The Ghost Curriculum
September 29, 2017 | Scott Simpson
What Schools Don’t Teach, but Should.
It’s been said that the true purpose of an education is not so much to acquire facts or skills, but to learn how to learn. There’s a lot of wisdom in this. In the design and construction industry, things are changing faster than ever. New tools and technologies, constant revision of codes and standards, innovative delivery methods, plus a gusher of exciting new materials and products make it almost impossible to stay current with everything that’s going on. The amount of information and coordination needed to design and construct a project are increasing exponentially, requiring ever-larger teams of experts and consultants. Even the way space is used is being transformed, as buildings become more interactive with their occupants. In short, the future is taking shape right before our eyes, and it looks very different from the past. Things we thought we knew are quickly going out of date.
This context of constant change presents a real challenge for design schools. There are only a few short years to prepare students to become productive professionals. Curricula are already over-crowded with coursework that is required to maintain accreditation, leaving relatively little time for electives. There’s simply too much to learn, and not enough time to teach it all. In addition, the pace of change in academia, which is generally guided (if not bound) by tradition, always lags behind the private sector, making it especially difficult to stay on top of new trends. The academic experience must focus on the basics and build up from there. The basics are necessary, but not sufficient, for students to learn what they need to know. This is not so different from law or medicine, where school can provide baseline knowledge, but professional expertise can only be acquired through real-world practice.
The inevitable result is that there’s an awful lot of stuff that schools can’t, or won’t, get around to. Academia operates in an atmosphere that is less burdened by real-world constraints such as budgets, schedules, or meeting next week’s payroll. In school, all things are possible, but in real life there are many factors to contend with that may seem at first to have very little to do with pure design, but which can have a profound impact on both process and outcome. Case in point: how to convince a zoning board of appeals to grant a height variance that will enable a client to secure funding for a project. That sort of thing is just not covered as part of Design 101, but it’s just as important as determining the right beam depth or duct size.
Let’s call this unexplored territory the “ghost curriculum.” Like dark matter in physics; we can’t see it or measure it, but we know that it’s essential to how things really work. A lot of it may seem like common sense, but it’s rarely talked about in any formalized way. That’s too bad, because without this knowledge, newly-minted graduates will be ill-equipped to put their skills to best use. A few examples:
How to get work. It should be pretty obvious that getting work is the first step in doing work, because no matter how talented a person may be, without a client there is nothing to do. How do firms secure work? What’s the secret of establishing a network and getting great projects as opposed to settling for bread-and-butter assignments? How much does marketing cost, and how long does it usually take? Are design competitions actually an effective way to secure new work? If not, what works better? And so forth. A lot of people may confuse marketing with salesmanship, but they are not the same. Marketing is something that can be taught (business schools do it all the time), and it’s absolutely essential to long-term professional success.
How to get along with others. The design and construction process is a team sport. It takes a lot of talented people to produce a project, including clients, designers, engineers, consultants, contractors, and suppliers, and to get the best results they must be able to work productively and efficiently together with a minimum of conflict. Differences of opinion need to be respected and ironed out. How do you get everyone on the same page? What are the specific processes and techniques that will enhance collegiality, and how are the results measured? It’s a fact of life that “no one is as smart as everyone,” so what is the best way to make sure that your projects will take full advantage of all the talent at the table?
How to manage. The art of management has been described as “getting things done through others.” This is a discipline that also gets short shrift in school. How do you make sure that the project is properly staffed? How do you get the best technology? What’s the proper way to set up a project budget, track ongoing results, institute quality control, integrate the work of the creative and technical staff, coordinate the consultants, make sure that the fees are collected on time and the bills are paid, and attend to a thousand other details that are all part of what’s needed to make a project successful? This is the nitty-gritty stuff; the mortar between the bricks. In school, it’s not necessary to know all the details just yet, but it is important to gain an appreciation of what management is all about and why it’s such an integral part of designing and delivering buildings.
How to lead. Collegiality, management, and leadership are related, but they are not the same thing. How do you gain the respect of your professional colleagues? How do you inspire diverse professionals, each of whom has a slightly different agenda, to act in concert? How do you gain the support of regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over the project? How do you make sure that thousands of decisions that need to be made during the course of the project will be properly carried out? There are many different leadership styles. How do you determine which one will work best for you?
The importance of money. Money may sound mundane, but without it, no firm can function and no project can get built. As a first step, it’s important to develop an appreciation for the client’s money. What are the available resources and how can they be put to best use? Too many students depart design school with the misguided notion that concerns about money should not get in the way of doing great design. However, money matters a great deal, because it’s what makes great projects possible. In this way, good design and good money management are inextricably linked. How can you integrate the design mission of the firm with the business mission? Most schools don’t talk about this very basic issue, but they should.
How to discuss design value. It may sound strange that design value should be counted as part of the “ghost curriculum.” Presumably, that’s part of a school’s core mission. However, most schools focus on design as an end product: what does a building look like, what is it made of, and how does it function? There’s an additional aspect that is rarely discussed, which is how design creates real economic value. How can it help maximize revenue flow, reduce operational costs, support future flexibility, enhance a client’s brand, and create a palpable sense of community among the occupants and the public at large? How can design value be discussed in business terms, and business value be translated into design terms? Being able to articulate the economic value of design is a tremendous asset when dealing with clients, financiers, and public agencies.
None of this is to suggest that design schools are not trying their best. It’s just there’s too much to learn given the time available. Here’s a tip for young graduates: spend time seeking out experienced professionals whom you really admire and respect, then ask them the following two questions: “What are the things that you wish you had learned when you were in design school?” and “If you knew then what you know now, would it have affected the course of your career?” The answers will tell you what you need to develop your own “ghost curriculum.”
Scott Simpson is editor-at-large of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.