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

Engage Enthusiastically.

Are you enthusiastically engaged and passionately sharing the work you are doing?

If you’re not feeling fully engaged in your work, and you’re not enthusiastically engaging others in your vision, it’s far less likely that your endeavor will succeed.


The Enthusiasm Litmus Test

Be honest with yourself: are you excited about what you’re doing (or trying to do)? Are you engaged and passionate about your work as a design professional? If not, something needs to change. It might be your attitude, or it might be your circumstances. But this much is clear: you need to take the lead in cultivating your own enthusiasm and sense of engagement.

If you’re experiencing a deficit of enthusiasm, it usually means you’re not optimistic about the process and/or the results you anticipate. Ask yourself why you have doubts. Examining your attitude should spark in you a quest to at least identify the source of the problem. Once you identify it, you’ll either be able to remedy the situation or find that you can’t. But even in the worst-case scenario, you can seize upon the enthusiasm you feel for other aspects of the project rather than letting your doubts cast a pall over the entire works.

The point is, if you want to get others on board, you need to be selling them on your ideas. Nothing builds success and buy-in better than your enthusiasm for the ways and means of realizing a project.

So, What About Others?

Architecture involves a client, designer, materials suppliers and a builder at the very least. They’re all dynamic and essential players, so their engagement is crucial. Think of the gears of a watch or bike that need to interlock to produce results.

At the most basic level, engagement is about communication. The designer must be able to open channels of communication with as many stakeholders in each project as possible at the outset, then work to assure the open flow of information for the duration of the project.

When I was fresh out of architecture school, I used to picture the ideal client as someone who told you what they wanted, handed you a check and said they’d be back a year later for the finished product after taking a ‘round-the-world cruise. While the part about being paid in advance would be nice (!), trust me, you don’t want an absentee client – despite how tempting it might seem. If a client disappears during the design process and fails to communicate with you, I can assure you that you’ll be dealing with a different person when he returns. Even if you designed something perfectly suited to his expressly stated yearnings a year ago, his sense of what he wants will have changed during the course of his adventures.

You can see that communication is a key to engagement. But it’s not the only key. Think of it as the “what” of engaging a project participant. The “how” of engaging them is enthusiastically. Enthusiasm conveys the feelings — your feelings – your excitement and confidence about things to come. Enthusiasm is contagious. People naturally want to be part of a winning team. Your enthusiasm is critical in assuring them that they’ve found that team.

An Example from Design Practice

My first year out of college was the most demoralizing year of my life. Although I haven’t taken a poll, I’m guessing this isn’t uncommon among graduates of architecture, fine arts, and design schools. The reason? The transition from the lofty idealism of academia to the grittiness of real-world practice is akin to a high-speed car crash. Gone is the sense that you’re striving to change the world – replaced instead with the brain-numbing ennui of wading through an endless stream of “redline” drafting corrections.

The first major project I worked on that first summer out of school was for 185 units of public housing in Upstate New York. At the time hand-drafting was still the norm, and I can’t tell you how many times I had to “mirror-image” or otherwise make repetitive design changes to 185 bathrooms or kitchens by hand. The “joke” among the four drafting interns was: “Don’t draw more in the morning than you can erase in the afternoon.” Boredom and cynicism ruled. After a year, the corrosive nature of that environment finally got to me and I realized that I needed to move along for my own survival.

The school-to-practice transition probably isn’t any easier now than it has been for earlier generations of graduates. It pays to remember, though, that it’s not someone else’s job to make sure you stay enthusiastic and engaged. At least initially, you probably won’t find everything you’re looking for in one place. You might have to assemble your life a la carte to create the right conditions for enthusiastic engagement.  Don’t shy away from this task: it will help ensure your sanity and success.

You are the steward of your own passions. It’s your responsibility to actively cultivate your interests and enthusiasms so you can engage others with your optimism.

Remember, Engage Enthusiastically.

Ed Barnhart, principal; Always by Design

*The banner graphic feature the letter E, cropped by a square to its unique alphabetic essence, utilizing the colors Eggplant and Emerald, and a photo of Engaged gears.