Our ability to create design solutions in response to economic, environmental, and social crises requires a necessary paradigm shift. Start by involving clients in design workshops that make the process of design observable and the value of design apparent.

The economy has been distressed for more than a year. Executives and decision makers are scrambling to sustain their businesses under unprecedented conditions. Design and planning work continues in spite of the frozen credit markets, yet the challenge is not only how to get work but how to price it. Debates in design firms occur over the cost of design services and the value of these services in a down economy. The negative implication of reduced scopes reinforces a view that design is a luxury.

It must be our goal in these times to stake our claim on the territory of solving challenging design problems in a challenging economy.

This economy affects our self-esteem and our livelihood. Having lived through numerous boom and bust cycles, I can share several observations about their contrasting characteristics. In a booming economy the pace of opportunity is quick, a premium is placed on the speed of delivery, and the price of consulting is high. Busting economies are characterized by slow, deliberate decision making on the part of clients. During these times, consultants focus on doing excellent work and on critical analysis as a means of achieving great work and satisfied clients.

Design professionals can seize on opportunities and share a significant role in the recovery of our economy. Creating design solutions in response to economic, environmental, and social crises is a necessary paradigm shift.

Design is germane to progress. The products of design mark the advance of civilization and culture. Critical design practices respond to the issues proffered by our world and our time. To prove value, design must be comprehensive, rigorous, and deliver measurable results on the most challenging issues of the day.

Case in Point

Over the past 10 years, Design Workshop has built a philosophy and taught the methods of this philosophy to the members of our company. In the past year, we have accelerated our use of this “Legacy Design” philosophy to market and execute our work. This philosophy is couched in the idea that teams of planners, designers, engineers, lawyers, and people with business and other backgrounds can join to create great places that benefit a broad spectrum of people. We communicate openly with all involved groups, building stories around what we learn and what we wish to accomplish. By virtue of a highly iterative process, we arrive at solutions that deliver measured benefits to clients and end users.

Four principles define our conduct during the design process:

•    We are comprehensive in four categories of thought and skills: economics, environment, community, and art. We consider each of the four for every project we encounter.

•    We are inclusive in this philosophy and method with all stakeholders and members of the project team. Everyone in our company knows and practices the philosophy and methods — from the front desk through the studio.

•    We are transparent in the way we make decisions and in the daily progress of our work. There is great emphasis in exposing work on the walls at all times so that everyone can help critique it and absorb our collective progress.

•    We must understand the baselines of excellence, set goals and benchmarks for each and every project, and measure both the progress and final results. Only then do we know we are getting better.

The following project-related story reveals the importance of design in these times and the importance of having a philosophy, to distinguish the firm both through marketing efforts and the design work itself.

We recently had the opportunity to create a community plan for a large land holding. The long-term landholder of 1,800 acres was contacted by a finder who sought a plan that would attract a specific Fortune 50 corporate tenant. The plan would consolidate a dispersed employee population into a modern corporate campus. Because of the significance of this project in today’s economy, we strived to learn as much about this anonymous tenant corporation as possible before beginning planning and design. The landholder has been a treasured client for 12 years.

We had three weeks to create a plan that combined with the developer’s land purchase negotiations to attract the coveted tenant. In conversations with the finder and the anonymous corporation, we elicited five key desires that provided a foundation for our efforts and influenced planning activities over the ensuing eight months. These revelations had to be incorporated in a design:

•    The corporation’s desire to use the most advanced sustainability practices in all planning and building endeavors

•    The corporation’s desire to be surrounded by a community conceived on the same principles

•    The corporation’s desire to use measured features of the community plan and its own campus plan to recruit and retain the best and the brightest employees to enhance its corporate leadership position

•    The corporation’s desire to use the wildness of the site juxtaposed by a large urban metropolis to achieve a strong and positive destination

•    The master developer’s desire to use the corporation’s reputation to distinguish the community and more rapidly develop this high-quality place

We looked at these opportunities to find the motivations and design direction that would stimulate us, the developer, and the corporation to act synergistically to achieve outcomes that hit a higher mark. The role of the designer is to make such synergy happen in physical and quantifiable ways.

The method we have developed demands a strong statement of purpose and a dilemma to imply the essential struggle for success. For this project, the dilemma was stated this way: “We must connect the values of the corporation to the design attributes of the community in order that the corporation and the developer can share the mutual benefits of a plan that finds the cross purposes.”

A thesis then proposes a design solution. In this case, it was describing where the specific opportunities for cross purpose might be: “The essential success comes from understanding the measured goals of the corporation and the community, understanding the environmental assets and capacities of the site and with these, setting a planning and design course that optimizes the marriage of corporate campus and community to the site.” A thesis goes on to describe more specific objectives. In this example the 1,800 acres are covered by an arrangement of woodlands, wetlands, and drainages feeding into a major creek. The value of this land is defined by a relationship between sun, water, woodlands, and wildlife. Sustaining this relationship while allowing for development of the campus is the key to creating great community.

Executing the work is then a matter of employing the method — of leading the client and consulting team through a disciplined process that looks at the critical issues, defines the specialists required to address them, investigates baselines and benchmarks, sets and monitors goals through the process of planning and design. With our collaborative partners, a statement of purpose, and a mission to deliver measureable benefits, we can align the purpose of the plan. The team and the client group and then discover the great opportunities inherent in this project.

Although the project is just beginning, the foundation for accomplishing the goals has been firmly established. We have set goals for saving wetlands and woodlands in order to build amenities for the community and to address measurable aspects of heat island affect, storm water storage and conveyance, wildlife habitat, and more. We have investigated the space required within the plan to accomplish these benefits and are integrating the functional and aesthetic aspects of these elements. Collaboration among all team members is essential to discovering how these systems interact to deliver the intended results.

Contemporary design challenges can be met only by working together in a transparent design process. Design workshops are critical to bringing the client and consultants together and creating a common belief that goals are being met.

Seeing Results

Clients are looking for the real proof of progress, for the costs and savings. By being part of regular workshops, key executives can see the progress and witness the effort required to deliver added benefits. By witnessing the effort and seeing proof of value, our community client and the corporation are thinking hard about how design enhances their recruiting success and brand building. Marketing of the corporation and the community establishes broad awareness of the benchmarks of this place and this corporate campus. Other developers and corporations are encouraged to compete by setting yet higher goals. Evolution of our design standards is accelerated in this process and stimulated by standards that deliver measured results.

Through both challenging and easier economic times, the professions have always engaged the most challenging issues of the day. With tight credit and a highly competitive market for services, the emphasis is still on solutions that leverage great benefits to clients and end users.

If we refine our philosophies and methods, if we engage comprehensive teams in comprehensive problem solving, iterate our solutions, and measure the progress through each iteration, our leadership position will be solidified.

Clients are looking for solutions that can be backed up with facts. End users, particularly in the next generation of leaders, want to purchase and participate in sustainable and worldly workplaces and communities.

In order for us to be leaders in the evolution of our built communities, we should look to the following efforts and conditions for success:

•    A philosophy that embraces comprehensive objectives in the realms of environment, community, economics, and art

•    Collaborative skills and a willingness to engage all staff, high-achieving specialists, and clients in a discovery oriented design process

•    Transparent decision making that embraces all team members

•    Willingness to set goals, measure progress, and ultimately prove success

These steps not only lead to better projects but to the evolution of our capacity to take on these great projects by proving the value of design again and again.


Todd Johnson is a principal at Design Workshop, Denver, which was ASLA Landscape Architecture Firm of the Year in 2008. He holds a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Utah State University and a master’s from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He is a member of the Urban Land Institute and a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.