One of the most unreliable subjects in our design professions has been that of demographics. Fuzzy data about the design professions and occasional fallacies imbedded in soft evidence can lead to unfortunate assumptions in our industry.

One of the most unreliable subjects in our design professions has been that of demographics. Fuzzy data about the design professions and occasional fallacies imbedded in soft evidence can lead to unfortunate assumptions in our industry.

Partial data can mislead.

In this issue of DesignIntelligence we’ve set out to assemble information that can inform your strategic decision making about people and about demographic trends in the design professions worldwide.

The average age of the population is rising. People are living longer. At the same time, each succeeding generation has defining characteristics. There are demographic shifts taking place all around the globe. These shifts have important implications for the future of the design.

The number of immigrants in the United States rose 16 percent over the last five years. Increasingly immigrants are bypassing traditional gateway states like California and New York and moving directly into states that, until recently, saw little immigrant activity. All of this affects the talent pool in design firms and of course it affects how we design for people in our hospitals, schools, and workplace environments. Cultural sensitivity is increasingly important, as non-native populations continue to establish new centers of inhabitation.

In just five years Indiana has seen a 34 percent increase in the number of immigrants; Delaware saw a 32 percent increase; New Hampshire, 26 percent; and South Dakota saw a 44 percent rise. Overall, immigrants now make up 12.4 percent of the nation’s population or about 35.7 million people, a number larger than the population of California. Where do the immigrants come from? It’s no surprise that Mexico leads, followed by China, Philippines, India, and Vietnam. But, just in the last five years, immigrants from Guatemala have increased by 31.3 percent, Honduras 35.8 percent, and Peru 36.2 percent. Looking ahead, even more significant change is forecast.

Demographics is destiny

It is ironic but true that the best test of genuine leadership is how well a firm is prepared for the next generation to take over. One of the most important jobs of a leader in this profession is to make sure that there is an ample supply of talented and well-trained future leaders. Sensitivity to the emerging groups of designers is vital. Of the 35,000 architecture students attending accredited programs, and the 10,000-plus non-accredited design students preparing for careers in the AEC industry, there will be an invariable increase in the numbers of minorities and women; historically, increases in the number of women earning degrees in architecture attests to this. Design will no longer be the white-male dominated profession it once was; women and minorities will prove the new driving force of the profession. In this time of demographic upheaval extra stress is brought into the daily culture of our design firms and their strategic progress.

There is a case for optimism in the face of demographic challenges

Times change, and when they do, intelligent firms know how to stay strong and flexible. Here are three principles to keep you organizationally fit and resilient:

  1. Embrace diversity. Make your firm a great workplace for all people and embrace differences of race, gender, and nationality. Make your firm one the profession sees as a role model workplace.

  2. Make the future your friend. Take time for foresight. Often what we believe we see is not really there. Challenge your assumptions. Question virtually everything. Then, take action and revise your direction.

  3. Foster mentorship and collaboration. Some design processes frankly don’t foster teamwork; they get in its way. Truly integrated practices will provide more leadership, more nurturing of talent, more growth opportunities and more successor success in the years ahead.

The future survival of design firms depends on how well we anticipate and respond to foreseeable change and inevitable surprises. Effective and flexible organizations will include demographic research into their strategic planning. They will look to the horizon with an eye for what’s new, and what’s next.

James P. Cramer is editor of DesignIntelligence, co-chair of the Design Futures Council, and chairman of The Greenway Group. His latest book The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design, is now available through the DesignIntelligence bookstore, www.di.net.