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Taking Ego Out of Design

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What’s Really Needed to Make a Successful Project

What makes a successful architectural project? Before getting into specifics, like what materials should be used, or even what the project should look like, it’s critical to first look at the bigger picture of what we want to be true in the end. Here’s the catch—it’s not the same answer for everybody. The way an architect answers this question can vary widely based on role and experience.

Great architects and designers become so because they are able to think differently, see things differently. Their natural abilities and skills help them to see projects through a different lens­– like having designer glasses (which is ironic, because a lot of architects actually wear designer glasses). As beautiful as things look through them to us architects and designers, like all professions, blind spots exist. For us, sometimes the greatest challenge lies in taking off the glasses and removing the designer lens. 

We recently invited Steelcase to come to our Milwaukee office to conduct a Workplace Discovery Session around the topic of approaching projects from a client’s perspective. When the question was posed, “What determines a successful project?” the majority noted staying within budget and on time. While both of those things are important to virtually every client, if we stop there, we are at risk of disappointment, even failure. If a client decides to renovate their office space to help attract new talent and engage employees, and the project is completed on time and in budget but enables an environment of isolation and hierarchy, then the project was not successful. It’s not just about box checking and being successful on paper. 

If we really want to design a space that elevates the potential of its occupants, we need to think not just as architects, but as our clients. We need to value what they value. For example, if a client is hoping to foster innovation, we need to be thinking of strategic ways to achieve this, like arranging certain departments next to each other to stimulate conversations, leading to collaboration. A company’s next big idea could come out of something as simple as two people bumping into each other who were previously in separate silos. If done correctly, good architecture can positively affect a business on multiple levels.

So how do you do this? How do you really get to know what people need? You ask. You listen. And then you listen some more. You seek to really understand what their needs are by posing questions like, “why is this important to you?” or “if you didn’t have this, how would your business be impacted?” By inviting clients to expound, both the designer and the client clearly understand the goals and vision for the project, yielding better results and an enhanced working relationship. 

As designers, we can become so passionate about a project that we can begin to believe it’s our project, our baby. But it’s not. It’s for the people that occupy that space day to day. In the 1950s, biologist and doctor, Jonas Salk, directly attributed the development of his successful polio vaccine to his change in environment from working in a dark basement laboratory in Pittsburgh to an inspiring, contemplative atmosphere in Assisi, Italy. His strong belief in the power of architecture’s ability to influence the mind lead him to partner with renowned architect Louis Kahn to build the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, a scientific facility designed to encourage creativity and foster intellectual breakthroughs. Imagine the innovation that could happen if more spaces like these, focused on individual client needs and vision, were designed!

Eric Romano, AIA, EIT, LEED AP

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