Carl Bower

Evelyn Lee, AIA, a 2014 AIA Young Architects Award recipient, is part of the strategy team at MKThink, a San Francisco–based research, planning, and design firm. Lee, who has been active in the AIA’s Repositioning efforts, holds graduate degrees in architecture, public administration, and business administration, and is an advocate for architects to expand the definition of their traditional roles. “As an architect, I do not thrive as a designer of buildings, project manager, or construction administrator,” she says, “and so I have really found my place as a design strategist and communications expert.”

The profession, in general, would look at me and say that I’m in an alternative career. But I tend to look at it as “architecture plus.” If we want to be seen as trusted advisers, we have to expand the ways in which we think about what we do and how we do it. Most of all, though, we need to expand how we’re perceived by the community as a whole. In my role as a strategist, I get involved very early in the process, when decisions are made about spending capital assets. What I offer clients, then, is design thinking upstream rather than responses to pre-existing conditions.

Because of the economic recession, architects are ready to embrace a higher degree of change and slightly more risk than they were, say, a decade ago. The field is competitive. Recent architecture graduates that I know are excited about what they can bring to the community, for instance, and there are lessons there for more established architects to rethink their career arcs.

But digital engagement is the front door to a lot of opportunities for firms to demonstrate their design thinking. As Internet 2.0 makes way for the “Internet of Things,” architects have a greater ability to quantify their designs using data. The product that architects offer our clients is typically buildings, but the service we provide often creates simple solutions out of complex organizational problems.

Architects, as design thinkers, are actually systems thinkers. Designing a building is not a linear process. I have a business background along with architecture, and in traveling through those two worlds I’ve found that what architects bring to the table is a holistic outlook on what needs to be done, and why, by identifying external forces that impact a project and by seeing how the design process will ultimately drive the construction process. —As told to William Richards