25 Design Trends for 2012

Design Intelligence recently published their Design Trends Forecast for 2012 – 2015. None of the trends is surprising, but shifting an organizational culture and the structures that reinforce it is a significant challenge. Adjusting to new paradigms will be painful for some. But for those with eyes to see opportunities while they still look like obstacles, this should be a fascinating ride.

Working harder is no longer the solution. There is a revolution going on. Read more of this post


The Hammer vs. The Architect

More Than A Hammer

“If all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails”

A friend, and fellow architect, recently emailed this quote to me. This particular friend is constantly looking for big hairy audacious goals to further his quest of saving the planet (through architecture). People like this inspire me, so we talk often. We collect ideas, trade inspiration, and challenge each other to be more realistic and grandiose all at the same time. This quote was the latest addition to our collection.

Thinking myself clever, I emailed back, “What if all you have is an architect?”

His response: “That guy would be way more versatile than a hammer… which I think is exactly the point”

And as an architect, I’m inclined to agree. But why is that the point? It’s not because architects have more tools for solving problems. A carpenter’s toolbox would also be more versatile than a hammer. But there’s a fundamental difference between an architect and a hammer, or a toolbox. That difference becomes preciously relevant when you’re dealing with a particular kind of challenge.

Wicked Problems

During the 1960s and 70s German design theorist Horst Rittel, along with colleague Melvin Weber, developed the concept of wicked problems. He deemed this class of problems wicked because of their inherent characteristics that defiantly resist resolution. In 1968 C. West Churchman described wicked problems as “a class of social system problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (“Wicked Problems,” Management Science, vol.14, no. 4, December 1967). A brief look at political, environmental, economic, and technological news-makers of the day will readily disclose an abundance of wicked problems. It turns out that such problems are also common in the practice of architecture.

How we define such problems is critical, because the problem definition frames how we attempt to solve it. The diversity of stakeholders often leads to conflicting definitions of the problem which undermines any attempt at creating a meaningful solution. And this is where the toolbox gets into trouble. The hammer, the screwdriver, and the crescent wrench, each with their unspoken biases begin working toward a solution. None of them recognizes that although they’re presumably working in concert, they’re actually attempting to solve different problems based on their unreconciled perspectives.


Architects approach problems differently. We’ve had another method drilled into our mindsets. Design problems are often ambiguously defined and involve stakeholders with conflicting values. It can be difficult to understand and anticipate how our decisions will affect seemingly unrelated aspects of the design. And best (or worst) of all, there is no such thing as a “correct” answer. Wicked problems are the reason architecture students are notorious for spending the night in their studios and working right up until the deadline. It’s common knowledge that you never actually finish a project. You just stop working on it because time runs out.

One of the most important lessons we learn in architecture school is that design is a process. Having a solid process does not guarantee a successful solution, but it significantly increases your odds. At the beginning of our process we do something called problem-seeking. The goal of problem seeking is threefold:

  • Understand the problem
  • Clarify the problem
  • Communicate the problem

The reward of problem-seeking done well is a broadened perspective, a sophisticated understanding of the challenge, and a mutual respect for the values that each stakeholder brings to the situation. This lays a strong foundation for your problem solving effort. And maybe, just maybe, your hammer won’t be so important this time.

What Summer Camp Taught Me About Architecture

Summer Camp vs. Architecture
Most architecture students look for summer internships to gain work experience before graduating from college. But when I was a freshman in the Rice School of Architecture  I opted out. I figured the experience would be useful for life after college, but that wasn’t so urgent. Plus I had an opportunity to be a summer camp counselor, and I suspected summer camp would be a lot more fun. I also knew that Rice would set me up with a 9 month internship after my senior year. So I spent my college summers playing games with elementary-aged campers at Pine Cove in Tyler, Texas.

Several years after my transition to professional life I realized that my naive decision in favor of summer camp would pay huge dividends. One of the reasons Rice arranges 9 month internships is that it takes time to learn about the intricacies of architectural practice in the real world. A firm won’t expect to get much value out of a student who can only give three months. And many firms are wary of investing too much time in a summer intern who may end up working for a competitor. In other words, if I had picked architecture over camp, I would most likely have spent my summers doing tedious work that was less than deeply satisfying.

Unexpected Benefits
Summer camp, on the other hand, was a blast. As a rookie counselor, Pine Cove depended on me to make sure that every week my group of campers had a fun, safe and memorable time. My leaders couldn’t afford to micro-manage me or stick me with the work they didn’t want to do (although I did clean a few toilets). Instead I had a job that tapped into my intrinsic motivation to mentor youth. Within our clearly defined guidelines, I enjoyed a high degree of creative freedom (and accountability) in leading my campers, and  a deep sense of purpose. And because I had a new group of campers each week, I had the opportunity to continually improve.

I didn’t understand until years later that the organizational culture of Pine Cove was ripe for fostering the creativity, personal development and leadership skills that have served me well as a professional architect. My three summers at Pine Cove offered many lessons that became surprisingly relevant to my architectural career. They continue to profoundly shape my attitudes toward work and success. Below are just a couple of them.

1. Never Say “I don’t know” (Even If You Don’t)
At summer camp we were in the hospitality business. Our campers (both kids and their parents) were on their vacation, and they paid good money to spend it with us. My job was to serve. Our leaders trained us to never say “I don’t know.” If a camper requested something, and you didn’t know how to accomplish it for them, the correct answer was, “Let me find out and get back to you.” You see the difference? “I don’t know” is a dead end. It signals that no more effort is required. The need goes unmet, and my obligation is fulfilled. On the other hand “let me find out” means that my challenges instigate inquiry, not paralysis.

Because of the complexity of buildings, building codes and the construction process, I frequently encounter situations in which “I don’t know” the answer. If I stopped at that point, many problems would remain unresolved.  If I get stuck at “I don’t know”, I’m accepting helplessness. But helplessness is largely a matter of perception, not objective reality. Ignorance is always the starting point for knowledge. Even if I don’t know, I can find out. Or I can find someone who can help me find. That little bit of initiative goes a long way.

2. Don’t Assume You See the Whole Picture
Every week a new set of campers would come to Pine Cove. They would see skits, play games, make friends and go home at the end of the week completely oblivious to all of the hard work we did behind the scenes to prepare for them. Then during my final summer at Pine Cove I was a senior counselor. Every six weeks we had a new crop of counselors come in. They would act in skits, eat lunch with their group, and make sure their campers had a great time. At the end of their six weeks, they would go home completely oblivious to much of the hard work done behind the scenes to make sure they would be successful. Then my director’s wife had their first baby, and for a week I had his job as the director of Wild Woods. You’ll never guess what I realized. The pattern became very clear: There’s usually more to the story than what you see.

Every time you function in a new role you gain a new perspective. When I started working, I made a point of trying to understand the priorities of different groups within my firm. Designers, project managers, marketing, IT, accounting: they each have unique challenges, limitations and pet peeves. Occasionally, something that makes my job easier, makes someone else’s job more difficult. Understanding the nuances of how each group works, combined with good communication and a dash of empathy, can alleviate frustration and improve our effectiveness as a team.

The Deeper (Design Thinking) Lesson
Designers give a lot of attention to the way things look. But good design thinking goes much deeper. In my case, the superficial similarities between an architecture internship and my architecture career were not nearly as significant as the leadership skills that transferred from summer camp to architectural practice. Innovation often arises from juxtaposing things that seem marginally related on the surface. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the appearance of things, because appearances give us important clues. But design thinkers know that it’s important to look deeper. Keep your eyes and your mind wide open. Incredible insights often show up in unexpected places.

Systems Thinking & The Design Universe

I have a relatively new fascination with lean design and construction and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), but during the past four years, several strands of interests and experiences have been weaving themselves together leading up to this.

The First Strand
The term “Systems Thinking” is vague enough to mean different things to different people, but I came across this concept in a book I read a couple of years ago: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. As I have talked with people in various industries about systems thinking, I’ve discovered the concept is familiar to many, although often by different names. Essentially it is the process of understanding circumstances, problems or systems holistically. Complex challenges are difficult to wrap our minds around, so we’ve learned to break them down into manageable pieces. And in the process we sometimes neglect to consider how each of those pieces influences and is influenced by its relationship to the whole.

When a complex system dysfunctions, our fragmentation strategy cripples our capacity to address root causes. One small event or pattern may have an enormous effect that shows up in an indirectly related part of the system. Or that effect may show up in the same place, but only after enough time has passed so that we no longer associate it with the cause. Understanding the interrelationships within a system is the starting point for effectively addressing complex challenges.

The Second Strand
The Fifth Discipline, a business book geared to organizational improvement, does not reference the design and construction industry, however I quickly recognized the relevance of Senge’s work to the design process and the business of architecture. Several months later I read The Culture of Building by Howard Davis. By reviewing historical, contemporary and cross-cultural examples of architecture, he traces the relationships between the built environment, the institutions involved in producing the built environment and the larger cultural context. He also highlights how the deep fragmentation in the AEC industry (including regulatory and financial institutions) leads to many of the frustrations I hear about from my peers.

In this same period I also read a pair of books, by Judith Blau and Robert Gutman, that evaluate the practice of architecture from a sociological perspective. To my astonishment, many of the aspects of architectural practice that fuel professional dissatisfaction are part of trends more than two decades old. And of course these trends have a complex network of causes.

The Third Strand
Soon after I graduated and began working I had the opportunity to be responsible for a project from schematic design through construction. Although it was relatively small and simple, I was forced early on to deal with a much broader design universe than I had been exposed to as a student. Contract negotiations, accessibility requirements, client capital campaigns, lending institutions… they all impacted my work as a designer. Instead of resenting all of the inconveniences they imposed, I made an effort to understand the priorities and limitations that each party brought to the table. I realized that improving the process of architectural design and production requires a broader perspective, deeper empathy, and stronger communication skills.

My New Fascination
These three strands have gradually woven themselves together into a more focused interest in lean design and construction and IPD. For me, they have formed a launching point for future investigations into integrated practice. Considering the nature of the challenges (and opportunities) we face professionally, environmentally, and technologically, I’m persuaded that IPD, grounded in systems thinking, is a critical area for the design and construction industry to continue developing. I’m excited about discovering what other architects have already figured out, and I look forward to seeing how this trend shapes the future of our profession.