Surviving the Design Studio: Bridging the gap between architecture school and practice.

This is a blog for that curious class of humans known as the graduate of architecture or almost graduate. The architectural graduate is often not quite a student and not quite an actual architect. In some ways it is an unenviable position to be in especially if you are a graduate without a lot of experience in architectural offices. But, getting on the ideal job treadmill of putting together a portfolio and sending out a thousand over designed CVs via  your very own mass marketing campaign may not necessarily get you that job.

I write  as a person with considerable experience as an architecture student and graduate. I was an architecture student for so long that by the time I graduated the 70s had morphed into the 90s (by the time I registered it was the 2000s). Here are some tips, along with some hints for architectural employers, that will help you make the transition to practice regardless of where you are in the food chain.

1. Learning continues

Yes. It is wrong to think that an architecture school can teach everything a graduate should know. No-one should ever thing this.

I know this is going to sound harsh but you will not be made a design director or made an associate on the day after you graduate. There will still be a lot you will need to learn in terms of the mechanics of practice and design processes in different offices. Architecture as a discourse and as a field of knowledge is complex. What you have learnt in architecture school is an introduction to this discipline. You need to keep learning and thus I would suggest you do this by joining your local chapter of architects, networking and  getting started on any professional development courses that interest you.

Or, you could do what I did and do another degree. Architectural practice is about life long learning.

2. Get a range of experience

Following, on from the above its always a good idea to update your skills. Yes, I know you may have just spent a small fortune and made sacrifices or just partayed your way through architecture school without learning much. But if you are serious about bridging the gap you will need to upgrade your skills: constantly.

Just having  BIM skills and expertise in one bit of software and nothing else in terms of digital skills is not going to get you a job. If it does your employment mobility will be limited and you will be relegated to CAD monkey status. Learn a few programs and some coding well and you will be more versatile in what you can do in an office. Hopefully, you will have left architecture school with more than a few software programs under your belt.

But apart from software, there is also the great dilemma of the architecture student about to enter the employment market and this is what size and type of firm should you work for. Big firms have better conditions but you may get stuck documenting or worse still doing design development for the rest of your life. Small firms offer better experience but come with the hazards of less job security and practice volatility. Arguably in small firms you can learn more and be closer to the actual decision making processes in the firm.

I started in very small firms and had the dubious distinction of working for the best and the worst architects in my town.

3. Work on competitions

If you can’t get a job, or it is taking time, or it is the holidays then I suggest you work on competitions. Collaborate with your friends; do the competitions as if you might win them. You never know you might actually win something. At the least you might get published or pick up a few new design and decision making skills. You can also publish your competitions through social media.

4. Don’t work for people who treat you poorly

This is aka don’t work for a-hole’s rule. Don’t work for people, who underpay and overwork. Don’t accept someone else’s  managerial disorganisation, misogyny or fee cutting.  Make yourself aware and be aware of your rights. Support Parlour. Familiarise yourself with the Fair Work Act and the architect’s awards.

5. Be curious about the business

This is one of the most important things an architectural graduate can do. An employer is more likely to employ someone who is trying to understand, and has some insight, into how the business works. Architectural practice is one of the hardest things anyone can embark on. Competition is fierce and the lead times for getting a practice to a point of viability are long. What is your employers, or potential employers perspective? What is their strategy, what kind of practice are they, where do they get their client’s from? How do they market themselves and how do they make money?

6. Figure out the firm’s design processes

In approaching a firm or working in one ask yourself: Who does the designing and how is it actually done? Is it a collaborative effort or is it done by a single person? Is it simply driven by pragmatics, budgets and client concerns? Or does it have some kind of strategic intent? Do your employers, or potentials, actually design and if so what can you learn from them?

7. Visit the sites (virtual and real)

This is another way of doing your homework. Who has the best website and social media presence amongst the architects you like or are interested in working for? But you also get your head out of social media, or the spinning BIM model, and go and look at buildings in the flesh. Make your own assessments of them. Think about what you would have done if you designed the building.

8. Don’t send out CVS that are over designed

Don’t write your CV like a bad business plan. I have seen a lot of these. The logo is designed in 3 colours, the fonts are all over the place, there are pictures of the obligatory final thesis project. Bad renders. Pictures in the back of the portfolio of your hobby travel photos with the DSLR camera. A lot of philosophy in the covering letter about design and sustainability and how creative you are.

Most employers will base their hiring decisions on what you have previously done in the workplace rather than what you are like as an existential being.

Besides an employer, even amongst the best architects, wants is not someone to question the meaning of life, or get precious over designing the partitions, when all they want you to do is document the toilets. As the master once said to me “for god’s Raisbeck this bathroom reno is not fucking Eisenman’s House X.” When I worked for the master he was always saying stuff like that to me and it wasn’t long before I got replaced.

9. Hang out with real architects 

Yes, real architects, and I don’t mean star architects or award winners. Find your own mentors. Hang out with the meanest most experienced badass architects you can find. The ones with 100s of years of contract admin or small renovation documentation experience. Hang out with the female architects juggling small practice and family life and about to have children. Hang out with the practitioners who have been working in the back of the big office for 10 years or have been working on the one project for as many years. Hang out with the architects doing it tough in the outer suburbs where the punters think all architects are rich wankers. Hang out with the architects ekeing out a living on schools or hospitals or community centres. Hang out with the “young” practices who are still considered to be “young” after 10 or 12 years in practice. Hang out out with your grad schools alumni. Hang out with moi.

Finally, a few words to the architects who employ our recent students and graduates. 

Firstly. Thank you so much. For the profession good mentoring of architectural students and graduates is essential to it’s future.

Most firms will welcome graduates and students knocking on their doors. The better firm’s in the profession provide there young graduates with programmed and well thought out ongoing education. The competitive firms in the profession also provide and foster an inclusive workplace. The best firms mentor inclusively. Winning awards is one thing but the better firms give back to the profession through effective and inclusive mentoring.

In contrast to the better firms the old catch cry of “what do they teach at archi-school these days” always makes me want to retch and throw up. Usually the elements of the architectural profession that declaim this are those elements who think that a good architectural education is about teaching young architects technical skills and nothing else. Of course, entire architecture schools have been designed around teaching the competencies and then conveniently forget to teach the students how to design or to think. Digital techniques, construction techniques that’s all you get. To suggest that architecture grad schools are somehow too theoretical or concentrate too much on history and don’t teach students real world skills is simplistic, naive and anti-intellectual. It doesn’t really do the profession as a whole any favours.

Many students have worked hard and made enormous sacrifices to graduate. Of course for some architects having an architecture student in your practice is like your worst nightmare. For some architects it might actually mean they have to think about having management skills rather than lurching from fee cutting crisis to fee cutting crisis. Architecture students are not cheap labour or whipping posts for either misogynist views or failed careers and egos.

A few years back I want to the annual architectural chapter awards. For the usual reasons I hadn’t been for quite a few years. The usual reason’s being my own embarrassment and the desire to adopt a low profile after my previous awards night episodes;  everytime I go I unavoidably get too drunk, and then ill, or I ended up having a fight about Eisenman and House X with the master. Or shamefully avoid him because I accidently dropped and smashed the model so many years before. Then there was the awards night I staggered and knocked the waiter at the Hilton and two dozen glasses of dessert wine landed on the public works architect’s toupee. It was really sticky and I had to pay for the dry cleaning.

But on a better awards night I had an epiphany when I realised the entire room was almost entirely full of recent graduates or newly registered architects. The brightest and the best of the recent graduates were there and it gave me hope for the profession’s future.


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