The Nature of Design Firms From a Five-Decade Veteran
A half-century of working at every type of architecture firm—S, M, L, and XL—has left me with the desire to share some insights. I’ve written them as aphorisms, which boil experience down to a line or two. They’re meant for people across the board: students, midcareer professionals, and senior folks wondering if it’s time to move on. (A personal note on that final category: They’ll be surprised how liberating this is.) These are by no means definitive; as I composed them, other thoughts occurred. So there may be sequels.
Healthy firms have a rhythm like the beating of the heart. A push is followed by a rest that lets the heart consolidate itself for the next one. An arrhythmic heart skips a beat or pauses too long.
The issues faced by small firms are essentially the same as those faced by large ones. They face the same existential threats and the same internal and external pressures to evolve.
It’s a myth that the size of the firm makes it more or less interesting. What’s interesting are the opportunities it has and what it does with them—assuming those same opportunities interest you.
Working effectively across a network is the most important skill a firm can develop. Leaders who thrive across networks are diplomats, facilitators, and cultivators of budding talent.
Command-and-control doesn’t work. Hierarchy is pointless except in the most minimal sense. Focus on the task at hand, and every conversation will go better. Meet, but don’t overdo it.
Every firm has pluses and minuses. The idea of a firm is always better than its execution. What matters is that you share its ambitions, that it supports you, and that you’re both making headway.
Firms need to forge new relationships and grow existing ones. The latter should be delegated to those who do the work; the former is the main responsibility of the ownership.
Consciously growing a firm means confronting the fact that it will outgrow some of its staff. Handling this well is advisable—these people may work for your clients or your competitors, or acquire new skills and return.
If your goal is to work with dynamic leaders, either be a half-generation older or a full generation younger. If your goal is to succeed them, join early and force them to retire.
A firm’s commitment to diversity is reflected in whom it hires and promotes. It takes time to gauge how committed a firm is, but there are early indicators—and, sometimes, red flags.
Don’t waste time working for an idiot unless the firm realizes its mistake and quickly sees them off. Toleration of idiots is a sure sign of a firm’s decline. Keep your eyes open and your CV updated.
A senior lateral hire works only if a top leader is prepared to make it work. It has to be a personal, mutual commitment, a trust-based relationship that gets them through the inevitable rough patch.
Bespoke, problem-solving, prototyping and form-giving, and mass customization: these are the main categories in which firms fall. They overlap, but emphasizing one may preclude others.
To be known as innovative, a firm has to do something stunning often enough that people take notice. This requires time, investment, courage, realism, and luck. Imagination is the least of it.
Featured image by the author.