The “D” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:

Delight in Diversity.

Why is diversity in design practice so often simply tolerated rather than enthusiastically embraced?

If your business is business as usual, you might think of diversity as the foe of efficiency. But if you’re seeking new clientele and ways to adapt to an ever-changing world, diversity could be your best ally.


Diversity: Friend or Foe?

Diversity tends to be the enemy of streamlining, simplifying and doing things quicker. Diversity gets in the way of creating a consistent style or process. When we need to map out a different approach to a design problem, we have to step outside the box. This takes time.

By contrast, the “business as usual” approach automatically reduces or eliminates choices or options. This means greater efficiency — less time spent categorizing, selecting, organizing. Therefore, the threat posed by diversity would appear to be the risk of not producing something at the lowest possible cost.

But what’s the real cost? Even if you’ve carved out a specialized niche, your goal isn’t turning out identical widgets at the lowest cost. The basic premise of design is the creation of something that is different, so the celebration of diversity should be axiomatic. In practice, it often appears to be the opposite. Design diversity among competitors is often mistakenly seen as threatening. But think about it: people doing things differently from you aren’t your competitors; your competitors are the ones doing the same thing as you.

First, a Global Perspective

Before we look at the dynamics of your business and competition, let’s gain a broader perspective as to why diversity is important. First, the more tools we have at hand, the more adeptly we can fashion solutions that meet our needs (and the needs of our clients). A hammer is great for driving a nail, but not so good at drilling a hole.

Secondly, we live in an ever-changing environment that defies human comprehension. The resources we use and value today invariably will not be the same as those we will find useful tomorrow. A skill that languishes unappreciated today might suddenly be in high demand tomorrow. A diversity of options boosts your capacity to adapt to changes. In this light, diversity can be thought of as a form of wealth that supplies you with a contingency plan for your future.

It becomes obvious, then, that cultivating diversity is essential to your long-term success. But what value does diversity bring to your day-to-day practice?

The Practical Utility of Diversity

On one level, we’d all like to practice design without competition. But that’s not a real option – especially in the shrinking world of our global economy. In fact, designers need competition in order to do their best work. Competition forces all of us to question what we do and why. Because it forces us to dig deeper, competition ultimately serves as a driving engine of evolution and growth.

In the marketplace, sameness is your worst enemy. Picture yourself surveying a store shelf. If everything on the shelf seems to be indistinguishable from the next item, you (as a consumer) will either grab the closest one or find the cheapest one. Trust me, as a designer you don’t want a potential client selecting you based simply on convenience or cost. Your success as a designer depends on being recognized as different. This is the day-to-day utility of diversity for your practice.

For the good of your practice, you want to cultivate and emphasize that diversity in the marketplace. This doesn’t mean that you should try to embody diversity single-handedly. You have to focus on your passions and what you do best. Use the diversity of the marketplace to highlight the areas that differentiate you from your competitors. For instance, there are many architects doing work very different from what I choose to do. I genuinely admire and find inspiration in the diversity of work presented by others – but I’m not interested in doing what they’re doing. My best successes are when clients (and prospective clients) can see the diversity I bring to the marketplace and engage me because of what sets me apart.

An Example from Design Practice

The value of diversity can be readily apprehended through travel. My first trip overseas was to study in Copenhagen, Denmark. By then I’d seen countless images of centuries-old European cities with bold insertions of cutting-edge contemporary work. Think of the Pompidou Centre (a.k.a. “Beaubourg”) by Piano+Rogers, the Lloyds of London building by Richard Rogers, or the more recent “Gherkin” by Foster and Partners.

As an American in Copenhagen, I was surprised and impressed by a sensibility that embraced both old and new. Here was diversity of design within continuously unfolding cloth, rather than as competing rivals. This principle was driven home most forcefully through my contact within the intimate scale of small individual shops and dwellings I encountered in the historic center of Copenhagen. For instance, a street-front shop might be housed in an 18th-century brick and stone building, where the heft and coarseness of the original materials was lovingly preserved along with a deep patina of wear, but skillfully contrasted with new frameless glass display windows and exposed, sleek contemporary lighting and mechanical systems. The effect was palpable — old and new alike gaining potency through juxtaposition with design elements that represented “otherness.” Here was a beautiful example of vitality emerging from diversity.

Think of your design practice as an object. Like an object it gains its value in large part by standing in contrast to those around it – in other words, by asserting the power of diversity.

Remember, Delight in Diversity.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter D, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Drab and Daffodil, and a photo of Diverse tools.