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.

Surviving the design studio: 6 golden rules for architecture students and architects. 

You are half way through the design project or the semester and things are dragging. A few weeks or months ago you were enthused about the project and now it doesn’t seem like things are good. You are worried about your own skills, your research is going on and on, you don’t understand where your are headed and the studio leader, or your boss, or client, keeps looking at you quizzically. Most of all the design is stuck and you are running out of time.

This is not an uncommon situation.

It is important to understand how to avoid this malaise both from the perspective of studio or team leader as well as from your own viewpoint. Everyone can take heart that architectural teams are potentially the most creative, productive and innovative teams on the planet. Why would I say that? Firstly, archi-teams are able to conceptualise and visualise things in three dimensions. Secondly, these teams are not afraid to to conduct processes of creative destruction in order to reiterate or refine a concept or element of a design. That is why the design studios are great laboratories of design. Thirdly, in an architectural studio you can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity; in other words, you can work along multiple and possibly contradictory lines of design. To achieve all this however requires effective leadership and committed team members.

Architectural teams or architectural school design studios are not about sequential or linear lines of thought. It is not about ticking the boxes in sequence. Or swiping right or left on an app. Sometimes, this is not easy for the rest of the world to comprehend. Sometimes this is not easy for architectural students to comprehend as they undertake their first studios at graduate school.

To survive and prosper there are a number of golden rules for both architecture students, design architects, project architects and architects leading or teaching those teams.

1.Studio leaders are human and every team member is different.

It’s a good idea to get to know your design studio leader or the architect leading your team. What are their interests? What are they passionate about? Where do they think the cutting edge of architectural practice is? What kind of design research are they involved in? More importantly, how do they propose to approach the projects design. What is the design pattern or structured process that they seem to be advocating? What characterizes this pattern? Is it orderly or more chaotic and intuitive?

For studio leaders this means sharing and imparting with students or team members the travails of your professional life. What are your points of view on the most recent urban controversies? Who has inspired you as an architect? What are your areas of expertise? How would you characterise your own education and what would should have been different about this? All of this requires a proactive approach to the design process and recognising diversity in the team. Everyone in the studio or team will have a different style of communicating it is up to the studio leader to recognise this in order to foster an ongoing culture of design discussion across the project.

The uncommunicative or passive-aggressive team leader or team member who is reacting and lurching from crisis to crisis is everyone’s worse nightmare. Communication is the key. If you cant do anything else else talk to your friends about the project. The more you talk about a design project during the process the better it will be at its outcome.

2.No two studios are alike. 

Architectural Studios on the inside never seem like the brochure or presentation. So don’t be dissapointed. The particular dynamics of  every studio is different. Different leaders, people with different skills, different styles of leadership and a conception of architectural design. Every design team is different and every design studio experience is different.

Don’t think all because your last studio or project was great the next one will be as well. My rule of thumb is for every 5 studios you teach one will be great, 3 will be ok and one will be a disaster. A few years back I set up a new syllabus for a studio. A lot of research and peer consultation went into it. In the first semester of teaching it was great. The second time it was ok and the results were almost as good. The third time it ran it was a total disaster. The students hated it, my peers were not convinced and the admin staff thought it sucked.

So, don’t expect it to be the same as last time. As a team member its good to clarify to yourself what you think the design process will be. Ask yourself, is it linear problem solving or is it about producing a series of varied solutions? What is the tone of conceptual thinking that is being promoted in the studio? Is it about historical or typological analysis, urban analysis, semantic meaning, abstraction or the technicalities of parametric design? What weighting in the studio is given to aesthetics and graphic communication? A key question to ask an understand is what model of design generation is being promoted in the studio or team? How are you expected to produce design solutions?

3.Engage by asking dumb questions.

Ask dumb questions. This is the easiest way I know how to start the process of communication in a design team or studio. Because the obvious and seemingly dumb question is the question that usually needs to be asked in the design team. Designing is about testing, and indeed stress testing, propositions, arrangements, aesthetics, processes and details. Usually this is done via the question. Usually, it is the obvious question that everyone’s as been thinking that really needs to be articulated.

Admittedly not everyone is an extravert and some people find it difficult to ask questions. For design leaders this means encouraging questions, as they are asked, and not being dismissive. I like to ask my own dumb questions. This helps to break down any barriers of communication between team leader and team members. I know it may sound trite but encouraging or developing a feedback loop of dumb questions speeds up the evolution of the design. It also increases the ability of team members to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions and again this contributes to a design culture within the group.

More often than not it is the seemingly dumb question that can unlock the key issues and complexities of a design concept.

4.It’s not about the mark and nor, is it about winning the award.

Its not about the mark, and in the real world it is probably fair to say it is not about winning the award. Unfortunately, architecture schools have been corrupted by university fee regimes and the brand cache of a degree. Architects as a global profession have been corrupted by the peer distinction and star architect system.

A focus on the marks or awards never really got any one anywhere. I think it’s about packing as much design thought into a design project as you can. The design thinking embedded in the project needs to be robust enough to weather the storms and criticism of conceptual logic, value management, client whims, regulations, constructibility, politics and peer criticism. Trying to appease –by balancing out and juggling too many different factors–the awards judges or your tutors in terms of a imagined assessment regime only gets you in a mess. It usually only leads to design indecision and not knowing what is important amongst a range of factors.

For studio leaders it means getting the team members to focus on the process of the design research, design generation and production as the primary goal. Peer review juries and competition panels are notoriously fickle. Of course, regimes exist in architecture schools for marking and should be thought about and taken seriously. But, an incessant focus on trying to second guess a marking regime or a jury always detracts from the design process.

The good news is that anyone focusing on the design as a foremost priority never really loses out. Even if you don’t win the billion dollar project through a competition it’s still great to have a design that embodies your own design values.

5.When stuck get unstuck and hack yourself and burn your computer 

Let’s face it any design project can get stuck. We all get stuck for ideas or are unsure about the outcomes as a design evolves or progresses. All it means is that you need a fresh perspective. If you re stuck you can usually try anything. Have a break from the project for a day. Get your friends or others in tothe studio crit. Design an alternative concept and compare it to what you have. Throw around a few new crazy idea. What is the most bizarre and idiosyncratic idea of concept you can throw at the project. Is there something new you have not tried?

Hack your own design. You can do this by changing media: making a model, doing a sketch a different style of drawing; a section instead of a plan. Burn your computer and do some sketches. Take a stick and draw in the sand.

Hack yourself, to get out of the design studio grind. Go to a party and think. Take the road trip option. After you have undertaken some of the above methods you can reassess.

For studio leaders getting your students or team members to try out new ideas or new approaches when they are stuck is critical to successful outcomes. Usually designers get stuck when they find the path forward limited by pragmatic considerations or they are overwhelmed by their own self criticism. Designers are usually their own worse critics. A good team leader will understand this and support those team members prone to endless self criticism.

 6.Leaving it to the last minute doesn’t really cut it.

This is probably the most important golden rule and point. This is a real trap for the unwary, for those leading and for those being led. I call it the: a lot of research and too little design syndrome. Studio leaders should be constantly challenging team members to avoid procrastination and design via physical or digital means. research takes place in paralell with research. Make diagrams of your research instead of just reading it or writing about it. Design is not about thinking and researching and thinking and researching and hoping that a spatial entity will all come together in your head and then then translate exactly into the computer.

Design is about trial and error. For this reason designing a project is a race. The more trial and errors the more you can iterate a design. I can tell when I am in a building where the elements have only only been designed once. The second or third pass is where great design happens.

Architecture is too important to leave to the last minute.