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

Navigating T/Here.

Design requires leading people from a known world into an unknown one.

While 3D visualizations are bridging the gap between initial conception and final completion of buildings, for most clients, deciding what to do still requires a leap of faith – and that means trust.


My mousetrap is better than yours

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” is a common paraphrase of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Don’t we all, as designers, wish we could simply build the building (or other product) of our imagination and have it be admired and purchased – like the proverbial “better mousetrap”? Unfortunately, although some designers can bring their own projects directly to the market (essentially as developers), the majority of designers must instead serve more as shepherds in guiding clients, building officials and contractors through a process of visualizing and decision-making in order to get to a finished product. A crucial skill to have as a designer is leadership ability – navigating from the known world to new frontiers.

I’ll know it when I see it

Anyone who has been in design practice for any length of time has had a client, or prospective client, who has uttered some version of the phrase: “I’m not sure what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”. Most people are adept at shopping. That process involves making a selection among a set of fully realized products – mostly mass-produced. So, not only is “the thing” already fully present for evaluation, it probably has been used and reviewed by a myriad of other consumers already. For more complex products there is often a “trial period”. Ultimately with most products, unsatisfied buyers have the option of simply returning the product and getting a refund. None of these factors play very well in the arena of architectural design. When was the last time someone tried to return a building for a refund?

Design isn’t shopping

While people frequently “shop” for places to live – choosing among apartments or houses available for rent or sale, these are not a designer’s clients. Designers are hired to conceive what does not yet exist. That process is more akin to that of research and development (R&D) than that of shopping. Furthermore, in architecture in particular, most often there is a production run of exactly one. Every project is a prototype essentially.

Going on a journey

Setting sail into the wilderness of R&D with your client, your job as designer is threefold: 1) Understanding them, 2) Engaging and educating them, and finally, 3) Gaining their trust. I think of the trilogy as: Doing my homework, Getting the client to do their homework, and Strengthening the ability to work together — particularly through difficult patches of the process.

If your client did their homework when they selected you, part of the reason they hired you was feeling they understood and/or could trust you. If you are hired by an individual (or couple) to design a house or place of business, there is a rather direct relationship and development of trust. However, most projects are done for “multi-headed” clients – corporations, governments, non-profit groups, etc. In these cases you are leading a group on a journey. Regardless of the type of client, practicing design is less about having the perfect solution, and more about leadership – getting people to do their homework and effectively trust one another in order to get to a realized vision.

A world of ideas

In my experience, working with church groups and other types of all-volunteer committees represents the largest challenge for leadership (outside of large-scale, public projects). I’ve worked on projects for a variety of religious organizations over the years. How does one get from here to there with this kind of a non-hierarchical, volunteer client or user group?

Every designer has their own style of leadership. A crucial part of that is understanding who your constituents are on any given project and having a framework of how best to work with them. I have found the single-most important key to success is allowing everyone, and I mean everyone who is a stakeholder in a project, to feel that they have been heard.

An example from design practice

Years ago I led a master planning study for improving a thirteen acre urban church and daycare/school facility. The site already had a church on the National Historic Register, an education building, an apartment building, a carriage house, a columbarium, on-site parking lots and several playground areas. As architects hired from “out-of-town” we were welcomed to our first meeting by a large and enthusiastic group of church volunteers. Everyone wanted to impress upon us his or her own version of what the real problems and acceptable solutions were…and also to tell us which of the others in the congregation we should muzzle!

There was one congregant more than any other whom nearly everyone seemed desperate to silence. The individual, a retired engineer, was convinced that the single-most important component of any master plan would be to create a new bridge for pedestrians to cross a public street from the largest existing parking lot to the historic church. Not surprisingly, this very idea struck terror into the hearts of most of the congregation.

So, long story short, when it was time for discussing people’s ideas of what was needed, the second person I selected to speak was the “bridge engineer”. (I ignored the glares of congregants who had counseled me to avoid him.) When the next speaker began by attacking the bridge idea, I immediately clarified that the session was to brainstorm and simply hear people’s ideas – not select or defend which ideas were best. In the end, people became freer to hear ideas in a non-parochial manner. And even though the bridge idea was ultimately replaced (by a less costly and less invasive design solution), the engineer became a staunch supporter of the ratified approach that replaced his initial conception. By leading the congregation to give full voice to everyone, people were able not only better trust one another, but also trust in the process of getting to a well-balanced, well-supported final solution. Ultimately the project went on to receive a national American Institute of Architects design award!

At the end of the day, your skills as a designer are more about leadership than having the perfect idea. If you are unable to get a client and collaborators to realize your vision, you can’t succeed.

Remember, Navigating t/here.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter N, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Navy and Neon green, and a photo of skiers Navigating a glacier.