A Missive on Practice

Shanghai Elevated Road Vegetated Columns

Shanghai Elevated Road Vegetated Columns

My last post in January was edgy and raw but it sparked a deeper thought on expectations when leaving design school and a kind of search for the idealistic but engaged architectural practice. Granted, in China, this kind of practice may be practically non-existent due to the drive for profitability but at the very least I would like to see more motivated ambition and deliberately invested thought in design.

I left the "corporate firm" in May, traveled around a bit and then embarked on a normal sized foreign-owned landscape practice in June. No longer do I have to go to present a project I never even worked on! So I do feel more professional now but I wanted to roughly list out some observations and reflections over the past year:

Work Efficiency

a) Death to AirCon and Long Live Ceiling Fans and Natural Ventilation. Sadly, in China, the latter, if at all extant is quite unfortunately marred by the, er, ambiance of stinky tofu, stinky fried fish, stinky salty air, stinky cigarette smoke, stinky breath or the general lack of utilization of such necessary items such as deodorant in a humid subtropical environment...

b) Death to AirCon because I do not want to work in a frigid meat locker.

c) Install Double or Triple Glazed Windows in your office so I do not have to wear my wool/Thinsulate coat, hat, and scarf indoors in the winter.

d) Designers are not Zombies; don't treat them as such by overworking them incessantly. Production efficacy and clear, coherent thought will plummet if this is excessively abused (deadlines should not be everyday emergencies)

On Employee Morale

e) Your employees are your life blood. Treat them with respect and consideration and you will get better results than through slave-driven labor and hubris.

f) If you went to Harvard's GSD and really make a point of it I'm just not going to respect you. Getting a degree from there does not, really does not, make you an automatically brilliant designer. Do not expect anyone to grovel at your feet for having gone there.

g) You cannot buy loyalty with free ice cream cones.

h) I am a designer, not a banker. Please do not make me feel that I work in a high-security vault, or that my every move should be closely monitored on CCTV.

i) A design charrette is not where one person comes up with a design and everyone else nods their head "knowingly" and say "let's do it".

j) Be receptive to non-traditional practices because they foster innovation: bottom up hierarchy verus top down hierarchy.

k) You can spend anywhere from 8 to 18 hours in front of a computer. Taking a break should be more than taking a nap... at your desk.

l) A working environment as quiet as a library is depressing and alienating. Make some noise. Bring in a squawking parrot.

On Practice

m) Work is hierarchical compared to design school. You can have an idea that could reinvent baked bread buildings in the landscape but it will never see the light of day because you are a junior designer (i.e., inexperienced*) so your input doesn't matter much, or there's a hierarchy to follow which means that the senior designers get to make the design decisions even if they are half-baked and disastrously gummy. Goodness forbid you dare mention that because these designers are so arrogantly prideful that they will respond by showing you the door, and not by opening the door for your comments.

n) Work is very mind-boggling compared to design school. There are so many consultants on each project it's a wonder how anything gets built. I think a lot practices have scopes of work that are too narrow. This can foster bland design by giving up design control over exciting opportunities. I personally greatly admire those designers who design as much as possible even at the expense of treading on other people's toes, bruising their egos or insulting their intelligence. That is true design vision because it demonstrates commitment to an idea, not to a concept.

0) * Oh, they say that with greater experience comes lesser innovation because the practice of doing things a certain way limits creativity. Oh, you can't do that because of this. Or, we've been doing it this way for years and it works, why try to reinvent the wheel? What is design when you cannot continually pick apart old ideas?

On Hiring

p) P for personal. Design is like a greater family because you spend so much of your time with them. Hire people based on their personality first and foremost. Second, on their potential; and last but not least, on their experience.

q) Q is for quizzes and inquisitiveness. Before you interview a prospective hire, give them a personality quiz. Say it's optional but have the office assistant whisper in their ear that it weights heavily on the hiring process. Give them oddball questions like what their favorite color is, favorite animal (and why) and completely random quirky questions that demand open-ended answers. What you get back will tell you all you need to make a hiring decision beyond such intangibles such as portfolios and resumes. Ask them about their answers during the interview and then try what-if scenarios. There is a lot of what-if in design...

r) R is for reward. Be explicit in reward opportunities. Surprise people by going on entire office field trips.

s) S is for switching. Hire people on their ability to switch and shift their way of working. It may be that a particular design calls for digital media integration like sound and video, interactivity or building a half scale model of a detail.

t) T is for training. Consider setting up a dojo in the office to release personal or design frustration. This can harmonize with taking breaks with bullet K above.

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2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “A Missive on Practice”

  • JIng

    August 19, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    Sharp and insightful ?Do hope those who are working on designing and those who are in charge of designing work can give a well reading on this essay?

    • Jeremi

      September 4, 2011 at 10:43 pm

      Yes, thank you for your comment Jing. In a way I wrote this post as a reference for myself for future things to keep in mind but it does touch upon greater issues in the design workplace…