Repurposing Architecting Skills: Designing Possibility

There’s often a focus on how architects have utilised their skills in other careers. Architects can also leverage those skills in better architectural practice. This is the first in a series of articles about this possibility.

There’s often a focus on how architects have utilised their skills in other careers. Architects can also leverage those skills in better architectural practice. This is the first in a series of articles about this possibility..

Starting with a consideration of the the principal skill that the majority associate with architects: design. Architect as designer.

Design is not a singular skill, instead it is composed of a number of different albeit related skills. This article focuses on design as a way of thinking. Some call it Design Thinking, which is vague and inexact. Design is a process, I describe this skill as Design Process Thinking (DPT).

The first rule of DPT is that there is always more than one solution to a design brief and no single right solution, there are better ones. The second rule of DPT is to come up with as many solutions as possible throughout the process and especially at the start. The third rule of DPT is that the first solution you come up with is usually not the best solution. The fourth rule of DPT is that design is not problem solving (more below). Fifth rule of DPT is that it happens at all scales and at all stages of a project. The sixth rule of DPT is establish some constraints and boundaries, you’ll find that helps in the long run. The seventh rule of DPT is that these rules are in no particular order and they’re all important.

These are my rules. If you don’t like them feel free to design your own, there’s no right answer.

To describe design, or design process thinking, as “problem solving” is disempowering for designers. It implies that design can only emerge from a problem, rather than a possibility. Design is always undertaken with intent, with curiosity and by asking the right questions. Design may be undertaken in order to meet a particular specification (or problem) and brief, or in response to identifying an opportunity or possibility. Designing might be reactive (to a problem), it also comes from being proactive.

Design can be strategic. Design can recognise opportunities. Design is best focussed with an eye to the future, rather than on the past or present. Design does not have to be driven by external demands. Design is intentional.

Once you recognise that design is not problem solving the possibilities open up as to what you do with it. You can choose to make change happen through Design Process Thinking.

If we’re to apply Design Process Thinking to more than designing buildings, we’ll start to recognise that we can apply it to many aspects of our practice. To decision making, to how we might operate our practice, to redesign our practice, how we might do our marketing and business development. All are opportunities to engage our design skills to make change happen for our practice of architecture.

Consider decision making. When we have an important decision to make, we often have a binary solution in mind. We do this, or we do something else. If we instead apply design process thinking, we’ll soon recognise that there may be other possibilities. There are different options, we just need to spend the time coming up with them. Instead of leaving your job for example, go part time, take unpaid leave, ask for an internal transfer, buy out the company — there’s nothing stopping you going crazy with some extreme options. You never know something that may seem a little crazy, might not be once you’ve applied a little design process thinking to it. In this situation a “Can if…” framework is helpful

From this point it’s not too much of a leap to start to consider what you might do to start to rethink aspects of your practice that aren’t working. That might be better. What if you just spent some time embracing possibility and getting proactive in your design process thinking about your practice. There’s nothing like a little design exercise to test the existing status quo. How do you know what you’re doing is the best solution until you consider the alternatives?

This type of thinking is powerful when it’s used to question and reconsider the status quo. There are many assumption in the practice of architecture. There is seldom an urge to test these assumptions and we continue to practice as we always have. One way to test those assumptions is to start on thinking about alternatives and then start designing them.

Here’s a question to finish with. A challenge to apply your design process thinking skill to more than service of your design projects.

What aspects of your practice might you now bring some Design Process Thinking to, to test your assumptions, or simply find a way to practice better?

A note and questions for those in employment. This applies to you too. How might you show leadership and bring this level of consideration to the office you’re working in? How might you apply this to yourself?

If you think you might need to apply a little Design Process Thinking to more than servicing your projects, but don’t know where to start, please feel free to drop me a line. I’m here to support you in building a better practice, forging better human and professional skills, and developing architectural leadership.

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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