Credit: Tang Yau Hoong
While most architects have gotten busier since the recession officially ended, there do remain challenges—lagging employment, depressed fees, increased competition—that result from so many firms chasing the same projects. Meanwhile, the profession has never had more opportunities to use our knowledge and skills in an era of rampant climate change, rapid population growth, and dramatic economic transformation. How might we resolve the paradox of having too few jobs to pursue and so much work to do?
One answer: We should take a more expansive view of architectural practice. The four fields on the next page, which have emerged in response to the pressing needs of our current age, represent inventive combinations of existing disciplines. These fields are among the most visible examples of the entrepreneurial revolution happening in our midst.
1. Geodesign has emerged in the midst of climate change because of our need to know the environmental impacts of design decisions. Using geographic information systems (GIS), this new discipline not only helps us visualize complex data and map them to particular places, it also enables us to see the consequences of our design work on the ecosystem.
Initially embraced by landscape architects and planners, geodesign has also proven useful at the scale of individual buildings and interiors. Programs have started in schools like Pennsylvania State University and Philadelphia University, and firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill have embraced it. And with the Obama administration providing Esri’s ArcGIS Online to every K–12 school in the nation, geodesign will soon become a core skill of every educated American, and something that every designer needs to know—and use.
2. Service design focuses on invisible phenomena—processes and procedures, systems and infrastructures. Driven so far by major health providers like the Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente, service design has increasingly benefited private, public, and nonprofit organizations. They use design thinking and prototyping methods to improve outcomes, increasing productivity, creating faster delivery, and reducing errors.
While graphic- and industrial-design firms like IDEO have led this work and major business schools have embraced it, the architectural profession has been slower to come around, perhaps because such commissions only sometimes lead to conventional building projects. But with pressures on every sector of our economy to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and speed up innovation, service design will soon become an essential offering.
3. Experience design places more emphasis on human behavior than on the design of abstract systems. Long embraced by the hospitality, retail, and entertainment industries, experience design can be applied to almost every type of activity and environment, from the physical to the virtual.
The rethinking of the workspace, for example, which balances the value of mobile digital technology with that of face-to-face interaction, represents one of many experience-design efforts underway. It reflects a shift toward a more integrated, holistic approach to design. The rise of interdisciplinary education programs, and of transdisciplinary design firms like Pentagram and Frog, show how the built environment has become part of a much larger orchestration of user experience.
4. Public interest design responds to the fact that, globally, roughly 1 billion people live in slums, 1.1 billion don’t have access to clean water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. It remains an area of strong interest among many architecture students and recent graduates, with classes or programs offered in several schools, including the University of Minnesota, where I’m dean of the College of Design. Both large firms, such as Perkins+Will, and small ones, such as Public Architecture and MASS Design Group, have robust public interest design practices; some are run as nonprofits in partnership with Architecture for Humanity or Partners in Health. This field might eventually grow larger than traditional architectural practice, given the much greater demand.
How should you position your firm for the future?
Although these four fields do not yet rival the established design disciplines, they may someday trump more conventional practice simply because of the extent of the markets and the magnitude of the demands they serve. And at least this much seems clear: Architects need to diversify their practices and broaden their self-definition, or they risk getting left behind in a world of rapidly changing design needs.