The first element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
This involves a dance between two forces – preparedness and stillness.
Consider meetings, for example. They’re a regular fixture of any architecture or design practice. It doesn’t really matter what kind of meeting it is — it could be with a client, consultant, or in-house design team. How do you arrive to a meeting? Prepared.
What does “arriving prepared” really look like? Many people think that unless they’re running the meeting or making a presentation, all they need to do is show up and stay awake. Let me tell you, if someone felt it was important enough for you to attend a meeting, just “showing up” won’t cut it. I don’t care if you’re an intern who just got hired yesterday… you need to be actively prepared.
Being prepared starts with anticipating what should, could or can’t happen in any given situation. You need to get yourself mentally engaged well before a meeting begins. Who is attending and why? What’s the agenda? Is there a hidden agenda? What do you want to get from the meeting? Is there something you can offer?
Even if you’re not a designated presenter at a meeting, preparing actively lifts your participation to a higher level. It means that you’ve probably come up with questions and maybe done some research or talked to others beforehand. Your curiosity and preparation help you get ready to connect ideas, while others are just warming up. You might not even utter a word at the meeting, but I guarantee that your deeper level of engagement will pay off by enhancing your creativity, knowledge and professionalism.
The “but…” portion of the mnemonic title above refers to stillness. It means: Don’t rush in with preconceived assumptions or with answers. In the world of design, where creative thought is paramount, we often refer to having a “beginner’s mind.” This doesn’t mean you need to be a blank slate. It’s more about having receptive capacity – the ability to take in more. Don’t underestimate the importance of this ability. It represents the “still” side of being prepared, the anticipation of new ideas.
After arriving prepared to your meeting, stay still. You might think you have the answers or know the outcome of whatever endeavor you’re undertaking. But don’t assume that you’re right. In almost any activity, your collaborators will have different ideas as to what the problems are and how to define success. It takes time for everyone to get onto the same playing field. That playing field may or may not be the one that was in your head when you entered the meeting.
If you leave a meeting thinking exactly what you did when you entered the room, the meeting was a failure. Entering a meeting prepared – to both absorb and offer new questions and ideas – means that you and everyone else in the meeting are likely to leave in a different (and better) place than when you arrived.
An example from design practice
Midway into the design of a university library addition we were having difficulty reconciling the client’s “wish list” of needs with their available funding. A meeting was called with the client. In anticipation of that meeting, I prepared by looking at alternative storage systems, trade-offs between seating and media storage, remote storage options, cheaper construction techniques and a host of other strategies for packing the proverbial ten pounds into the five-pound bag. Nevertheless, I was anticipating a cranky client.
I began the meeting, not by verbalizing my assumption that the client would be disappointed, but rather by inviting him to join me in sharing ideas. Fortunately the client had anticipated and arrived prepared for our meeting too. He had evaluated options for: a more robust program of interlibrary loan participation, elimination of the redundancy of materials stored in multiple format types, and increased reliance on digital sources of information, including a variety of on-line subscriptions.
By the end of the meeting we were both pleasantly surprised. Instead of reconciling ourselves to not being able to achieve the original objectives, we found ourselves re-energized – envisioning the library in an expanded role for social engagement on campus. We were able to formulate a workable approach for: meeting the collection needs, while increasing the quantity and diversity of seating and meeting places, and at a cost lower than initially thought possible.
That’s what happens when prepared minds come together: you can always expect to arrive someplace other than where you expected. And remember, this dance of “Anticipate but…” applies to virtually every phase of the design process, not just meetings.
Remember, Anticipate but…
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter A, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Avocado and Azure, and a photo of river rapids representing an anticipated journey.