Design Leadership for Architects?

Design Week is almost here in my antipodean city on the edge of the global galactic system of architecture. There are lots of great events, including this one with GT2P, even for those of us with the most cynical and jaded of architectural hearts. There is lots of stuff about how we might value design but not a lot about design leadership specifically. Effective design leadership is really about promoting the value of design in our communities and actually working to increase its value. It should also have an activist component.

We don’t teach design leadership in architecture, landscape architecture or urban design. Leadership studies are broadly a branch of the management and organisational sciences. As a field of knowledge Leadership sits somewhere between management and sociology. Architecture has been so insidiously structured by the mythology of the singular male genius that any objective talk of organisational leadership and its conduct in architecture is usually greeted with silent derision. I know at least one architecture school where that is the case. No prizes for guessing which one (not mine). This approach certainly shuts down any sense of more inclusive notions of leadership. Not only are diverse teams needed in architecture but architects need to understand how to manage these teams. If collaborative models of practice are the future of architecture, as some would suggest, then leadership is an essential component of that.

It is the more inclusive, expansive and indeed realist notions of leadership that we really need to teach in Architetcure and our related disciplines.

Design leadership requires a knowledge of design processes that isn’t simply about waiting around for the big idea. Or having a whole lot of wholesome intentions (like sustainability) that you throw into the mix. Design processes can be learnt by most people and are counter to the view that some people just have “it”. That is to say that there is a secret source (sauce?)  code of creativity that only some people have.

I think both schools and practices (in their career development programs) need to encourage, teach and actively foster, through mentorship, design leadership. I think two areas need to be covered: Knowledge and Implementation skills.


Innovation and Commercialisation

The dark arts of intellectual property creation and management. Start-up processes and venture capital phases need to be understood. There is a whole range of things in the start-up system design leaders should understand. For example, the differences between seed and start-up capital, development capital, dilution of founder’s equity, trademarks and patents are all concepts architects should be familiar with.

Concepts related to innovation systems and policy also need to be apprehended and understood by design leaders in architecture.

Knowledge of the Canon

Design leader in architecture need an extensive knowledge of architectural history, theory typologies and morphologies. Last week in the practice class we asked everyone if they know who Tadao Ando and I was surprised by the number of blank looks. I don’t think this is the fault of teaching architectural historians. But I do think anything we can do to remind young architects that the canon is historical and it comprised by both a physical and digital realm. Trickle down web histories, and the latest meme or viral concept can be really superficial and don’t really cut it as architectural history.

Design Futures 

Design leaders need to understand futures and I don’t just mean cooking up a whacky scheme of for a post icecap melt flooded city or suburb or city flooded. (why do we keep seeing this stuff; can you imagine what a flooded city might really be like?). Our future speculations need to adopt advanced tools of scenario planning and modelling not just spitting out a few renders of domes on the moon with Tesla batteries.

Implementation Skills. 

Design Teams 

Essential for design leaderships is for design leaders to understand the dynamics of team processes. This requires self-reflection on the part of a design leader to be able to manage a diverse team rather than a team created in their own image. Look around the office you are currently working in does everyone look the same, did they go to the same graduate school or come from the same social milieu? The best teams are diverse teams and the best design leaders are the ones who can manage this.

Design Processes 

The better design leaders will be the ones who can manage design processes that are not simply linear and contain within them high degrees of ambiguity. Excellence in design leadership is about being able to create, generate and manage seemingly paradoxical ideas and processes; and doing this in a team. Great design leaders are the one who not just top down decision makers but are able to reconcile bottom up, or emerging design strategies, with strategic, seemingly, top down priorities. Knowing the difference between structured decision-making leading to incremental change and more creative generative approaches is critical. Knowing when to employ processes of creative destruction (and not just at the last fucking minute before the tender is due to go out) and processes that generate radical ideas and solutions in a given context is important.

Design leadership is about timing these different modes of idea generation.

Design Collaboration and Negotiation 

Collaboration and negotiation are basic skills that architects need to develop. It is oh so much easier to adopt a model of design leadership that is top down, transactional and seeks to reward and punish people (usually staff). That is way of managing that is inherently violent. It is violent because it is a process that grants and removes resources at will. The “good’ staff are rewarded and the “bad” staff are punished. It’s a model that seems to permeate architectural office and design studios. Great design leaders have the ability to see the good things in all members and instead of writing of the “bad” ones use their views to generate new insights about a conceptual design or as the design develops.

Irksome things (to me at least)

Design leadership studies and research can bring together and integrates the different sub-disciplines that define our field. It’s a little scary when you look at entire new courses and subjects being devised in architecture schools and there are no subjects or courses on leadership. Of course they are full of all sorts of technical things, construction, digital technology, and the one I really hate: sustainability. How did sustainability studies become reduced to the technical intricacies of architectural science or cranking the handle of the LEED or Green Star ratings. Why isn’t it about shifting the weight of a Carbon system to something completely different in a few short decades?

I hate those all-purpose sustainability mission statements about seeing things holistically, and being “organic” and being nice to Gaia and all it boils down to is a bit of facade design and a few plants thrown onto the facades. This design week event is more like it. If architects were really honest as a  discipline they would rename sustainability studies and call them decarbonising studies or extinction or degradation studies.

Finally Activism. 

Design leadership is about activism. I think this means be explicit about the political in architecture. Good design leadership is about knowing where you stand. It is about knowing what the political tradeoffs are in a given context of patronage and institutional logics. I don’t think we can afford to pretend that architecture is apolitical. It never was in the first place and it’s a pity the parametric technologists don’t get this. Otherwise you are just blowing with the wind and that is not really what design leadership should be about.