The “P” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
When you are “in the zone” of your craft, you feel it, and others do too. Cultivate it.
If you’re not engaged in what you’re doing, no one else will be either. If you’re not learning and passionate about what you’re doing, it’s time you made some changes – for everyone’s sake.
Feel the excitement
One of the most fundamental joys we experience as human beings is the mastery of a skill. Starting as a beginner one feels exhilaration in doing something successfully for the first time. But this isn’t true mastery. Mastery isn’t about if you will succeed, but how well you succeed. True mastery, in art forms especially, isn’t just a matter of attaining a result – it’s about how well you performed in getting there. Think about a chef or a musician. Their mastery is not about being able to reproduce a recipe or tune, but in how they perfected or subtly transformed the composition.
In the company of a master
Ironically, it seems to me, the pleasure experienced by witnessing someone else’s mastery is often far more intense than that felt by the artisan themself. (Indeed, masters are far more likely to be self-critical than self-congratulatory!) Think of the last time you were in the presence of someone at the top of their game. It’s enough to give you goose bumps.
The witnessing of mastery is a large part of why watching the Olympics or many other spectator sporting events are so popular. And it’s not just sports. Television has profiled people in virtually every walk of life from fishing to sculpting to car repair – showcasing people’s expertise and passions. In literature, John McPhee has written numerous penetrating accounts of people and their vocations (e.g. The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed on body development, Looking for a Ship about a U.S. Merchant Marine, and A Sense of Where You Are which chronicled Bill Bradley’s college basketball career. As we become witnesses (spectators) to mastery, we feel respect and awe for the accrued knowledge and heart that the specialist has brought to bear on their chosen vocation.
The rewards of passion
As an architect (or designer of any type) you want to be at the top of your game. You want to be challenged and excited – indeed passionate – about the work you are doing. It makes life more interesting – for you, and everyone else. The greater your mastery and passion about your art, the more likely you are to attract people who get energized by you and your passions. So it’s a win-win.
An example from design practice
Probably the most damning praise I have ever gotten was from a residential client. It went something like this: “My husband and I know that we didn’t take your design advice on one particular issue and proceeded otherwise, but in retrospect we wish you had advocated more strongly for what you believed. You were right.” Ouch. Double ouch.
The lesson there was that one’s role as a designer is definitely a balancing act. While a designer has to listen and be attentive to a client’s interests and requests, it can’t be at the expense of their own experience, intuition and passions.
In working on another residential commission, I presented an initial design scheme to a client. I felt that I had addressed all of the issues that the client had put forth in her brief and responded to the context of the community very deferentially. After asking a few clarifying questions, she asked: “How do you feel about the design?” I paused a minute, wondering how candid I could afford to be. Somewhat ruefully I replied that although I thought the design was very efficient and that her neighbors would be very happy with it, truthfully I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the design. It wasn’t really expressing what was unique about her family or the site. To my surprise, she responded “If you’re not happy with the design, than you need to go back to the drawing board!”
I felt myself very lucky to have had a second chance. The redesign was everything that the first one wasn’t. I felt my design passions re-energized in developing a scheme I wholeheartedly could get excited about. As a result the client also caught the excitement and it went on to receive an architectural design award as well. The lesson learned is to prepare what you’re passionate about on the first go ‘round. One might not be lucky enough to get a second chance.
Do your homework in approaching each design project and then proceed with passion. The enthusiasm will likely be contagious.
Remember, Practice Passionately.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter P, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Pistachio and Persimmon, and a photo of a violinist Practicing Passionately.