is important to recognize change and embrace it. How you define purpose within this spectrum of worthy endeavors is less important to ultimate success than the sincerity and passion you have for whatever your definition is and the clarity with which you articulate and pursue it.

It is not a time to be timid about what design is capable of accomplishing. Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, argues convincingly that we have evolved through agrarian to industrial to information ages and are now moving to the conceptual age in which the skills of design will add the most value, and dealing with complexity will require Renaissance teams more than isolated genius.

Architect and former U.S. congressman and ambassador to Denmark Richard Swett, in his book Leadership by Design, demonstrated the validity and value of a design approach to solving issues of broad organizational and political importance.

Whatever the enterprise purpose is, to enable high performance, it must be worthy enough to generate passion in design. Your understanding of purpose will determine what you are designing your practice to do.

Purpose at NBBJ

NBBJ was founded in 1943 by a merger of three specialty practices: Floyd Naramore and ‘Doc’ Brady’s practice focused on education, William Bain’s practice focused on housing, and Perry Johanson’s practice focused on health care. Thus, from its beginning, this architectural design practice had a multi-specialty focus on what many designers would consider program-driven design.

When I joined the firm in 1965, the range of specialties had grown (adding corporate/commercial and laboratory research), but the underlying multi-specialty approach to program-intensive buildings was still intact. The purpose (and vision) of the firm at that time (1967) read: “… Promote effective and efficient use of management and manpower resources in order for the firm to maintain its competitive position with other firms.”

Get inspired by that if you can! Or find yourself as a client!

In my early years as a designer and in my first few years as a partner in the firm, that basic sense (lack?) of purpose was not challenged, and the focus was on improving the aesthetic quality of the work, eliminating barriers to successful implementation, and examining and sometimes emulating the practice habits of firms we admired (e.g., SOM and Caudill Rowlett Scott). We were improving the way we approached a rather loosely defined purpose.

We did, however, begin to understand that we were trying to change the environment of the practice. The purpose and vision became in 1975: “… Create a professional environment which will support and nourish creativity, recognize human worth and dignity, and provide as a consequence, excellence in architecture and its related disciplines at a reasonable profit.” Well, a little more about creativity but still a highly self-focused idea of purpose.

It wasn’t until we felt significant success in establishing higher design performance that we began to understand the need to rethink the basic purpose of the firm. That was in the mid 1980s. At first we didn’t even have an articulate language to use in thinking about purpose, and we struggled with notions of beauty, client, and staff satisfaction and the like. We expressed our mission at that time (1987) as:

  • “Beautiful Buildings and Environment,
  • Satisfied Customers,
  • Personal, Professional and Financial Satisfaction,
  • Contribute to a Better Society.”

Our clients had finally entered the picture along with a bit of social purpose.

Our vision at the time was: “Dedicated to excellence in analysis and design of our built environment.”

A little more aspirational but still not very focused. It was, however, beginning to awaken dialogue in the firm. And the recent changes in the firm to an open environment, flattening of the hierarchy, and emphasis on design performance were enabling and enriching that dialogue.

In our next evolution, we placed high emphasis on our aspirations for what we were questing to become. By 1991, this vision was expressed: “Be the best large design firm in the world.”

The internal effect of this was immediate and powerful. Initial reactions ranged from groans to rigorous debate about what “best” meant and why “large.” The rigorous debate carried the groaners into it and provided a design focus to prospect-, project-, and practice-related dialogues for a long time.

By 1996 we expanded the vision: “Be the best design firm in the world.”

We had initially thought “large” helped to define the complex nature of our projects, but later felt it was a cop out.

During this focus on becoming, the purpose or mission statement was at first loosely defined. Even though this vision was not purpose-focused, it was a strong instrument of transformation for us, largely because of the loud, participatory, and rigorous dialogue it fostered. This was enhanced because we made a rigorous and continuous effort to evaluate our actions and designs against the criteria of making progress toward this vision. It became a serious discussion of the purpose of design and contributed to redefining ourselves.

Initially, the purpose (mission statement) that related to these visions of being the best was: “To provide the highest value to clients, society, and the firm.”

As we continued to examine what value really was and recognized the responsibility assumed in committing the resources that a building requires, we began to think more seriously about the consequences of outcome. Initially, one of our partners, Rick Buckley, who became managing partner for design before his untimely death, pushed on the issue of content (both rational and emotional) to create a basis for meaningful form. This was a pretty useful concept in critiquing our work because it provided a concrete commodity to look for: relevance — including, but more than aesthetics — that made a difference that mattered to users, owners, and society.

About that time I received one of those valuable “Aha” messages from a client, Blair Sadler, an attorney by training and at that time CEO of Children’s Hospital and Health Center in San Diego. We were in Stockholm and had both given presentations that day, mine on a new health care building typology we were working on and Blair’s on his hospital’s project (which we had designed) and his work with the Center for Health Design. As we were walking through Gamla stan that June evening on our way back to the hotel, Blair said to me (in the nicest possible way): “Jim, you really ought to speak more from your clients’ and their customers’ and neighbors’ perspectives when you talk about architecture. You do great work, but if I want to understand why it should mean anything to me, I want to know what it does more than what it is.” Nice wake-up call, Blair. Thank you.

And as we continuously looked at our work and assessed what we thought was the “best,” we realized that the most valuable aspect of our work was creating significant positive change for its users, owners, neighbors, and occasionally, we opined, for society by creating new models.

Initiated by a creative analysis done by planning and economics partner Bill Sanford with the planning-focused studio, we adopted a brand statement that was purpose-laden and covered the intent of our work nicely:

“We are Artists of Change

  • Fearlessly Creative
  • Collaboratively Developed
  • Intelligently Realized”

This led to a minor adjustment in purpose thinking to: “… Creating extraordinary value for clients, the firm and society”

And a couple of years later, as we began to think on a more global environmental scale, it became: “… Creating extraordinary value for clients, the firm, society and life.”

During this time and based on our recognition of the transformative aspect of the best work, we began to develop a monograph on the transformative nature of architecture, an effort led by partners Scott Wyatt, Tim Johnson, Rich Dallam, and head of PR Helen Dimoff working with Bruce Mau’s firm. That effort involved mining the creative thinking of all 67 of the firm’s principals, starting with the question, “When it’s as good as it gets, what are we doing?” The process was purposely provocative, including a working title/theme “Fire the Architects,” and led to the participatory crafting of the firm’s vision and a book (Change Design), one truly written from the clients’ perspective and in a large part from their own words. This book has become the clearest definition of purpose ever for the firm and the easiest to disseminate throughout. Not so incidentally, it has been a great marketing tool and has recently been updated and republished. The book’s title is a double entendre for dual purpose: our clients’ need to change their enterprises and the profession’s need to embrace design as a tool for client success.

Having a clear sense of purpose that can be used to assess design on a day-to-day basis has been important for NBBJ, and the dialogue within the firm over worthy purpose was in itself a focusing tool for pursuit of high performance.


Jim Jonassen

James O. Jonassen, having served as a designer, partner, CEO and managing partner of NBBJ for more than 40 years, led the firm from a 100-person Seattle office to the 850-person international firm it is today. He is recognized for his innovative approach to delivery methods and contracting vehicles, his impact on health care design, and his business development and leadership.

This article is adapted with permission from the book Designing the Design Firm: The Quest for High-Performance Design by James O. Jonassen, Greenway Communications LLC.


Related content

Designing the Design Firm

Unless they improve their performance, design firms will lose their relevance in society and their corresponding ability to shape the environment positively. This is the warning James O. Jonassen sends in Designing the Design Firm.

Yet very few firms ever get around to designing their own practices for high performance.

What follows is a discussion about how to create a design practice that is capable of producing design that awakens the human spirit, transforms the user experience, and makes places better than they were before. This is what Jonassen calls high-performance design.

Designing the Design Firm is available in the DI.net bookstore.