Starting or Kick-Starting Your Design Career

November 5, 2009 · by James P. Cramer

No matter the season of your career, establish a point of view about the future, challenge the status quo, and identify new core value propositions.

It’s a good time to start a career in design. Perhaps you disagree. The past 24 months has been a tough economic period. And you are right if you think there is a long way to go before we see balance and sustainable growth, particularly in built environment markets. Also yes, there exists plenty of fear about an uncertain future.


Can starting a career or making a career comeback, for that matter, make sense during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Sounds risky, right?

No. Our contrarian view at Design­Intelligence and among the executive board of the Design Futures Council is that success lies ahead for design professionals who can adapt to the new context and process new opportunities. This includes embracing the emerging professional service models. Evidence abounds that there is a fresh and exciting new profession on the horizon. Let’s examine all of this for a moment.

Here at DesignIntelligence we’ve been exploring case studies of firms that are failing and those that are seriously threatened. We’ve also been studying successes. Definitions of success are dynamically changing, including factors beyond the bottom line such as organizational structures, delivery systems, and leadership propositions. We’ve been pondering the question Will the economic crisis kill the design professions or will it encourage new growth?

We see new growth.

However, at the core, professional practices and careers in architecture and design need to change. Options abound to replace the current soft conditions. But so often, wherever architects and design professionals gather — including the halls of academia and in the learned societies and special interest associations — a symphony of self-destruction can be heard. Self-appointed doomsayers perpetuate and magnify crisis rather than offer energetic ideas about how to get in gear and take advantage of the situation in which we find ourselves.

It’s time for deep, strategic change.

It’s time to rethink careers in design. It’s time to take all the warning signs seriously about losing potency — but also to imagine the serious new opportunities that include inherently superior economic structures, value propositions, and reasonable and responsible profit pools that allow for investment in the future.

This means positioning design professionals along places in the total value chain of the A/E/C industry where new relevancy becomes evident. This includes facility management, where one can take curatorial, not just creative, responsibilities. It includes being the team quarterback who organizes the entire design-build process. And it can mean taking the initiative to be vastly more innovative with regard to sustainable design. Deep strategic change implies a bold action model. There are hundreds of overt and subtle opportunities. Some of these may be the perfect fit to enhance your own DNA as a design professional.

Learning and education provides many of the answers. There are a dozen questions that can help you get your head around the large shifts that are about to shape how and where your firm and your career are headed — successfully.

1.  What is the changing state of our core clients?

2.  What is the model we’ll follow regarding integrated services?

3.  What is the state of innovative delivery systems in our organization?

4.  What is our business model responding to globalization shifts?

5.  What is our strategy with regard to building information modeling?

6.  What is our overall technology and communications strategy?

7.   What is the state of our culture (including demographic and generational shifts) and who are likely leaders that can offer strategic optimism along with healthy constructive paranoia?

8.  What are the new metrics of our success?

9.  What is the essence of our brand and the state of our service differentiation?

10. What are our core capabilities in green and sustainable design?

11. What are our creation and curatorial service offerings regarding life cycle design?

12. Are the current and possible profit pools allowing for regenerative investments in our organization?

New Chapter in Design Education


In this issue of DesignIntelligence we examine the leading schools of architecture and design. We take a close look at their brand repute as evaluated by the organizations that hire graduates. In this study, we reveal the programs that practitioners cite as the best — those preparing students for the future of professional practice.

Even as we announce the top schools, we acknowledge that there are hidden gems that don’t typically make the rankings. These small-but-mighty institutions may including new schools, smaller programs, and re-invented programs yet to establish their reputation among hiring organizations.

The state of higher education in the United States is strong but not without plenty of areas for improvement. We encourage professional practices to contribute ideas, volunteer time and expertise, and give a percentage of their annual profits to help improve schools. We encourage all graduates to contribute each year following graduation. Yes, even before their school debts are paid in full. Imagine if all professional practices made a contribution of just 1 percent of gross profits to education annually. And imagine if 80 percent of graduates gave even $50 a year to their alma mater. These two forces combined would provide tens of millions of additional funding to support higher education and regenerate the talent pool.

Time for a New Approach

Beyond monetary contributions, dialog, and the direct studio and classroom involvement of firms in higher education, we suggest a reverse communication path as well. Ask a professor to sit on the advisory board of your professional practice to enhance exchange of information and to calibrate the school to the changing dynamism of today’s design professions.

No matter the season of your career, we advise you to establish a point of view about the future, to challenge the status quo, and to identify new core value propositions. You can launch or re-ignite a successful career in architecture or design. It can begin today.

 

James P. Cramer is founding editor of Design­Intelligence and co-chair of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy that helps organizations navigate change to add value.

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Why a Diversity of Rankings?

DesignIntelligence annually publishes America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools. This is our 11th annual study. For the school rankings, 381 private practice firms and other organizations that hire architects, landscape architects, interior designers, or industrial designers participated in the research. Four individual survey vehicles are used to collect data in each of the four practice areas (architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, industrial design). The question for these rankings is: From your hiring experience in the past five years, which schools are best preparing students for success in the architecture/landscape architecture/interior design/industrial design profession? While we do ask firm leaders to answer other questions as well, the core question has remained the same since we began research on this subject in the 1990s. Participating firms complete surveys for only those practice areas in which they have direct expert experience. (Thus, we do not ask industrial design firms to weigh in on architecture education programs, for example.)

Over time, we have broadened our base of inputs on design education to include deans and chairs of academic programs as well as students. That data is kept completely separate from the DesignIntelligence best schools rankings, with summary reports clearly indicating the source. This presents a rich weave of information.

Additionally, we conduct an analysis of leading schools that is drawn from our various historical rankings, databases, and direct experiences. This is the Cramer Report on World-Class Schools. This year, we have evaluated landscape architecture, and we also include the architecture study conducted for the 10th edition. Since the Cramer Report rankings draw heavily on historical data and their intent is to recognize schools that have distinguished themselves over the years by virtue of several important criteria, their status remains largely stable over time and therefore we revisit the ranking for each practice area only every other year.

The DesignIntelligence rankings are conducted to provide feedback on where quality education is being delivered, valued, and communicated. The results are at times provocative. Survey methodology is transparent, and the research participant organizations are all listed. We believe that good design education matters and is crucial for good professional practice performance in the future.

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