The “Q” element in my alphabetic mnemonic list for successfully practicing design is:
While clients most often seek answers, they may be best served by questions.
Rarely is it beneficial for designers to accept things at face value. It is only through asking questions, of our clients and ourselves, that we arrive at results which are meaningful and fulfilling.
Business as (un)usual
As architects and designers, we are often billed as “problem-solvers”. A client wants a particular set of spaces or functions fit onto a particular site. They have time constraints and budget limitations. There are maintenance questions and problems with obtaining municipal approvals. From a business standpoint, other people’s problems are a designer’s livelihood.
The nature of something being characterized as a “problem” is its being perceived as a speed bump, if not an outright roadblock to “business as usual”. The mandate of problems is a need to re-think – or call things into question. This is the source of the cliché that every problem is an “opportunity” to re-evaluate or question. A problem means: not business as usual.
At the most fundamental level, what a designer brings to the table first and foremost is a deep knowledge of their craft – whether it is designing websites or skyscrapers. As much as designers (or artists of any kind) are loathe to admit, we are specialists. We specialize in determining how things are put together. When a client comes to us with a problem, they are saying in effect, that something needs to be put together differently, and we need to rise to the challenge.
As design-craftsmen we hone our skills in problem-solving – using new materials, or alternative techniques or doing end-runs, revising projects so as to eliminate particular problems altogether. As design practitioners, these skillsets are the bread and butter of our trade. However, if we limit our design practice strictly to this, we miss what is probably the most crucial aspect of what a designer can, and should, bring to every project.
External versus internal questions
Answering a client’s questions isn’t enough. A designer needs to formulate their own questions. To some extent, a designer should re-define every project. The primary tool for this is a different form of questioning. Rather than responding to the externally “imposed” questions of others, the designer needs to exercise a broader level of questioning. The paths of inquiry they bring to any project provide the greatest differentiating factor among designers. Think of the philosophical musings of Louis Kahn in “asking what a given thing or institution wanted to be”, or Robert Venturi’s insistence that the vitality of architecture is in acknowledging and expressing the clashes between competing ideas and functions.
Digging deep, questioning both the client and your own motivations, facilitates design work which is fresh and vital – and different from what your peers are doing. Why sell yourself or your client short with anything less? A client’s questions are never enough.
An example from design practice
Early in my career, in fact my first commission as a licensed architect, I was hired to design a vacation house in the Adirondacks. As is most often the case with residential projects, at the outset of the design process the clients didn’t have a clear picture of their needs beyond an initial list of probable rooms and a not-to-exceed construction budget.
I started the project asking a great many questions, trying to learn their likes and dislikes, and how much they cared about various things. Ultimately they sheepishly brought out a file of clippings from magazines and newspapers, which included three proto-type designs from mail order house plan services. One was a “raised ranch”. The second was a “split level”. And the third was a two-story “mountaintop retreat”. They were confused by the fact that they liked each of them in different ways, but had no idea of how to create a coherent house design from the disparate styles.
This was good for me because it made me dig deeply into the client’s heads. They weren’t looking for any particular superficial style, but rather about achieving a “feel” (e.g. a particular sense of flow among the spaces and functionality that felt natural to their lifestyle). I delved into their childhood memories, analyzed their present home, prepared functional diagrams and questionnaires, took sightseeing trips to gauge their reactions to places and buildings, and learned their color preferences and favorite activities.
The process was one probably not too dissimilar from that of an actor who studies a character role so intently as to become capable of “inhabiting” the character and thus being able to express his/her character’s nature instinctively. In the case of this couple, after internalizing and gestating on who they were and what they were trying to achieve, I was able to produce, in a single scheme, a design which perfectly synthesized what they were seeking. Now with grown children, they still cherish the house on the lake I designed for them so many years ago. Their project set a benchmark for me for deeply questioning the nature of a client and their project.
Problems are an invitation to dig deeper. In seeking answers to your client’s problems, inject the project with questions of your own – generating a compelling and fresh vision.
Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design
*The banner graphic features the letter Q, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Quartz and Quinacridone magenta, and a photo of a Quizzical man.