The “C” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
Design is a journey to a new place. New means risk. Why go there?
If you don’t have a reason to take a risk, you won’t. Courage means having a bold vision that overshadows the difficulty of taking the first step and persevering to reach a goal.
Why do you design?
Before considering how and why to take risks, ask yourself “Why do I design? Why is the client hiring me?” Namely: to make a difference. To create something that is different.
“Different” means risk. If you can’t accept risk, you’ll be consigned to maintaining the status quo. So, let me repeat: “Why would someone hire you?” For the new places you can take them. Your brand is the sum of the risks you are willing to take.
Start with yourself
As a designer you undoubtedly strive to make the proverbial “better mousetrap” (or at least one that commands attention). If you believe that making something better means turning it upside down, then you’ll need the courage to face whomever or whatever you’re accountable to – a boss, a client or the bottom line of your business ledger.
The path to courage is redefining failure. Most of us are conditioned to see failure as having made a mistake (or being told that we’ve made a mistake). Cautious souls keep reminding us that practice makes perfect, and the pursuit of perfection overtakes our need to make a difference. In other words, if you’re not doing the same thing over and over again, you’re bound to be making mistakes as you take risks on new ideas. This mindset is fatal to creativity. Condition yourself to see not taking risk as failure.
One of the lessons I learned from working with Peter Bohlin, FAIA, was his ability to take mistakes in stride. At a design critique he would invariably start a sentence with something like, “Well, I might be wrong here, but let’s try this and see where it takes us.” Ever armed with sincerity of intent, Peter seemed incapable of feeling embarrassed by an awkward idea or change of direction. That was inspiring. It’s not coincidental that he was selected by the AIA as their Gold Medal recipient in 2010.
Make it happen
All committed designers struggle to do the best work they can. A common lament is: “I just haven’t been lucky enough to find the right client.”The truth is, clients, and opportunities in general, are more often made than found.
Every client carries a load of fears and inertia similar to your own. Start by doing your due diligence. Hear out the problems and fears. Do your research and analysis of options and alternatives. Assess risks and possible consequences. Then find the compelling vision to get past them.
Your mission as a designer is to engage and excite yourself, your client and everyone else on the project sufficiently so as to redefine failure as not pursuing the compelling vision. If your vision is powerful enough, it pushes past the risks in the foreground and enables everyone’s courage to go the distance.
An example from design practice
The Science History Institute (SHI) is a cultural institution devoted to preserving the history of the chemical sciences and promoting awareness of the role of chemistry in society. CHF’s headquarters faces Independence National Historical Park in the historic Old City section of Philadelphia, two blocks from the Liberty Bell. Their anchoring structure is a five-story historic 19th century granite bank building.
Following several renovations to their existing buildings, SHI decided to move ahead with its first addition – a new wing that would accommodate meetings for up to 300 people. When I was hired for the project, the construction manager had already been selected and I was assigned to sub-contract to them as the designer side of a joint design-build team.
Given the historic context of the SHI headquarters on a street lined with 19th century masonry facades, both the client and my construction partner assumed that the addition would also be masonry. I saw this as problematic. First of all, we didn’t have a budget sufficient to construct anything as ambitious as the historic bank building. Just as important, the institution was interested in distinguishing itself as preeminent in its field. Philadelphia is a masonry city. You don’t distinguish yourself by being indistinguishable from your neighbors.
My client needed the courage to go in an unexpected direction. I saw the existing historic building as embodying half of the institutional mission – preserving history. Now we needed to create its complement: a structure that embodied the present and future of chemistry. What if the exterior were to be constructed using materials from the periodic table of elements? After researching potential materials I settled on using solid zinc panels as the dominant element. The oxidized grey of the panels not only demonstrated “chemistry in action” but also harmonized with color of the historic granite.
The SHI addition was the first zinc rainscreen panel building ever constructed in Philadelphia. It went on to receive several design awards as a lesson in how to successfully utilize contemporary design in a historic context.
Redefining failure as not pursuing a vision can give you the courage you need to overcome the fear of making mistakes along the way.
Remember, Create Courage.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic feature the letter C, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Cobalt and Catawba, and a photo of surfer with the courage to ride a wave.