Being laid off can be devastating, but it can also be a catalyst for professional growth. Here, architects and designers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession offer advice on how to come out better on the other side.

Get in the Right Mindset
In the wake of losing a job, it's natural to panic. But take a breath, stay calm, and realize “the world is not over when you get laid off,” says Derrick Fernandez, AIA, a Houston-based senior space planner and business application manager for HDR. A typical severance package can cover you for a few months, but to limit some money worries—at least temporarily—apply for unemployment. “This is a program you already paid into and it’s meant for this circumstance, so take it,” recommends Marissa Mead, AIA, director of art integration at Svigals + Partners, in New Haven, Conn.

Mead herself was laid off by S+P in 2010 and rehired five years later. She understands that layoffs can feel personal, but they’re not. Staff reduction is a common response in a field notoriously vulnerable to economic downturns. You may feel some resentment, but don’t burn any bridges: The firm that let you go may want to hire you back when the market recovers, as in Mead’s case.

After Nick Hudyma was laid off from his role as an architectural designer in the Detroit office of HKS, he learned to tune out people uninformed about the architecture and construction industry who were second-guessing his decision. Instead, “ask your network for advice," he says. "Those are the people [to] trust.” Ultimately, Hudyma struck out on his own to open Detroit-based Metropoetics in 2011.

Build Your Network
After being laid off from Charlotte, N.C., firm Shook Kelley in 2009, Ashley Clark, Assoc. AIA—now a principal at local LandDesign, an architecture, landscape design, and engineering firm—worked a variety of part-time jobs outside of architecture. As a way to explore other career options, she scheduled meetings in her spare time—as many as three to four a week—which helped grow her network exponentially. “Every time I would go meet someone, they’d want to introduce me to two or three other people,” she says. Clark’s efforts paid off a year after being let go, when LandDesign hired her as a proposal coordinator, her first position on the marketing side of architecture.

You can also expand your network by volunteering with a professional organization. During her hiatus, Clark also signed up for AIA leadership roles at the local, state, regional and national levels, raising her profile and meeting architects from across the country. She also acquired valuable business skills, such as budgeting, consensus building, and strategic planning, all of which gave her an advantage later on, she says.

Taking smaller gigs—such as rendering, field measuring, and documentation—is another way to cultivate new contacts. “If someone you like offers work to you, take it and do your best,” Hudyma says. “There’s a craft in everything in architecture and you can only get better at it by doing it.” The resulting referrals helped Hudyma build his own practice. Similarly, Mead worked at an architectural ornamentation design and fabrication studio so she could stay in the architecture game and maintain relationships with former co-workers who had started their own firms. She has since become “less shy” about freelancing: Before returning to S+P, she secured approval from firm leaders to continue some of this work.

Better Yourself
Layoffs aren’t always associated with performance, but they can be viewed as an opportunity for self-improvement. Use the time to complete licensure or pursue continuing education and training to have an edge when firms start hiring again. Even when his fledgling practice didn’t have clients, Hudyma made a point of learning the latest modeling software, which became indispensable when he finally transitioned back to full-time work in architecture. He adds, “Don’t give up on yourself.”

If money is tight, don’t be afraid to take a job unrelated to architecture, Clark says. A reliable source of income will reduce stress and may even provide valuable experience that can translate to architecture work. After losing his job, Hudyma spent eight years in the service industry, working part-time as a bartender and DJ, which taught him how to more effectively sell his services, respond to client needs, deal with different personalities, and multitask. “Architecture is a service industry,” he says. “Everyone should work in the service industry to see what the general public is like from the other side.”

Because of his longstanding affinity and aptitude for technology, Fernandez spent his free time reading blogs on the subject, which led him to apply for what he thought would be a temporary stint at Trelligence, an architectural software company in Houston. Instead, he stayed for four years, consulting and training numerous firms while acquiring critical insight into how to design and practice more efficiently. When the startup folded, a client immediately hired him.

Mead rekindled her passion for sculpture and furniture design at New Haven, Conn.–based Kent Bloomer Studio, which hired her as a design associate after she was laid off and where she contributed to the architectural ornamentation of the award-winning Slover Library, in Norfolk, Va.

In addition to designing and managing projects, Mead in her current position oversees all of the firm’s art integration efforts. She and former Kent Bloomer Studio colleagues have also launched Atelier Cue, a design and fabrication studio that creates public art projects. At HDR, Fernandez travels frequently to work with other international teams on a variety of projects—experiences inconceivable to him had he stayed at his old firm. He says, “Being laid off really sent me in a direction to better myself to the point where I am now.”

With effort and strategizing, a layoff can be a blessing in disguise. Mead notes that it’s important to ask yourself “What needs to be true so that 10 years from now I can look back and say, ‘Losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me?’ ”