Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Thinking Outside the Architect Box

One of my favorite sites for connecting architects, Archinect, has been doing a series discussing architects who are branching out into other areas of design. Archinect features a team of ex-architects who started a studio fittingly called WeShouldDoItAll. They express their love for architecture but choose to work as designers not constrained by one path or expertise. They focus on many areas such as interiors, graphics, products and furniture design that will eventually lead to achieving well-rounded careers as designers. This is definitely not a new concept; architects have consistently followed alternative paths. But, it’s becoming more prevalent in the current economic crisis. Architects are losing their jobs everyday across the nation, leaving talented people looking for work that is non-existent. I, fortunately, am keeping my head out of the water but it may only be a matter of time before I become another victim. Therefore, I am starting to think of my options, both practical and idealistic. What dreams do I have for myself as an architect/designer, “ex-architect” or an architect on a hiatus?

First, let's look at one reason why countless architects are choosing to change direction. From my experience, it's partly due to the stifling nature of the typical corporate architecture firm. My colleagues and I work countless hours flushing out a concept design for developers who call all the shots. Architects are losing respect in the industry. We do all the grunt work coordinating with consultants striving to make our ideas realized while our developer client has the ability to stop production in an instant due to lack of funding, change in project scope, etc. And often we begin work on a project without a contract to receive payment. There is a lack of communication and mentorship between management and staff, leaving many young designers with unanswered questions and no clear direction. These circumstances among others have resulted in our failure to retain talented individuals. Many have changed their focus within the firm from concept designer to the technical/planning/programing side for job security. Being a concept designer is risky because it's easy to fall off the pedestal unless you stay on top of the trends.

On the brighter side, there are other options for people with architecture degrees. There is a trend in Austin of design-build firms that work as the developer and architect, allowing the firm to have control over decision-making on the project. But this is a route many architects avoid because of the financial risk. Also, I am interested in urban design and planning, focusing on the public policy side of the built environment. Areas tied to that are historic preservation and sustainability. These two concepts have been recently merged into one broad concept for the redevelopment of our aging communities. An exciting option is set design for movies or theatre, designing fantasy-like environments and only spending a couple months achieving results instead of a couple years. I too am interested in product design and would love to work here.

The list goes on and on...but whatever path I choose, I'm grateful to know I have options and that I won't be ostracized for following a path that isn't the typical architecture route. I, too, just like Jonathan Jackson from WSDIA, always wanted to be an architect growing up. And I wouldn't have endured 5 years to receive my degree if I didn't think I could make it. But the working world is different from architecture school. I don't aim to generalize all architecture firms, I have no doubt there are many places where architects feel they are on the right path. But it's apparent now more than ever that architects are choosing other paths because there is clearly something missing from the traditional role as architect.


  1. I think we are actually seeing a shift away from corporate America into a small business, creative environment across all industries. Thankfully, this country maintains an entrepreneurial spirit and it is exciting to see the fruits of that ideology.

    Part of this shift may be attributed to Gen Y’s priorities when looking for that “dream job.” There is a stronger emphasis on lifestyle rather than reliability in a job. Such things as number of PTO days and office environment now play a larger role.

    In the end, the only way to be happy is to follow YOUR dreams. So many people stay in unfulfilling jobs for the sake of the consistent paycheck. However, upon my limited experience in the corporate world, I am finding this is not the path to a happy life. There are times when you have to take the risk to achieve the true results you want. And Jackie, I think you are discovering this as well. So maybe it's the silver lining to such a tumultuous time in our nation.

  2. I agree that it's exciting to see architects and other design professionals working from a more holistic and liberated perspective. Although I've never worked a corporate job and have no desire to, I can understand how that work environment could stifle creativity. And more than anything, I think our society desperately needs to foster creative thinking right now.

    This will require a change of mindset above all else. The IT infrastructure is already in place for widespread collaboration, idea sharing, etc. And it is making a difference, but at the moment it seems that most of the truly innovative and transformative design solutions are gaining traction only at the margins of society. This is certainly true with respect to our current ecological crisis, which is my primary focus. I think design professionals have a huge role to play in the creation of viable, new alternative models.

    The revolutionary moment will be when the mainstream of society latches on to a few of these ideas and runs with them. That is when the transformative power of cooperative, community action will emerge to create a new world order.

    Peace, Ryan

  3. Having followed a similar path as you (4 years in design school, working for architects for another 4, then jumping to the "owner" side for 11, and another two in an interiors firm), I find your observations of the architectural profession are not just spot-on, but also one that has been persisted for years and likely not to self-correct.

    Of all the professions, architects are the most unappreciated and the most poorly paid, while bearing as much legal and social responsibility as attorneys and physicians. And because of their marginalized incomes, other things don’t happen, like educating managers to mentor (sadly, this is not a natural-born trait in many human beings), or expansion of business so staff relegated to drafting have an opportunity to move up in the firm.

    As you've noted, even as a concept designer, the constraints, the internal politics, the city, the budgets, the owner/developer's opinions, are daunting. Is anything left of the first fresh concept that everyone purported to love? I came to the realization well over 10 years ago that I may as well be on my own. The pay was abysmal, the compromises heart-breaking, the respect non-existent and job security? Just want for the next recession. Oops. we've arrived.

    Being on my own is a daily trip to the amusement park, and how I detest those craven roller coaster days, there is not an iota of regret. Although I cannot say I can always choose my own clients, I do direct my marketing towards those who are like-minded, thoughtful and open to ideas. When I have down month (or as in 2008, a down year), I have somehow survived, rather than being pitched out of a firm because a job went on hold and they have to make the numbers work.

    There are firms that “do it all” as you pointed out. But the really good ones are far and few between the ones that greedily gobble up other professionals’ work in down times, and because these other channels are not their core competency or, in some firms, the principles think of them as “lesser” creative services, they often execute substandard work. Does Dallas need any more bad signage? What is very do-able, however, is diversifying your own self. As a purely selfish act to survive, I started offering presentation services to clients that ultimately evolved into graphic design, copy writing and photography. There was no plan, it was just do something, quick!

    So, there is hope and light and creativity and, most importantly, huge satisfaction in your work, available to architects and others in similar professions. Stepping off that very first precipice of self-launching that, as Bugs Bunny would say, “is a doozy.”