Today, most progressive architects and designers are looking into, living in the debate, and addressing the challenge of defining their future profession.

Today, most progressive architects and designers are looking into, living in the debate, and addressing the challenge of defining their future profession. They are in the process of interpreting various insights as they study alternative strategies, and in turn, design and implement them in their practice entities.

With all the various directions out there, I think of the concept of ”triangulation.” In research it is about using several methods to study the same question. Ken Friedman of the Nordic Center for Innovation, Norwegian School of Management, Oslo, says this is particularly important when the research involves human beings. This is about analyzing patterns which reveal surprising issues, which in turn, through observation, interview and feedback allows one to make sense out of the data.

Let’s look at some selected input into the future of the profession.

Point Break

One such debate and direction occurred at the Point Break Symposium, organized by the Young Architects Forum in late 2001. Its examination of marketplace, value and knowledge defined a framework for exploration and scenario development. Some of the main discussion points related to the future were:

  • The architect as thought leader

  • Knowledge-based architecture vs. practice-based architecture (beyond the profession as it exists)

  • How the value of architecture services is disconnected from compensation

  • The value of leadership which is a social responsibility

  • The notion of architects as diverse, capable, and already performing in an
    ARCHITECTURE future beyond an architect’s future.

Point Break’s moderators helped shape the discussion, Tom Fisher of the University of Minnesota said the profession and the academy are out of sync with the economy. “They are still aligned with the product and not necessarily the process, while the product of design is still the measure of architectural culture.”

Fisher believes that many markets are eager for design thinking. In providing this type of thinking, architects must be responsible for the total approach, which includes work”upstream”and”downstream”along the continuum of the building cycle. They must also maintain and architect’s identity when bringing other disciplines into the process. Many cycles of the process are virtual and nonphysical and should be embraced and approached with the same rigor and passion as the physical.

Steve Polo of OP-X Partners promotes a strategy that uses the training and skill gained through architectural education to enhance value for the client by applying the design process for all discussion made in any business. The end result is not necessarily a building! He states the architect is uniquely, broadly qualified to bring together many parts to the whole system—it does not matter what the ”it” (the final result) is. Polo sees an emerging vision of the architect as holistic, synthesizing thinkers who bring value to any ”it.” The architect sells experience, not built space.

Architects and designers in the future will have a better understanding of modern business skills and will be able to translate them into value for the client. The messages of Polo and Fisher are all about applying critical thinking to defining our own profession.

Supporting these thoughts are the following:

  • Related are two trends from Daniel Cappella: (May 2000 DOMUS.)

  • Growing complexity in everything we design

  • Accelerating transformation in the economy from products to services.

Clients told Cappella they were reluctant to involve architects in defining a solution, because architects seemed to be incapable of working in the multidisciplinary teams that complex problems demand. He said architects are stuck in an out-of-date obsession with objects and the expense of process and services. His prediction is that architects younger than 35 are comfortable in dealing with service design and future scenarios, and taking leads in new-generation companies. (Scient, Razorfish, Frog Design and RareMedium, to name a few). Architects? Yes. Design process? Yes. Buildings? Maybe, not always.

Benhard Buerdek, a designer and professor at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung, Offenbach am Main, states ”as we see the shift from hardware to software, we can also see a shift in the last few years that has product designers moving to design consultants and even to design strategists.” By doing this, they have to raise their knowledge base, which means again more research about design and design processes. In industry, he says we can see that designers are taking charge of marketing and branding, to name just two areas related to design. One reason is designers are the only group in this field who are able to visualize their ideas and new concepts.

This is about designing with people—as opposed to designing for people—making the users the subject, not the object, of innovation. Many design professionals today see that clients are asking them to take part in activities that expand the design process with a focus on context, not the object.

As Miles Davis said: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”
Realizing other professions are looking beyond, Fast Company (April 2002) has in its “Unit of One,” an article about the future of advertising, titled “Advertising.” (I have taken the liberty to substitute “architecture.”)

  • *”The only way we’re going to lose our relevance is if we stop learning.”

  • “Emotion grabs attention and ultimately sells.”

  • “The advertising (Architecture) industry has got to understand that it’s no longer in the ad (building) business

  • “We help build brands and a brand is the most critical asset a company has today.”

  • “I want an ad agency (Architectural firm) that is creative enough to help me reinvent my total business . . . if ad agencies (Architectural firms) are truly in the idea business, then they need to shed the old mentality of simply making ads (buildings).”

Five Changes

Speaking at the AIA Convention, Tom Peters got the attention of all when he presented a dynamic PowerPoint presentation entitled “Architects, the AIA and the 5 Changes.”(download at and get the cryptic summary of his talk). Response was electric, and, yes, some were impressed and some chagrined.

Key points were:

  • The world changes—current change will accelerate. The result is confusion—”I don’t know what the built environment means anymore.”

  • The work changes—the work changes, the workplace changes.

  • The firm changes—the model of the professional services firm is re-invented, the architecture has the opportunity to become an “integrated services provider.” A balance of client strategy and design.

  • The talent changes—the female talent will exceed their counterparts

  • The client changes—the female consumer power will dominate

Peters confirmed a message that has been presented by others—that architects, ”will think and rethink what we are all about. The challenge he presents, in doing so, is to acknowledge the awesome power of “the potential of architects to change the world.”

Peters is telling us that although owners see design as a thing, they do not always see the architect as instrumental in creating that “thing” in its early, conceptual phases. Paradoxically, they are looking for a person who will give them that design-thing from start to finish—if you will, a design “integrated service provider.”

This demand for a greater integration of services aligns directly with the AIA’s Redefinition of the Profession principles that state “the architect is the integrator and facilitator of the design collaboration process.”

Moving Toward an Integrated Practice

As firms are moving in this direction, is it based on a strategic initiative or by taking advantage of an opportunity? And how are they looking at the opportunity?

Our findings indicate only a small percentage of architects are becoming integrated by strategically going narrower and deeper in an existing market or by researching a marketplace, and positioning themselves with a professional diversity, to provide broader services. More common is the “taking advantage of an opportunity.”

Two thirds of the firms we have contacted indicate they have been presented with opportunities to provide services beyond that for which they first contracted. Of that number about half defined these opportunities as a means of improving the effectiveness of the design and performance of the particular project in which they were involved. They completed the additional effort as a service, but because it related to a particular project it was limited to the project.

Less than half see the opportunity as a chance to view the work from a broader understanding and invitation to participate in the business strategy of the client. They see a value beyond the particular client or project and look at an emerging strategy to provide a greater integration of services within an emerging marketplace. They are developing a strategy to become an integrated service provider. They are developing a knowledge base on a focused market and are implementing an integration strategy to expand the value proposition of the firm.

Observations on the transformation:

  • The process must integrate individual and group work behaviors, understand work styles, develop a common language, respect the knowledge of others; it requires a high level of confidence in an overall strategy.

  • The integration, and in turn, innovation, occurs through diversity, which requires understanding of human behavior and attitudes, with people sharing a common base of objectives and processes.

  • Value of the firm and the profession increases when collaboration replaces the more homogeneous nature of today’s profession—when we understand and acknowledge a professional diversity as well as a racial and gender diversity.

  • The establishment of knowledge-management networks which reside in the professional community, within the firm or alliance, and shared within the profession.

A major step in providing integrated services is the knowledge-based architecture mentioned in the Point Break Symposium and the challenge of Tom Peters. Stephen Denning in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge Era Organizations(Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000) tells the story of the World Bank. It was in the process of asking its clients (as many architects are now doing) “What business are we in?” They found their clients were increasingly dissatisfied with merely receiving the expertise of the individual directly assigned to their project and want expertise from around the globe that the entire organization could provide.

The Springboard says that even though many organizations acknowledge that clients need “knowledge brokers,” most do not have a framework to establish and maintain access to new organizational knowledge or extend its potential reach. The moral of this story, I believe, parallels the architect’s great opportunity to become a knowledge integrator for clients.

The Integration Alliance

One of the means of becoming an “integrator” or an “integratee” is through an alliance. You can base an alliance on one particular project or on an ongoing business strategy. In a project alliance, you are working with others to achieve one goal—a successful one-shot project. In a strategic business alliance, you are building upon on-going strength with overwhelming professional potential.

One such strategic business alliance is Insight Alliance—composed of architectural firms, Callison; TVS; and Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo. Their shared objective is to offer the absolute best knowledge/value to and on behalf of their clients. Their combined synergy produces a broad wealth of knowledge and intellectual capital. This integration approach is consistent to marketplace research trends:

  • Clients today have the complexity and sophistication to offer multidisciplinary teams great opportunities for professional diversity.

  • Clients are choosing to work with teams that have the knowledge and intellectual capital to strategize, design and implement an entire project.

  • Clients recognize the value and competitive advantages of alliance.

  • Clients demand to work with people who create value through collaboration, coordination, facilitation and integration.

As you “triangulate” all the above, from the Point Break to the Tom Peters insight, to the “Knowledge Integrator Alliance” it’s all about change.

Change as stressed by Peters—is about the shift in defining and redesigning of the business architects are in. It is not eliminating or moving away from design; rather it is about the opportunity of building on the very nature of business functions and operations, of community and people functions. It is considering everything as a design problem and developing a strategy to further the design and implementation of the particular path selected in one’s definition.

A definition of Industrial Design by Allen Samuels of the University of Michigan School of Art and Design could ring a bell with architects.

“Industrial design is the professional service of creating and disseminating new knowledge through the creation of original designs aimed at optimizing the lives of individual users and advancing culture overall” —they optimize the function, value and appreciation of products and systems . . . clearly expressing purpose, place and value.

Marcia Hart, Architect-Organizational Strategist with OP-X, in Washington D.C. summarizes the above by saying “strategy is an emergent property, it is what you are doing rather than what one is going to do.“ She is constantly exploring the condition of value, the value chain, and furthering the client’s business strategy through design. She is in a constant state of “triangulation.”

It’s clear to her—design is the link between strategy and implementation.

Each in the design profession, in architecture must define and design ourselves, or others will do it for us.