Shifting the focus from worry to positive energy and trust building is where the expanding creative class is headed. We’re calling it ROI—Return on Integrity.

Anyone looking at the fiscal year to come must note: October is the fourth consecutive month that private sector construction spending has declined. From a peak way back in February 2001, capital spending for offices, industrial buildings, and warehouses has fallen nearly 30 percent. Empty office buildings abound in many cities today. Yet there is expansion in school facilities, higher education, and hospitals. Architects and designers also report only somewhat smaller offices with firms reporting 5 percent to 16 percent staff reductions. Some firms even report growth—albeit cautious growth. The economic recovery may be slow, yet the vision in many design firms is still enthusiastic.

Our examinations and analysis of firms this year has brought to the surface a new intangible value that is being delivered by creative professionals&#151that group of architects and designers we increasingly call the “creative class.” This definition combines creativity, ethics, and integrity. The new creative class is spending its time and energy on the open spaces that they have the talent to fill. Too often in the past, designers have seen the barriers—rather than the potential solutions leading to their own success and market positioning. Shifting the focus from worry to positive energy and trust building is where the expanding creative class is headed. We’re calling it ROI—Return on Integrity.

The great majority of firms place a value on loyalty, avoiding harm to others, being just, and earning the trust and respect of their clients. This year’s Pritzker Prize winner, Glenn Murcutt of Australia, is serving as an exemplar of these principals. Murcutt takes us into a culture of creativity that provides a new angle on value: return on investment for clients? Return on innovation? Return on integrity? Emphatically, “Yes” to all.
The context of our design professions has changed, and for that reason we have three rather simple recommendations that seem appropriate given all that our world has been through this last year. They are:

  • To be successful in the future, designers need to overcome controversy and the threat of erosion of public confidence. It’s time for firms to have their own Code of Professional Conduct or Code of Ethics. Association codes may be great&#151but a recent survey of more than 120 firm leaders showed only three had read their association’s code of ethics in the past year. Your firm should have its own code of ethics—a concise, custom-written set of standards that is easily understood and upheld especially in cases of breach.

  • Build your own brand around the predictability of your core values. Practice without surprises. Build consistency in everything you do. Your bedrock standards truly distinguish your firm from competitors. No other firm has your exact values—define the differences.

  • Quietly, but confidently, create an organization that is blatantly principled. Integrity requires courage. In great client relationships, the client knows that you will act predictably, speak without exaggeration, and never do anything to harm them. True professionals are protective of fragile, precious relationships.

As you progress, you will navigate the high points and the lows that inevitably follow. If during this navigation you do your best and maintain your self-defined ethics&#151you will be a trusted, true professional.

—James P. Cramer