The recent death of Art Gensler (1935–2021) led me to look again at Art’s Principles, his 2015 primer on architecture firm–building and architects’ careers. I was hired by Gensler late in 1997 and worked closely with him and his successors in an editorial capacity for the next 22 years—a good vantage point for seeing how his principles played out in practice. Gensler was no theoretician, and yet he evolved what might be called a “theory of the firm” that reflected his understanding of architecture as it unfolds in the real world of clients and markets.
By coincidence, I’m writing an introduction to the drawings of the neoclassical architect Thomas Gordon Smith, the author of a treatise on architecture consciously modeled on those of his classical predecessors. (Smith also produced and illustrated a new version of Vitruvius.) This leads me to distill Art’s principles into a pocket treatise that draws on my own observations. (Author’s note: This is one observer’s interpretation of Gensler’s ideas.)
Architecture Is Best Understood in a Total Design Sense
Gensler settled on design to describe the open-ended nature of what his firm could do. He saw every attempt to put design into professional, disciplinary, practice, or project-type buckets as misguided, understanding the fluidity of markets and the humanity that drives them. A design firm exists to deliver desired outcomes and support clients from strategy to strategy within close working relationships. Whatever is needed has to be found, whether it exists within the firm or is tapped through collaboration. This evolving totality is design as a professional activity, and architects are an integral part of it, but only one, and honor-bound to collaborate with the rest.
Architecture can be a business, but it has to be run as one.
This has two implications. First, it means situating the firm in the marketplace. Second, it means acknowledging that what you’re running is a design business, which involves a constant search for balance and synergy between designers and clients so that both are attracted. This dilemma isn’t unique to design firms. Higher education, for example, faces something like it. To be a business means to deal rigorously with the issues every business faces. How well they’re dealt with is the difference between a business that thrives, stagnates, or fails. How well design is dealt with means everything for its reputation, its influence, and its ability to attract talent and clients. To succeed, a design business has to navigate these twin challenges. To do this well, its culture has to be steeped in awareness of them, framing actions and outcomes in light of this.
That culture benefits from broad ownership and transparency.
As Arie de Geus argued, long-lived companies are “living” communities that transcend the cohorts that lead and work for them. Art found ways to make everyone an owner, directly or indirectly, in the design business he started. And since everyone was an owner, the firm shared the financial details with them. It also made ownership a financial advantage, making a substantial part of compensation long-term and tax-sheltered, topped off by firm contributions that reflected the firm’s performance and its leaders’ reading of the future.
Relationships, not projects, are the heart of a design business.
This has two implications. First, it means that constant engagement, not just with individual clients, but equally with the collectivity to which they belong or identify, with which they share issues and experiences, is consciously sought, with the goal of expanding the relationship, not simply of landing a new project. Second, it means that mutual trust is crucial. The relationships bring responsibilities, including the need to advise against projects not in the client’s interest. Within the design firm’s own culture, it means that personal and collective integrity matters. To thrive, the culture delegates responsibility on the basis of trust and individual initiative, but the ruling context is the collaborative teams that include and serve the clients and their clients. It’s within ongoing collaboration that both of these relationships are forged, built, and evolved.
A design business is organized to absorb shocks, yet evolve.
Most of all, this means being disciplined about the core activities that keep ongoing operations humming, while scanning the horizon for new opportunities and threats. The danger of focusing on any set of relationships is myopia, banking on continuity and failing to anticipate disruption. Growth means changes in scale, each of which strains the core activities in their existing state, so part of the discipline needed is to ask regularly what the future demands. Some of this will come from clients, but the firm itself has to look ahead and make its own decisions. It doesn’t have to be the first out of the gate, but should know its options and be ready to act and invest. One big advantage of a strong culture is that piloting new initiatives is much easier against the background of humming, profitable ongoing operations. These are investments in the future.
A design business is organized to grow and sustain its growth.
This means that it’s agnostic about its precise offer and the markets that may take it up. It understands that the scale of that take up involves time as well as space. Especially when assignments are singular and huge, it looks for points of entry and activities that don’t leave its teams hanging when the assignment ends. If, to break into a market, it takes risks, it weighs them in light of the potential opportunities, viewing any losses as learning curve investments. But it tracks those assumptions against reality. It learns as much from mistakes as from successes.
A design business needs a talent pipeline and a succession plan.
A thriving design business gives its co-owners the possibility of career longevity. This means not only giving them opportunities to contribute, but actively investing in their careers in mutually beneficial ways. Advancement reflects performance, with allowances made for life events and reversals beyond anyone’s reasonable control. Making strong performance possible is the goal of career investment, with an emphasis on the most-promising performers, but also with a conscious effort to raise all boats. Yet the standards of performance evolve, and those who fail to keep up, despite career support, are let go. Outside talent is also recruited, raising standards. Career longevity doesn’t mean tenure. It means rewarding constant, meaningful contribution. Term limits, especially in upper- and midlevel leadership roles, make room for new blood. An effective succession plan simplifies the transition from one generation of leaders to another.
A design business should build toward, not borrow against its future.
The goal should always be financial solidity and healthy growth, avoiding long-term debt. This requires consistent profitability, which in turn requires the business to perform well, even when market conditions are adverse. It prepares for what it can anticipate as well as the unforeseen. This is both an operational and a cultural imperative. In all its dealings with its co-owners, the humanity and integrity of the culture guides the actions it has to take, knowing that those who leave will surface elsewhere as industry colleagues and often as clients. Coming back after a productive stint away is culturally acceptable, even desirable.
Featured image via the author.