Technology presents paradigm shifts in design

The 2008 DesignIntelligence Technology Survey illustrates paradigm shifts in design: Collaboration, teamwork, and speed are the watchwords. Progressive firms will capitalize on them.

The 2008 DesignIntelligence Technology Survey illustrates paradigm shifts in design: Collaboration, teamwork, and speed are the watchwords. Progressive firms will capitalize on them.

Consider, for a moment, your workplace after hours and all those ubiquitous electronic twinkles in the dark — an energy epiphany of sorts, in red, blue, green, orange. Dancing diodes. The migration to new and faster technologies happened slowly, so it seemed. And now the tools of our work are not only intensely energy dependent, but their operation requires the hand of trained specialists and mandates a dizzying schedule of maintenance, upgrades, and product research.

Technology is providing the design professions not just incremental value through the use of new tools but breakaway strategic systems that offer ever faster solutions and evolving ways of working. The result is that the design professions are stepping forward into an epoch of productivity, even indispensability, creating new zones of competitive advantage. Not so very long ago, information technology practitioners and architects spoke a different language. Now they are entwined in their professional practice. In advanced practices, there is a merging of IT with architecture and design — a blurring of boundaries of the professions and refreshed empowerment to the design professions, a new breed of professional transcending traditional definitions.

Meet Your Future

Three significant paradigm shifts in design are shaping what we do and how we do it:

• The myth of the solitary design genius is fast giving way to the reality of team-based design that engages many talented people working simultaneously and cooperatively to solve problems and create solutions. Design is fast becoming both a team sport and a social art on a global scale.

• Technology permits designers to display their thought processes and decision-making options in three and four dimensions rather than two, and they can do so very quickly. This makes the design process far more transparent and accessible to clients and the public alike, further encouraging (and in fact requiring) broad participation.

• There have been breathtaking advances in the speed at which things are done, from travel to communication to manufacturing, and even delicate surgery. Architecture and construction are not exempt from this phenomenon.

Upping the Performance Bar

The secret is out. The technologies that are being used by today’s architects and engineers — including smart phones, rapid prototyping, and building information modeling, among many others, are enabling increasing design innovation and higher levels of service to clients. Some professionals are not yet on board with this evolution. But there is even further change on the horizon, and this means that the entire architecture, engineering, design, and construction industry will go through repeated and rapid metamorphoses.

The desire of many people in our industry is to advance a mythical position for the architecture profession — the famed master builder of the 19th century. However, the 21st century will see a restructured and redefined hybrid profession willing to take risks. The DesignIntelligence Technology Survey reveals that for many design professionals, practice management goals are being increasingly realized as technology allows them to fill client needs. The paradoxes of progress are complex.

This year’s survey has expanded its research breadth and includes a larger number of successful medium-size firms. Firms of 100 or more employees represent 25 percent of respondents; those with 500 or more represent 11 percent; and those with 1,000 or more, 4 percent. The largest single grouping was of firms with 100 to 499 employees. Most firms in our study are growing at a rate of 7 percent to 9 percent; although, 16 percent grew more by than 19 percent last year and 8 percent grew by more than 25 percent. In this year’s study, 15 percent of firms were from the East region, 25 percent from the Midwest, 28 percent from the South, and 23 percent from the West. Nine percent responded from offices outside the United States.

On to Something Big

A large portion of firms — 41 percent — are not currently using BIM in a billable manner. However, many are gearing up for it by installing seats and signing up for training. Moreover, 18 percent are using BIM in a billable manner, with 6 percent reporting being 80 percent or more BIM billable. Of note: This number was unaffected by staff size. Large firms were not shown to have significantly different billability nor were they found to be more innovative in their technology innovation.

The survey shows that a firm’s decision to adopt BIM as a new tool is driven primarily by architects, not by owners, contractors, or other design professionals. However, 17 percent of surveyed firms reported that a project owner drove the decision to use BIM on at least one project during the past year. Based on interviews, we expect this trend to continue but with architects leading most of the change. Clients, engineers, and contractors will closely follow the drive for change. In addition, more government units and large-scale developers will let it be known that they prefer (and sometimes require) BIM on their projects. It is not an overstatement to say that we are now at a technology tipping point of change for the design professions. Engineers may not always show enthusiasm, but they are cooperative and giving little resistance to adopting BIM since they are often equipped to handle the shift toward new modeling systems that make integrated practice increasingly possible.

Clash detection and visualization were most often cited as aspects of current BIM use. Only 18 percent are using it for construction monitoring at this time. As for BIM’s benefits, improved project coordination, reduced errors, better design efficiency, and overall increased document quality were especially noted.

The use of software is a way of life in design offices. The great majority of firms represented in the survey use AutoCAD (92 percent), which validates previous research by The Greenway Group. In addition, 78 percent of firms are using project management software, 62 percent scheduling software, 32 percent customer relationship management software, and 16 percent automated cost estimating software. Greenway Group research validates that nearly 100 percent of firms use computer-aided design and drafting systems and personal digital assistants.


Firms are more environmentally perceptive in all their operations, and this includes technology. This is one reason that decisions regarding technology purchasing almost always include green attributes. For example, architecture, engineering, and design firms are increasingly using videoconferencing to reduce travel and create leaner service delivery with lower carbon emissions. Our survey shows that 53 percent of firms have videoconferencing facilities inside their organizations. A full 35 percent report that they do not use this technology yet.

The large computer monitors that so many firms are installing use more energy, and this is a concern in today’s practices. Increasingly, decision makers are likely to be looking for greener options. For instance, architects and engineers are seeking advanced screens that will have backlighting in response to both the ambient light in the room and the content on the screen.

Sensitivity and leadership of sustainable design — “cleantech” — will be increasingly expected of the design professions. In other words, firm must look to efficiency as well as reducing environmental degradation impacts.

Other studies by the Design Futures Council have found that students in today’s architecture and design schools are ready to adopt green solutions and behaviors and increasingly display a passion for reducing the carbon footprint in everyday life, both professional and personal. Interest in the Solar Decathlon exhibited by so many universities and design students is expected to further fuel and inspire design firm offices to become role models for green behavior — or to risk being seriously out of step with next-generation designers and clients.

Investment, Opportunity

Seven percent of firms in our survey indicated that they spend 20 percent of their entire net revenue budget on all forms of technology, but the median percentage is a more predictable 5 percent. Realizing the relationship between productivity and technology, some firms are adopting a policy of aggressive tech purchasing and training. Some 16 percent of firms spend 10 percent of their net revenue on IT. This number includes full-time direct staff assigned to supervise and lead IT. And 64 percent of firms say they expect to increase such spending as a percentage of net revenue in 2008.

We detect an increasing interest in social networking to enable or improve business prospects. It remains to be seen what practical applications will be strategically adopted by professional practices. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents are making use of social networking sites such as LinkedIn and MySpace. And 72 percent are obtaining work-related information through such vehicles as podcasts, RSS feeds, and webcasts.

There is a rising and impressive interest in the opportunities offered by BIM, by 3-D modeling, and by the new communication, collaboration, and information sharing that can be enhanced through technology. Architects and designers are no longer just designing lines on paper in two dimensions. They are creating databases of information in three-dimensional forms. This brings new skill sets and questions. How much training is smart? Where does data live in the firm’s infrastructure? Who owns the information? How can we make systems communicate and collaborate better?

Time to Swing for the Fences?

The technology skills gap is rapidly closing. It is time for bold action. As this gap closes further, we believe that it will open big opportunities for next-level investments and experimentation. Given the results of the 2008 DesignIntelligence Technology Survey, I recommend the following:

• Integrate all technology decisions into strategic planning. Align and rebalance these initiatives to gain more advantage. It is important to achieve a domino effect on each technology that is implemented into a firm’s culture. Revenues on full-time equivalent staff will begin to have a rocket trajectory on performance charts.

• Learn the fundamentals of BIM yourself as a leader of your firm, and integrate BIM into your toolbox of leadership skills. You are never too old to learn BIM and to coach your organization’s technology playbook.

• Understand that return on investment will take some time. However, new efficiencies will become apparent, and your information technology infrastructure will trend toward statistical reduction over time yet will be increasingly strategic.

A Grip on the Future

The design professions are on track to have a bright future. The essentials are in place. But wait! All bets are off if professional practices lag the rest of the industry in implementing critical new technologies. The threats of inaction are not just theoretical, nor are they mere heartburn. The implications are structural in terms of service delivery and will impact both professional fees and brand relevancy. This could be disruptive to the otherwise bright future envisioned by so many. Therefore, expect some discomfort. Moreover, a rebalancing of power is possible even with decent state licensing laws. (Remember that licensing laws do not protect the traditional profession but protect the public.)

It is time to pull out all the stops now to win the future. This means strategic acceptance of technologies. It is much more than BIM. Yet building information modeling is now the new foundation, not the frosting on the cake. Embrace it and thrive.

James P. Cramer, Hon. AIA, Hon. IIDA, CAE, is founding editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.