The rigors of competition weigh heavily on firm leaders today. Not even global giants are safe. Economic shifts in building categories and geographic zones are in constant transition.

The rigors of competition weigh heavily on firm leaders today. Not even global giants are safe. Economic shifts in building categories and geographic zones are in constant transition.

Firm consolidations are rampant, investments are volatile, and wild cards loom ominously. Yet, in the face of uncertainty, firm leaders are not running for cover, they are embracing risk and making steady progress. Strategic progress. Smart firms are engaging with leadership to manage uncertainty and volatility. These firms know that they can’t afford to rest on their success. Leading firms look on the horizon with foresight to consider new ways to ensure future competitive success.

Changing conditions in the marketplace create opportunities to build professional practices of significance. However, these opportunities cannot be found where most firms look. With foresight we begin to see and understand where the opportunities will be.

Clients of professional practices sometimes refer to brand strength when talking about their architects and designers. Clients want relevance, expertise, and a trusting relationship with experts who can deliver solutions. Clients know that they need professionals who understand the gaps between today’s operating reality and tomorrow’s new business paradigms. They are looking for someone who speaks their language and who is familiar with the unique characteristics of their business or service category. They not only need a design professional but also a problem solver who goes beyond typical status quo thinking.

Building brand strength depends on creating services, processes, and products that are decidedly relevant to clients. When these services, processes, and products are vastly differentiated and when attention is achieved in the media and marketplace then a grand brand is created. Whilst it is not easy to sustain such brand position it is indeed possible and this, fundamentally, is what this issue of DI is all about.

Consider your own category of service. Now, think about how speed, cost, quality, and performance drive not only your reputation but your personal satisfaction. When we listen carefully to clients’ priorities we can custom fit, tailor, and ideate around fresh delivery and outcomes.

Today, technology is changing many of the rules, offering strategic advantages to those who understand the implications. If architects fail to embrace these changes, the responsibility for leading in technology may pass to yet another profession or enterprising business. The overall design and construction pie is growing and is now over 1 trillion dollars in the United States and over 3.6 trillion globally. In this context there is tremendous unrealized opportunity. And yet, we all hear the common complaint that design services are a chronically undervalued commodity. Don’t believe it. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you choose to operate in a zone of generic services without much differentiation then you will play in the commodity game. There are business models that work quite well in this zone of commodity. However, it’s more fun, we believe, to be setting the pace, advancing into new frontiers of design and construction.

Design works in mysterious ways. Celebrate its mystery. Target stores have a strong brand. They have created this through design – organizational, product, and building. They have decided to transform their trademark into a “love mark.” Through cutting-edge design at affordable prices they strike a balance that makes sparks fly. The Michael Graves product designs for Target now number over 700, each with the power to surprise and enthrall, embracing a dynamic, galvanic brand for not just Target but Michael Graves and his colleagues.

This issue of DesignIntelligence explores some aspects of building the essence of a professional practice. Essence is that which captures moments of truth. This includes relevancy, popularity, media attention, style (or vernacular), quality, personality, and delivery competencies.

Clients value solutions over traditions. The media wants leading edge innovation. Employees want work satisfaction and recognition. Newer and better is being actualized by America’s leading firms.

You will note the brand blueprint illustration here that shows Greenway Group’s brand 2 x 2 model. When firms provide services that are in the generic and extraneous quadrant they are essentially in intensive care. They are failing and will close, slowly or quickly, unless intervention occurs. At the other extreme is the “grand brand” zone where there is little downward pressure on fees and where young professionals are clamoring to go to work. Only about 20 percent of practices are typically in the upper right, grand brand, quadrant. Keep in mind that a firm can offer categorical services that can be highly relevant and differentiated in one category but then actually be a laggard in another. They may be hot and cold at the same time. Firms that have dropped certain building and product categories found they could not compete because they did not possess the talent, the expertise, or the repute that grand brands command. They cut their losses to concentrate on their strengths.

Brand building is provocative work. New brands are developing in the AEC space and new firm names are coming into play. Firms are positioning for different categorical segments where new opportunities are flourishing. They are decidedly placing more emphasis in areas that build brand strength and less where there are crowded generic services. Fundamental rethinking is underway about the design brands of the future, about where value lives, and where opportunities will emerge.

James P. Cramer is editor of DesignIntelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is co-author of How Firms Succeed 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