A common question I often hear from participants in design advisory groups is, “why do architects wear black?” There are many theories on why architects dress like cat burglars rather than experts at deploying color, light, structure, rhythm and texture. Some don’t want to overshadow their designs, others try to convey the solemnity of shaping our human environments; and I suspect that others are so sleep deprived they need to make getting dressed in the dark foolproof! This uniform of sorts can sometimes be misinterpreted as aloofness or superiority over the very people we seek to serve, which is not the intent. Regardless of ensemble, design should be seen as a celebration - not a funeral. In reality an architect’s role is not black and white, it spans the spectrum of the rainbow, where we commonly act as the unifier, facilitator and moderator of a larger collective to bring consensus to many.
The most successful projects I have been a part of involve intense collaboration, organization and community impact. Projects that encompass these elements go beyond function to celebrate culture through each building that we create. A common method to help stimulate engagement in a community is through a Design Advisory Group (DAG). This is a specific group of individuals who represent the various stakeholders for a building. For example, the DAG for a new school would include different (and sometimes opposing) students, teachers, parents, neighbors, school officials, ethnicities and opinions. I have found that diversity is key to stimulate lively and informative discussions within your DAG.
I believe that people get excited when they have the opportunity to fundamentally change or create their environment, but on the flipside this process can cause intimidation by the weight and permanence of such changes. Since fear is not conducive to creativity, the first task an architect should do is to remove anxiety from the process by empowering the DAG with knowledge. In order to do this, I employ the following four principles with every group I have the privilege of working with.
1. Engage the Public with an Open Mind.
If you ask for ideas, it is important to consider them thoroughly. I had learned this lesson early in my career when a DAG member known for having “wild” ideas came up with a different suggestion for the group. I was busy formulating thoughts on how to dismiss it, but fortunately another more experienced architect in the room recognized the brilliance of the idea before I could dismiss it. I realized I judged the suggestion based on the source and not the merit of the idea. I became a much better listener ever since that experience.
2. Explain your Design Process – the Practical and the Inspirational.
People can be intimidated by design because they don’t understand the process. No one process is correct, therefore by thoroughly explaining each option, we are able to collaborate to reach possible design solutions. In doing so, you avoid comments like, “I don’t like it” and instead get useful feedback to why an idea is or is not consistent with the ideals of the group.
3.Understand the End Game – Dig Deeper.
I always refer back to the story of the two children and an orange when consulting with the public. In short, the story is about two children arguing over who gets the last orange in the fruit bowl. Their mother intervenes by asking why each child wants the orange. The first says she wants to drink the juice. The second says he needs the peel for orange zest in his cake. As soon as they both realize they can share the orange, the argument is over. Understanding the root of a problem can make a solution more apparent.
4. Fall in Love with the Problem – Not the Solution.
If you approach public input with the intent to confirm rather than formulate the solution, you waste the time of the participants and risk alienating your client. Allowing others to participate in problem solving, guided by your professional knowledge and expertise, helps build consensus.
The goal with a DAG is to inspire and gain feedback. It is important to actively listen, evaluate all options and understand the root of each design challenge. In a world that is increasingly dominated by virtual rather than human contact, our job of connecting to our clients in a personal way is increasingly important. Design is about the joy of creating and the dynamism of collaborating with diverse groups. So, as we shed light on the wonders of architecture with our clients, why not shed a little light in our wardrobes as well.