Stronger together

Oct 10, 2021

A collaborative design process where a diversity of voices are present and have ownership allows room for new ideas and points of view to emerge.

In order to design a better, more inclusive world, we must also think about how to make the design process more collaborative and diverse. The days of the black cape designer, a Western canon of design discourse, only helped to perpetuate inequities and racism in the design industry. It is not merely enough to employ a diverse staff (although that is a good first step); we must also evolve the way in which we work to create a stronger AEC community.

A collaborative process where a wide diversity of voices are present and have ownership will not only ensure that a diversity of experiences are represented, but will also make room for new ideas and points of view to emerge. “Collaboration” has long been a buzzword in the modern workplace, and conversations about collaboration between clients, contractors, consultants, and architects are crucial for our industry. But how do we, as architects and designers, collaborate internally? And how can the act of creativity, which is an inherently individual activity, transform into a shared experience and open dialogue?

The act of coming together to create, where multiple and diverse points of view generate ideas that are openly and equally evaluated, is the best way to tackle the many challenges that we face in our profession. If we believe that design has the power to change the world, then the design process that is used to arrive at this solution can’t rely on the traditionally closed act of creation – it needs to be an open and participatory conversation. For that dialogue to be successful, it requires us to first reprogram our brains to understand that being a successful leader is not about being a solitary designer, but rather a dialogue-generator, listener/curator designer.

As an architect and design director, I am often the spokesperson for a project’s design narrative, but I am cognizant that this design narrative is the result of the work of multiple people and interactions. It is my role to be an advocate for the other voices, internal and external, that are not always at the table. However, an open process can easily devolve into a self-reflecting spiral that, at best, produces a compromised solution. Avoiding the perils of “design by committee” also requires a balance between exploration and direction: When is the time for open collaboration, and when is it time for consensus building and decision making?

Exploring the process. In order to truly revamp the design process, we must first look at the different structures at play when it comes to collaboration during the creative process. Who participates? How are decisions made? Essi Salonen’s “A Designer’s Guide to Collaboration,” a great tool to help plan a collaborative project, defines these structures as either open or closed, and flat or hierarchical.

So how do you balance open, flat collaboration when leading a design project, which has traditionally required a closed and hierarchical process? Design Core, FXCollaborative’s internal workgroup focused on advancing the firm’s design culture and critical thinking, explored how to balance these seemingly opposing ideas, and how and when to best leverage these concepts in our processes. We conducted internal surveys across FXCollaborative’s design studios to learn how people like to collaborate and organized two design workshops in which we experimented with different ways of structuring the design process. We gathered data on the participants’ engagement in the process and their sense of ownership, and finally evaluated how successful the team was in embodying the original idea in the resulting design.

Transforming the process. We discovered that there is generally a preference for open participation and flat decision-making in earlier phases of a project. In later phases where decisions need to be made, and timelines/deliverables need to be met, the design process can remain open, but should move toward a more hierarchical decision structure. Even though early stages of the process may be open and flat, it is important for someone to clearly set goals and articulate a vision at the onset so that the team can all work together to achieve these. It is the role of the design leader to clearly communicate these project goals, vision, and design aspiration, structuring and leading the process while allowing the team to create within those parameters. This collaboration structure needs to leave room for self-expression and for participants to freely explore alternatives, but for it to have long-term success, everyone needs to feel part of the process and have a sense of ownership.

If everyone is to have a sense of ownership, then we need to build bridges to team members who may have other ways of thinking, creating, and communicating. The successful incorporation of these diverse viewpoints requires active participation from everyone. We must be willing to hear the ideas of others and be open to having our ideas challenged. It is OK to change your mind, it is OK to be convinced, and it is OK to admit you were not right.

Design process and firm culture. The main takeaway from our investigations at FXCollaborative is that our strength lies in our ability to come together in an open design process that creates room for everyone. But for this to be effective, we need to actively pursue a greater understanding of each other’s differences and commonalities. The way to achieve this will differ depending on the size and culture of your firm, the staffing structure of your teams, and the work that you do. However, in whatever scenario, it is necessary for individual voices with diverse backgrounds and unique experiences to come together in open dialogue. This is where a collaborative process can have the biggest impact on our industry – opening design to those who have historically been left out of the creative act (such as women and underrepresented communities) and bringing fresh insight and different ways of problem solving to our projects, which will lead to more successful outcomes for our clients and industry. Only then can we collectively shape design solutions to the many problems we need to tackle as a profession.

Gustavo Rodriguez, AIA, CODIA, LEED AP, is a partner at FXCollaborative. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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