Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Design Disrupted

This post was written as part of an ongoing research grant sponsored by RTKL Associates. The research is an attempt to understand and redefine how architecture and design firms operate traditionally and how they can evolve to function dynamically in a changing industry.

I spend a lot of time on the internet. It's a dirty little habit I picked up in college. Or, maybe it's something I picked up because I get bored at work. Regardless, I spend a lot of time there, and when I do, I inevitably end up on some design blog and I find myself looking at something "innovative". A giant robot that eats suburbs and poops out green space? Cool. A high-rise covered in synthetic hair that generates energy in the breeze? Sweet. A pro-bono community improvement project that turns a bus stop into an after-hours nightclub and cinema? Yep. I like that. So, I download as many images as I can in hopes of copying, emailing, blogging, or tweeting about it later.

But then, after the initial excitement dies down, I find myself questioning what I do at work. We can do that - why aren't we doing that? Are we doing that? If we're not, we should be, right? It’s always been a frustrating line of questioning for me. I can fill up my free time with ideas competitions and volunteer work to get some of that creative enthusiasm out, but what I really want is for that level of innovation and gusto to be a part of what I do sitting behind my desk every day.  And I know I’m not alone.

The Strawscraper by Belatchew Arkitekter

I get it. Maybe those ideas aren't “real” and would cost ridiculous amounts of money and take crazy special effects to pull off. Or there's not enough time in the schedule and money in the budget to research and develop a solution better than the status quo. And maybe frankly, there are way better things for us to improve upon before we start trying to grow hair on our buildings. But there's value in all of that. There’s value in brain exercises and pro-bono work and buildings made of meat just like there's value in efficiently designing and delivering a real project that brings a profit through the door. The real question is can we make a business out of it?

Sure. Why not? Some of my favorite design firms seem to be making quite a successful practice out of a steadfast commitment to innovation and pushing boundaries. BIG, UNStudio, OMA, and MVDRV – to name a few we’re all familiar with – continuously pop up on my innovation radar (think spidey-sense but with design rather than catching criminals). But it’s not just boutique firms either. Some of the big “corporate” firms are starting to invest serious time and money into fostering innovation and culture as a way to set themselves apart as industry thought-leaders. So what is it that allows for these practices to be considered the best design firms in the world and to succeed all while pushing “dangerous” and “edgy” ideas?

Well, in my opinion, they don’t act like architecture firms anymore. The traditional architecture firm is dead – it just doesn’t know it yet. In the past, architecture was about making objects, and as a result, the architecture firm was set up to reflect this model - hierarchal organizations structured around formal specialists. But the world we live and build in is way more complex now. The days of slow, methodical, and partitioned design firms is over. Architecture today needs to be a discipline of systems, not objects.

Let’s be honest, RTKL doesn’t lack creativity and there is no dearth of innovative thinkers. Not by a long-shot. They’re all around us. I sit next to some of the most passionate, bright, and talented people I’ve ever met, and I bet you do too. It’s not a lack of talent and creativity that holds us back from being the best design firm in the world – we’ve just been too hesitant as an organization to change and embrace a new way of thinking to truly become thought leaders. Innovation doesn’t happen through incremental changes to existing techniques. Instead, it happens when you step back from everything you know, and challenge yourself to look at the problem in another way.

I submitted this Kagan because I believe that RTKL can – as CEO Lance Josal challenged us – be one of the best design firms in the world. But if that’s what we really want and are truly committed to, we need to radically change the way we think, how we’re structured, and allow our culture to be a driving force in the design process.

Next Episode:

How do we disrupt the status quo at RTKL and become the innovative design force we want to be? Five ideas:

1. Kill the studio
2. Give it away for free
3. Embrace friction
4. Let technology do the talking
5. Flatten the pyramid