The trouble with design firms

Feb 08, 2010

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I have a passion for this business. I have always enjoyed both doing design and being critical of design— I love seeing construction projects get built— and am a big believer in paying attention to the context and in using indigenous materials whenever possible. Most importantly, however, I have devoted the better part of the last 30 years to trying to help the owners of design and environmental firms be more successful with their businesses. But there are some problems with design firms that I would like to see go away. These problems need to be fixed or our entire “industry” is going to eventually go away. Here’s more of what I am talking about: The disconnect between design and construction, and a lack of belief in the design-build process. Designers simply don’t get out to the field often enough. They all too often sit in their offices and put everything in the computer or on paper without being there, on site, to make changes— good changes— as things take form. For example, I know of one landscape architect who does not go out in the field during implementation of his designs. That’s ridiculous! Much of what could be is lost due to this unwillingness to go on site, look around, and make new decisions. The drafting of the best designers into management, where they no longer design. This is a common problem for our firms. Not many great designers are very happy working as managers. It’s not what they WANT to do; therefore they aren’t very good at it. Once these designers get taken out of design we are left with weak designers and, many times, weak managers as well. The horrible cash flow of the typical firm. Eighty- or 100-day average collection periods on accounts receivable are ridiculous! And I know companies— good companies— in our business today with owners who would be HAPPY if they could get their average collection periods that low! Our industry should be at 30-40 days. That is reasonable. Anything more than that and we are fools for letting ourselves get pushed around by our clients that much. Other professionals would not allow it. Other professions do NOT have such long ARs. Look at accountants, for example. Last I saw they were in the 50-day range. This long AR cycle is killing us right now— literally putting companies out of business as banks crack down and they run out of operating capital. The lack of understanding about what makes the younger generation tick. Us old fogies (over 50) love to cast aspersions on the 20-somethings as if they are dumber, lazier, and less motivated than we all were at their age. I don’t buy it. I have worked with, and do work with, too many younger folks in my past and present businesses who will bust their butts and do whatever it takes to do an outstanding job. All they want is an opportunity to learn and a tiny bit of recognition. This generation is no different from our generation. The slow speed for adopting new technologies. 3-D modeling, BIM, simulation technologies, even Blackberries for everyone, are resisted by our older management, who didn’t learn what they know while using these tools and therefore don’t support them. I was one of them. I didn’t understand why we needed e-mail 20-something years ago when we had the fax! I also didn’t understand Blackberries when I had e-mail on my computer and carried a cell phone. I was wrong. And, too many of the process-changing technologies that are out there today aren’t being used because of attitudes like mine used to be. The arrogance of some designers, who forget that the best outcome for the project is not to create a monument to themselves. What is it with some designers who have to make the project look weird or out of context or shocking in some way so everyone knows it was them who designed it? I know that many will disagree with me, but I truly think that most clients— and the general public— prefer a much more contextual approach, so the built project looks like it was always there all along. This is so much more endearing— and enduring— ultimately. The lack of recognition that cooperation is the most critical element for real success. You cannot do what we all do without a lot of cooperation. There are too many experts in different fields, too many constituents, too many different needs to be met for anything other than cooperation to produce the best results. Yet our contracts, our legal environment, our accounting systems, our organizational structures, our incentive schemes, and our internal and external communication methods all work against cooperation. Work on eliminating the barriers to cooperation and your organization will do better work and ultimately be more successful! It is time we start addressing these issues or we will become obsolete. I don’t want to see that happen! Originally published 2/8/2010

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