The Architect and Design Thinking; Navigating the business sector’s eager adoption of architecture’s iterative process and language, and architects’ potential role in its acquisition and deployment…

I recently edited an interview for the Young Architect’s Forum “Connection” magazine featuring a conversation at the 2016 AIA Convention between Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA and national President of the AIA in 2015 and Virginia E. Marquardt, AIA.

When asked what changes Richter would like to see 15 years from now in architectural professional practice, she replied, “ We [architecture professionals] have talked about expanding our services so that we don’t bracket ourselves within ‘just’ design. Architects need to find ways to apply our set of skills, knowledge, and ability to solve problems creatively.  I think being able to find options is one of our main strengths as architects.  We are not formulaic and that’s what makes us so valuable when it comes to weighing options and helping our clients sort through whatever issue might need a solution.”   She proceeded to say that, “While architects shouldn’t bracket themselves, it’s very important to realize that architects build.  We build buildings, we build spaces.  We can’t forget the core of our profession.”

Richter’s comments regarding the architects’ ability to think iteratively and in an option-oriented manner highlighted one of my favorite aspects or our profession. When approaching a design problem, we already know that there is no one perfect solution, but rather, a multitude of options that must be studied and explored in order to build consensus regarding which option is most appropriate given a specific array of constraints and overarching project goals.

This past week I began to think through the potentials of diagramming a site for a new project. Wrapping my head around how I might create 4 distinctive options that solved a similar problem but in different ways was teased out in a quick sketch exercise, followed by study and some preliminary testing, conversation, and of course, more drawing.  The results felt exciting and latent with potentials that will continue to be tested against our client’s vision, needs, and long-term goals.  Already I am excited to see which scheme has the most promise, and do not feel married to a specific parti in favor of recognizing that the iterative process needs to once again be fed through a literal feedback loop that will garner new strategies and results.

Having returned this past May from C2, a conference in Montreal geared towards “Commerce and Creativity,” it seems that “big business” is also seeking this type of iterative thinking– and with great marketing gusto and enthusiasm.  During my time at C2 I attended a Master Class taught by a partner with Deloitte Digital, a self-described “digital consultancy” that “brings together all the creative and technology capabilities, business acumen, and industry insight needed to help transform our clients’ businesses.” The class was titled “Innovation in the Digital Era,” and focused on “exploring how leading innovators are able to disrupt their markets.”

Not sure what to expect, I was amazed to find myself in a class that was teaching principles and strategies of design thinking and prototyping paired with product development and outcomes. When I met someone in the class that worked for Deloitte Digital, they mentioned that some of their staff was comprised of architects, and that these individuals were achieving success in their new roles.

Much in the way that IDEO and other companies that aim to use design thinking as a lens with which to solve problems, architects’ process of working iteratively to generate quick solutions to evaluate and refine is being adopted and celebrated across industry sectors and various forms of media.

When I asked Mia Scharphie, founder of Creative Agency, a social impact design firm based in Boston, about the concept of “design thinking” being appropriated across a wide range of business sectors as a tool for re-thinking existing issues or initiatives by engaging users directly and prototyping potential solutions, I appreciated her initial response “they [the corporate sector] stole our words!” She then countered by adding, “The design process allows for uncertainty and creativity, which is deeply optimistic and imaginative.  To see examples of that being valued in the world outside of design is something I feel great about.  Design thinking as the marriage of ethnography and open-ended problem solving is a great process that can produce great things.”

As for my personal opinion, I second Richter that architects’ unique academic training instills a certain juxtaposition of rigor and “what if” that helps facilitate diverse, rich dialogues and thinking that hopefully result in, as Richter reminds us, amazing built work. What I also hope is that architects continue to sit at the table in multidisciplinary settings, where the rigor of the design process might add value to problem-solving even when built solutions aren’t required, not only as a means of generating unique solutions to various problems, but demonstrating a certain level of rigor and process that goes beyond the adoption of sometimes ambiguous or slippery words like “innovation.”

And I think it will: it seems like there has never been a better time and appetite to think iteratively not only in our work, but  in the diverse and applicable ways architecture professionals may want to utilize their varied skill sets.

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