Design Leadership & Architects: the myth of the SGDL (Singular Design Genius Leader).

In architecture the model of the Singular Genius Design Leader (SGDL) is hard to shift.  In theory, the SGDL has great ideas that are then pursued through force of will and strength of personality. Think Corb, Mies or FLW and then in more recent times Rem, Daniel L and maybe even Frank G. Here in the provinces, far from the East Coast and British breeding grounds of architectural pedigree, we have our own versions of the SGDL. What surprises me more than anything is that ticking all the right boxes as a SGDL doesn’t neccessarily mean a client gets a great designer or a better project design. SGDL’s, do not always come with good ideation or design skills. In Melbourne a city of four million people we have had a few spectacular architectural disasters as a result. That says a lot about the provincial conservatism, and dare I say it incompetence, of clients.

An SGDL who simply throws their minions a few sketches, after a few moments thought, and expects it to be great architecture doesn’t really hack it with me. A SGDL who micro-manages every detail is also a danger to clients; as is a SGDL whose ego is linked to having contrary opinions; cant abide having employees with diverse opinions; worse still a SGDL who doesn’t really get diversity.

Design leadership is more nuanced  than the SGDL archetype suggests. Simply exerting your will on acolytes or riding waves of celebrity across social media doesn’t make you a great architect. Thank god there are architects around who have completely rejected the SGDL model. Mostly these, by and large, younger architects continually generate ideas, have the insight to sift through ideas rather than latching onto one and have the skills to negotiate their way through the complex process of making architecture. They believe in diversity, collaboration and are comfortable with ambiguity. So for those of you brave souls who have abandoned the SGDL model here are a few of my own thoughts about design leadership.

Idea generation 

Idea generation is important. Design leadership is about both generating and then managing conceptual design ideas. This is not simply a matter of hurling out one or two idea’s from the ego. Most exploratory or generative design activities take place in the early stages of a design process and design leadership is about encouraging and fostering the development of these ideas once they begin to exist in various media.

An essential task of design leadership is to allow a team and other collaborators to explore, structure, critique and if necessary kill off ideas as they are generated. For example, design leadership is about encouraging their collaborative teams to use the conceptual and sketch design phases to  generate new subsidiary design solutions in order to advance the design to the next stage.

Design leadership is also, I think about collaborating in order to make the above process happen as quickly as possible.

Seeking paradox 

Design leadership is about deliberately seek to foster highly paradoxical processes within their firms in order to create new design knowledge. To achieve this great design leaders employ their team to continuing to simultaneously generate both radical and incremental design solutions throughout the design process.  In other words, design leadership is about continually questioning and reconsidering design knowledge at the point that it  is being created. More importantly good design leaders can pursue in parallel seeming paradoxical ideas at different scales. For example, whilst a detailed construction solution is being developed the conceptual structure of the project may be reconsidered. Even though a design concept might be settled, encouraging new design solutions or exploring the design itself, at different scales, in order to seek new concepts and solutions is important.

Hence, design leadership is about managing concurrently and in parallel. Architects can learn a lot from concurrent engineering.

Tolerating a culture of chaos 

Effective design leaders can generate mess and then tolerate the implications of this. Bad design leaders close down chaos and neaten everything up. Design leadership is about tolerating and being comfortable with a level of chaos. Design is not a linear sequence. Good design leadership means being able to cope with ambiguity. Being able to know where the design and its myriad lines of development are at any one point. Knowing who is exploring what in the design team. Perhaps the solution isn’t set in stone, perhaps some new lines of design research are running in parallel, perhaps some information is yet to be ascertained. In some ways good design leadership is about trying to destroy the very ideas that have emerged as a result of collaboration.

The problem with the SGDL model is that too often design ideas go untested and their limitations are not fully explored. Too often in the SGDL model the monolithic concept reigns supreme and it is never tested. Our cities are riddled with too many of these only line architectural concepts. Moreover, design innovation does not happen in a climate where the culture is focused on correcting deviations, minimising risk, imposing rules, ticking boxes and placating the clients or managers further up the food chain. Just ask Steve Jobs.

By deliberately fostering or generating messy ideas or seemingly chaotic expressions of those ideas a good design leader can quickly generate and then test a portfolio of ideas.

Designing with governance in mind. 

Despite the chaos and ambiguity in the design process design leadership is also about governance. Design leadership is about concerning itself with creating a decision support framework to guide design governance, workflows and the adoption of the design by others. This is one principal tasks of design leadership. To create and manage and mileux where design decisions can be made. The implementation and development of a conceptual idea means a team’s  IT tools, infrastructure, technical skills, workflows and even business processes must also be managed. But, all too often, it is unfortunately common that SGDL’s rarely care that much about such things.

Organisational project and team design processes should not be dictated via a top down strategic management approaches. The top down approach is the only mode of the SGDL. Alternatively, generative and exploratory design actions that emerge out of a well led design team are key drivers of design innovation. Good design leaders make the decision where the information is.

Sadly, the old ways still abound and this is to the detriment of the profession as a whole.

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