Strategic vs. Project Thinking: Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects

Here at this low class, sex, drugs and rock and roll, architect focused, in-the-gutter blog it helps the blog stats to write popular tags like “Sticking your head up a dead bear’s bum.” Sticking your head up bear’s bum” is one of those lost, and now inappropriate, Australian sayings that thankfully is no longer in use. It can be used in a derogatory sense as a direct call to action—best not to overthink that—or it can suggest a kind of head in the sand attitude. The original line comes from the Australian film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and I have adapted the line here for my own purposes.

In my lovely mannered, patrician and bland-boosterish world of academia, it is not a saying that I am loathe to bandy about that much.

So, enough of the self-indulgence, the point is that for far too long architects have stuck their head up the dead bear’s bum of projects.

What Architects are good at 

Architects are great at spatial thinking, great at design thinking great and great at integrating knowledge across the construction, engineering and most consulting disciplines. Architects are good at looking at details (for those of you who can still actually detail) and then look at the larger urban scale all in the same breath. They are trained to shift their view to focus at different scales. As a result, architects are great at managing ambiguity and tackling the wicked problems.

The is what architects are supposed to do and what architects are good at. However, all of these skills and unique ways of thinking are hampered by the fact that architects are too often are stuck and blinkered by the project mindset. Everything is about the project. In practices large and small it’s all about the projects: big projects, little projects, built projects, or unbuilt projects, school projects, retail projects, domestic projects, commercial projects and urban design projects. Bathroom and toilet projects. Architects compare themselves to other architects through the lens of projects; their awards systems are based around projects, and the internal management systems of firms are founded, not around strategic management, producing design knowledge or the talent but the holy than holy projects. It’s always about the project.

The curse of the Project Centric

This project-centric focus keeps architects chained and enslaved in their own small pond. This pond is becoming increasingly smaller because of this very focus. Broader, market trends, macroeconomic changes, and the impact of future technologies on the profession often go unnoticed. Architects are clueless because of this lack of strategic thought. The profession is still only just grappling with the idea of advocacy; let alone producing any industry research about the impact of future technologies on it. Many strategic decision makers in practices medium, small and large are so project focused that they cannot see the forest for the trees.

As a result of this overbearing project centricity, the competitive advantage and value of architects is slowly being eroded. We have already lost construction administration, and Design Development is hard to argue the value of, design thinking has been taken, and repackaged by the graphic and industrial designers. A raft of new technologies, such as Big Data and AI, is slowly eating away at our design thinking skills. Some architects still think a digital strategy is about getting onto Instagram.

Architects are going to lose 

So if my argument is correct, that architects can’t think strategically outside of the project mentality, it follows that this lack of strategy, will in time, diminish the domain and agency of architects. We have already lost project management, and the banks are screwing us over our contracts. So where might the next pinch points be?


Maybe it’s time we stopped letting the special technical nerdy types from running the IT department in practices. Maybe uni administrators should stop thinking that just teaching software skills or techniques is all we need to do in Architecture schools. Alternatively, we should stop thinking that being “strategic” when it comes to new technologies, is about curating the images in an Instagram profile. Wooo Hooo. Half the Instagram profiles of practices in my city say the words: Award Winning Architects. So what? However, it’s all about those projects, isn’t it? The elusive award-winning project. The one we would all die for.

Drinking the kool-aid 


Architects have really drunk the Parametric and BIM kool-aid but at the cutting edge of practice as well as in the teensy weensy practices, and in the so-called professional associations. However, did anyone ever stop to think how architects might manage these new technologies in a strategic sense? All too often, architects have a kind of buy it and plug it in and play mentality when it comes to new technology. The new technologies are the kinds of things that make the project go faster, or cheaper or maybe sometimes better.

Architects have not been able to manage IT within their practices strategically. Yes, they have jumped onto BIM and the people I hate it when the students say: “why don’t we learn BIM at architecture school.” For the universities administrators BIM, and all other such widget technologies, is precisely the kind of curricula that they would love the architecture students to learn: easy to teach, the students think they are learning a skill (even if they are not learning to think) and a great way to make money. I mean WTF?

Architects might still have an opportunity to shape digital strategy. However, if they are not careful the digital strategies in the property and construction arena will be taken up either by new specialists, marketing, and asset managers who can run the data analytics. In workplace design, Big Data and associated analytics and AI are going to sweep the floor. Architects need to figure out how the Internet-of-Things is going to change things. Moreover, How will BIM data be connected to other broader IT data systems and analytics?


Big Data, BIM and AI and will get together with the property and construction types, and before you know it, we will lose Feasibility Studies as a source of income. God help us when the nerdy nerds start thinking about data analytics in construction. As BIM and AI conjoin, the result may be a new take on generative designing, and then as AI begins to develop options to make design decisions where we will end up then? Just following the pack I guess.

General and strategic management skills

One more thought I would be rich, if I got a buck for every time, someone said we don’t teach business skills in architecture, or when people say architects lack in business skills. Teaching ourselves a few numerate business skills is not going to help and I am beginning to weary of this mantra. It’s the general, and strategic management skills architects don’t have I tried to find those in the Australian AACA competencies, but hey who wrote these new competencies? These are skills are critical to understanding all the activities that architectural practice encompasses. They are critical to understanding the universe outside of the architect’s bubble. Sticking your head up the dead bear’s bum of Projects is not doing us any favours.

Yep, maybe I have been hanging out with the copywriters too much. However, seriously, for those who know me well, I guess I am wondering how much truth-to-power stuff I can actually get away with these days now that I have some kind of immunity in my own version of Survivor. So stay tuned and we can see how outrageous I can be in the face of mediocrity.

Design Genius is not Design Leadership: Avoiding the cult of architectural design secrecy

Design Leadership requires the ability to be open and transparent about the way ideas and design knowledge is conceived, transmitted and fostered in the organisation. One thing that seems to hamper research across the field of architecture is a culture of secrecy. There are patches of this culture all across the topography of architecture. It manifests itself in a number of ways and at a number of levels. It might be the directors in a larger firm afraid of sharing information that is seen to have some competitive advantage. After all, if the cabal shares the premises of a firm’s competitive advantage that might mean exposing that knowledge as inconsequential. It could be the project architect who hangs on to project information and does not share it with others in the team. Better to keep them guessing or in the dark. It is easier not to explain anything. Or it could be the so-called design architect who refuses to reveal the sources or the inspiration of his conceptual ideas. After all, someone might steal those ideas and claim them as their own.


All of these shenanigans of secret knowledge, tacit and unspoken communication and preciousness are corrosive to developing an architectural culture that maximises design knowledge. The covens of design managerialism and secrecy, the power tripping of withheld project information, and the egotistical horrors of pathetic design ideas made more important by being locked in the head of the design architect. All of these attitudes make it very difficult to conduct research within the profession.

I am not really sure where this culture begins. Of course, the curricula and studio systems of the architecture schools as usual, can be blamed. Few subjects are devoted to leadership and organisational governance in architecture school curricula. No wonder the profession is struggling to maintain itself.

In these systems, without the right studio leadership, individual competition can be vain, petty and subject to the vagaries and whims of favouritism. We have all been in studios where we will never make the favoured circle. Design Leadership is not about simply reinforcing and replicating your own theoretical position or the way you were taught architecture. Nor is Design Leadership is not about positioning a design within systems of parochial politics in order to gain influence. It is not about designing in a way that positions you for a commission or a peer award.

To reiterate, Design Leadership is about maximising design knowledge in the most efficient, effective and brutal way possible. After all when the rubber hits the road and the project is besieged by clients, value managers, and contractors the design ideas need to survive the journey.

The continued glorification of the design genius, which I have written about elsewhere, only leads to a situation where the profession is riven by localised mystery cults. Each genius, whatever their stature, surrounded by acolytes along with initiation ceremonies, encouraged rivalries, different circles of access and knowledge. It all starts to sound like Trump’s White House. Better to be an outsider than in the cult. So here a four principles to creating a culture of Design Leadership in your practice.

  1. Make design processes visible

Design leaders have clear processes in place. These processes are visible, transparent and communicable. Design leaders understand design processes and how these processes work through team environments. Design Leadership requires generating design knowledge and ideas through clearly communicated actions and gestures. By doing this everyone in the team can pursue, develop and contribute to the design.


  1. Don’t hide design knowledge.

Hiding design information only creates islands of territorial power. The role of Design Leadership is to constantly posit design knowledge into the public sphere. Of course this sphere may the realm of the project team or it may be the consultant team. from different groups or individuals within the organisation It is not about hiding things away. If design are ideas are hidden they are not fully tested and may then crumble at the first sign of value management.

  1. Make designing inclusive.

Design Leadership does not require the trappings of a cult. It does not exclude or set boundaries around who can be in and out of the team. A collaborative team open to a range of design views is better than a team subservient to a single design view. Effective design leaders mentor and foster their team members. They do this is in order to make individual team members better designers.

2009-12-10 22.42.08

  1. Create space for design.

Good design leaders are bale to create safe havens for the most extreme and seemingly kookiest of design ideas. This is because, Design Leadership requires teams that ask questions rather than teams that simply reiterate like-minded principles. Excellence in Design Leadership nurtures and fosters this questioning. Everyone should feel safe to ask the dumb questions in the design team.

  1. Creates more ideas than can be used.

This is the measure of great Design Leadership. Having a cauldron of ideas constantly generated and replenished as the project proceeds. Design Leadership means both generating and then managing design ideas as they proceed. Design Leadership means having the luxury to pick, choose and give life to the best of architectural design knowledge.

Architects need to change the way they approach Design Leadership and their own organisational structures. Architects need to more effectively manage their own pool of talent. What architect wants to sit in front of a computer second guessing what needs to be done? Worse still, is sitting in front of a computer knowing whatever you do is never going to be quite right, because you weren’t initiated into the favoured circle.

Now back after a brief Easter Break ! 


Making Sense of Design Research: Five questions

It doesn’t really help if the Design Research debate is polarised between practitioners, bewildered by the fact that their project outcomes are not considered research, and academics, from within and without the discipline, who say that such outcomes are “not real research.” The area is fraught with ambiguity and emotion. This is the same for both the practitioner “just doing it” and the academic trying to fit into university research metrics.

After I blogged about Design Research last time I offered up a few definitions. A few further definitions of Design Research which I came across rang true in this article.  And at the, now infamous, RIBA Research Symposia of 2007 it was reiterated that ‘“Research” for the purpose of the UK’s University Research Assessment Exercise was:

original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design…;

OMG! That sounds like from the above definition that Design Research is in fact actual Research with a capital R! (regular followers will know what I mean: but, sometimes, I really wonder if I am living in a research coal mine).

My ironic tone above is because, some still think Design Research is “not real research.” When I hear such things, I think architects are actually on the right track in order to elicit such doctrinaire reactions. So here are few quick ideas, and by no means definitive, for how practitioners, might strengthen, that most dangerous, impure and evil of things, Design Research.

1. Consider how the research fills or pursue a gap in architectural knowledge?

Ok, just going out and designing something is not really Design Research unless you can show or demonstrate that you are seeking new knowledge. Perhaps, you are seeking to develop a new fabrication technique, or designing a building type that other people have not designed before, or designing an existing building typology with a different design approach.

But to do all this you have to know what knowledge has been previously created. What are the relevant design contexts, projects, or techniques being the reference points for this new design project? What new ideas are you trying to test or explore? How is this new Design Research positioned in relation to the canon of architectural knowledge that already exists?

2. Develop a catalogue of projects which the Design Research can refer to.

It follows from above that you need to have a catalogue of either, the projects you have done before, or projects you are interested in. This information can come in different formats: In books, (yes, strange but true), or in some kind of data storage. This information could also be in your brain. But, it’s probably best if it is explicit rather than tacit.

One practice I know produces an in-house research books or file for each new project in the office. This contains a range of things.

3. Develop a Design Research methodology.

A methodology is not a method. Don’t be confused. Understand this and everyone will think you are a Design Research guru.

Methodology was once described to me as, the arguments for the way, or manner, that the research is being pursued. This is the same for Design Research. Why is the Design Research being pursued or approached in a particular manner?

What kinds of design activities or processes are involved in the design investigation and research? For example, is it master planning, or spatial planning or is it something about materials or light or maybe it’s something about form making and coding.

You need to be able to argue, and think about, why the particular type of design processes you have chosen is appropriate to what you are trying to investigate. The resulting argument is your methodology.

3. Are new methods of designing or making involved?

This is probably an easy question to answer. But, that is perhaps the problem. Just getting out the robots or 3D printer and making something anew doesn’t make it Design Research.

All too often is it easy to be seduced by the technologies of making. It is all too easy to think that, superficial objectness or aesthetic funkiness alone means that what you are doing is in fact Design Research. All because you are designing something new (and oh-so-organic and diatomic) doesn’t necessarily mean that the thought behind it is new.

Are there steps in the process that make it unique? For example, employing or developing, anew plug-in, a new algorithm, a new geometric regime, unique patterns of design iteration.

Is the design research exploring a new or existing technology and its relationship to design process itself? How is the technology, shaping or changing the way that architects design?

Taken together how do the different methods employed in the Design Research support the methodology?

4. Does it develop or add to new theories of architectural design?

Architects should ask does the design research, or the design itself, build or develop a new theory of how architecture is made?

With fellow students, I once went to a presentation by an architect of a large and prominent downtown high-rise office building. We asked the architect how he came to make the forms he was proposing. He stated these had come about as result of “whatever just came into his head.” We were aghast.

The mysticism associated with so-called “intuitive” design has often led to the situation where any theoretical scrutiny of architectural design is greeted with ignorance, and even hostility. For some architect’s theory is always going to be bullshit.

As architects, no matter the type of work we do we have responsible to develop theories that explain and argue the general relevance of what we are doing. Is there a body of theory around your firm’s design practices?

Testing theory and building new theories is an essential part of the outcome any ongoing research. As Design Research generates new design solutions how does it help to formulate guide, or determine a theoretical framework.

5. Finally, has Design Knowledge been added to?

This is the key question. Can the architect argue that new Design Knowledge has been created? How strong is this argument? Do the foundations of this argument simply rest on intuitive designing. Or is there a logical substance to the argument based on a clear aim to fill a knowledge gap, sound documentation, a supporting methodology, established or unique methods and a new theoretical framework?

Understanding and promoting Design Research in architecture as a discipline is essential to the disciplines viability. For architect’s attitudes to Design Research need to be clearer and less contaminated by the twin evils of academic prejudice, about what research is, and the theory free zone of intuitive alpha-male designing.








Surviving the Design Studio: Architectural Practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem.

For some practicing architects, there is the prevalent fantasy that they are valued for their knowledge. In this utopian world architects, with their unique generalist knowledge alongside an ability to drill down and easily grasp disciplinary detail, are employed just like management consultants. In this scenario, all the practicing architect has to do, rather than slaving over CAD drawings, is to sit back and relax and dispense valuable knowledge to the clients. In fact, in this oh so wonderful scenario, architects get paid lots of money for it. But maybe this is dream, is the dream of a discipline slowly losing its currency, moribund by the fact that architects are hung up by the building delivery paradigm.

The best way to get anywhere near this dream is to operate an architectural practice as a Design Knowledge Ecosystem or DKE.

Ecosystems as a model, and a theoretical view, of practice are well known and prevalent in the world of big software development. For example, Google’s ecosystem has been described in the following diagram from HBRgoogle-designed-for-innovation-24-638

Some business commentators have even argued that Apple is no longer a hardware or a software company but an ecosystem. In construction management Chris Harty and Jennifer Whyte discuss what they call ecologies of practice. One of my favourite sociologists is the Bronfenbrenner who has developed Ecological Systems Theory. Bronfenbrenner’s theory contributes to our understanding of individuals in organisational contexts. Check it out if you are interested.

Thinking of the practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge is a much better way to conceive of and create new architectural theory, new modes of architectural education, and practice management. So what does the above mean for the practicing architect? For me organising a practice as an ecosystem of design knowledge implies the following:

It’s all about the idea and not the building

 A practice needs to be organised around the generation of knowledge. In other words ideas. The design of buildings are a by-product of these ideas. For a start this means that the practice must embrace research, research and development and even in some cases strive to produce innovative intellectual property. Dare I say it, Intellectual Property that might even be commercialised. This will mean that architects need to better understand and even be taught the dark arts of entrepreneurial pathways, innovation systems and associate policy contexts.

What is important for practices is not so much the creation or delivery of buildings, or representations of those buildings for that matter, but the creation of design knowledge. Managing the Design Knowledge Ecosystem is about constantly creating new ideas and managing a system that is in flux. Knowledge ecosystems can take on a life of their own and architects need to be comfortable with the ambiguity this can create.


Within practices new decision-making process and modes of leadership will be required. In the past, far too often knowledge was centred on a single designer or figure within the practice. Too often this knowledge was by its nature was tacit and for the most part hidden. Knowledge transparency is the key to creating better designs; designs that have been subject to rigorous process of design testing and re-testing. In the future leadership in the best practices will be those that are able to harness in an inclusive way all the members of a diverse team. The best leaders will be those with an intimate knowledge of design processes and different modes of designing. These leaders will understand that


The purpose of having a diverse team within a practice is not simply about giving people opportunity. Although that is really important. Practices that recruit in their own image or through existing intern networks (really, how many interns from Columbia or the AA can you get?) may miss the opportunity to create teams that spit out a range of ideas and perspectives. The Management Consultants are the same and possibly worse. Worse because consulting is an industry that constantly espouses its creativity. But, whenever I get in a room for management consultants I usually shrivel up from the stench of conformist boredom (harsh I know). Diverse teams, is about having team members with contradictory and diverse perceptual, and conceptual thinking skills. It’s also about having diverse age groups and backgrounds. Tell that tot he management consultants.  To put it cruelly who needs a team entirely composed of “big Picture” people or only the under 30s.


Building a robust knowledge ecosystem, means not limiting information to the closed boundaries of the firm. In the design knowledge ecosystem, clients, consultants, product suppliers, sub-contractors, manufacturers and yes even academics may form a part of the way a firm gathers, produces and sifts through design knowledge. This is not dissimilar to what the software developers do.

Hybrid practices

One of the problems of the current system of architectural production is that the focus on the built object has been aligned with the digitisation of design processes and workflows. And whilst the delivered object is physical, hopes for its efficient realisation has increasingly led to the myth that this realisation is entirely reliant on the virtual processes. In the design knowledge ecosystem is an immanent system where both digital objects and practices are seen to be equal with the physical. As Harty and Whyte designate the real practices of the firm are hybrid practices.

The tyranny of the commission

I suspect that for some architects the idea of a Design Knowledge Ecosystem goes against everything they were taught at architecture school. At architecture school, many of us were inculcated with the idea that architecture was ONLY about designing buildings. I think a pedagogical approach focused on building design is far too narrow an objective. This unduly puts the focus onto gaining, and then delivering, an elusive built commission. This leads to the physical object, or building, rather than the knowledge or ideas embedded in that object, being debated. Don’t get me wrong as I am the first to argue that architecture’s presence, as well as architectural aesthetics, is an important component of architectural debate (As I say in the studio, “is if it looks good then it is good”). But what interest me more than anything else is the link between architectural aesthetics and ideas. It is the ideas that architects create through design knowledge ecosystems that gives rise to the ideas that are of most interest to me. Not necessarily the completed building itself.

However, the crude emphasis on the built and completed object has helped to create a global system of architecture that is overly bound to educational pedigrees, the clustering of architectural brands around star architects, a discriminatory intern system and worst of all a clustering of theory around crude ideologies focused on the latest delivery technology. I thought we had gotten rid of those, banal notions, of a historical zeitgeist driven by technology in our discipline and discourse.  Since when was architecture just, and only, about technology: in particular delivery technologies like CAD, BIM, the gymnastics of coding and CNC fabrication? Of course the contractors and the Project Managers will flip out when they hear it’s not about the building. But maybe that’s the point of the exercise.

So, next time someone tries to tell you it’s all about: getting actual stuff built, the big brand star architect or some new technology run for the exit. It’s time for architects to stop being content with both a local and global system of practice that is entirely inflexible and increasingly redundant.

Strategy and Design Thinking: Why architects need strategic thinking.

This blog explores the nexus between architectural design and strategy. I am thinking there will be more blogs on this subject to follow over the year. 

Most architectural practices seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. In Australia most architects are small practitioners, juggling family commitments, trying desperately to maintain work life balance and at the same time running a small business that produces bespoke projects that require innovation, high levels of risk management, advanced negotiation skills not to mention networking and marketing skills. Architects, in between juggling the school drop off or saving for their own mortgages, work hard to add value to their clients, the built environment and society at large. Of course, its much easier, as it is for some in the building industry, to take the low road of cheaper, better faster and easier when it comes to delivering projects. If its cheap and nasty it must be good, right?

Having a strategy, and embedding strategic thinking into practice, a good way to help guide and resolve the dilemmas of practice. A good way to combat the cheap and nasty faction. Recently it was suggested to me by an architect that architects need not learn the finer arts of strategy. It was put to me that some architects never learn it and that it doesn’t really matter. I was pretty surprised by this as we were taught at Business School, regardless of what you think of business schools or biz school education, that strategic management and thinking was the highest form of managerial action.

In classical management theory the classical definitions of strategy are intertwined with notions of competition, military thought and the notion of winning. Mintzberg argued that strategic thinking was a central component of creating innovation and was by its nature intuitive, creative and divergent.  Strategic thinking as defined by the managerial theorist Mintzberg argues that strategic thinking is:

“about synthesis. It involves intuition and creativity. The outcome…is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction”

Michael Porter another management theorist argued that:

“Competitive strategy involves positioning a business to maximize the value of the capabilities that distinguish it from its competitors.”

Of course strategy as a field of thought has moved on since the work of Mintzberg and Porter. This has happened because technology has morphed and remorphed and the interconnected complexities of the global system have seemingly increased. In recent times the discourse of strategic management has reflected this. In strategic management theory and research questions abound: Is strategy formulation something that emerges or is it something that can be designed top down? How can strategy help our institutions with concepts of turbulence and uncertainty? As noted in a recent editorial in the Strategic Management Journal strategy may cover: organisational capabilities, interfirm relationships, knowledge creation and diffusion, innovation, organisational learning, behavioural strategy, technology management, and of course corporate social responsibility.

For architects having an understanding of strategy and strategic thinking is vital. In fact I would argue that it is vital for future architects to study strategy at architecture school, perhaps in the design studio.  To suggest that strategic thinking is not a part of architectural education or architects expertise suggests that architecture is simply a bundle of technically orientated skills and processes. A bundle of repetitive actions that require little thought. Actions that can be transferable and imparted to others. This suggests a craft based notion of architecture where skills and knowledge are passed down from so-called master to apprentice. I am not so sure about the craft myths that seem to permeate architecture. The craft myth is hard to shake even when highly advanced design and construction methods are used. The craft metaphor is probably a little bit too formulaic as a concept of architectural knowledge for my liking.

In Australia the competency standards describe the competencies and skills that architects are expected to know. These standards are used in accreditation processes to determine if a particular person is capable of being an architect; or an architecture school is teaching the correct skills or competencies. Interestingly, the standards say little about the need for strategic thinking.  They mostly describe what architects do rather than the thinking or conceptual skills they require. They are activity and process based. The standards are really lacking when it comes to issues around concepts of strategy, foresight, risk, project management and financial skills. The weight of the standards are focused on design and documentation. Viewed in detail much less emphasis is given to practice management and project delivery. I mean who needs that stuff? All we need as architects are the skills inherent to the traditional practice life cycle: Sketch design, design development, contract documentation, contract administration ect etc. In fact all we need to know about is Sketch Design. No matter that this lifecycle is increasingly under pressure and fragmented and as result a result of the industries lack of diversity, fee competition, and dis-intermediation.

Strategic thinking and planning has a number of advantages even for those architects lurching from the client to the consultants between picking up the kids from school. Strategic thinking sets a direction, even for the small firm beyond the day to day. A kind of thinking that helps to guide resource allocation when difficult decisions or trade-offs need to be made. It determines how your firm might be different, and I mean really different, to all of the other firms out there. Understanding strategic discourse can help the architect understand clients as they make strategic decisions regarding the future. If the management consultants and gurus can do it, why not architects? We are a lot smarter and more diverse than those guys.

An appreciation of strategic thinking helps to get architects out of the cycle of reacting from practice crisis to practice crisis or seeing architectural design as simplistic, step by step, and linear process of sequential tasks. Seeing design as a narrow technical specialisation is a huge mistake. Strategic thinking is inextricably and broadly linked to design and should be regarded as the highest form of design thinking.

It’s all quiet on the front at my grad school of architecture. A few summer studios are running and there is till 5 weeks to go before classes start. Nonetheless, next week, in the lull I am pre-recording a whole lot of online lectures! 

Paradoxical Design Thinking: How architects can avoid the BIG IDEA is crap trap.

In this week’s blog I resuscitate from my vault an old conference paper which discusses design processes. This came after a conversation with friend about how and why his firm of architects is suffering because they have not won a lot of new work recently. I think this blog might help those architects and other creative orientated firms, stuck in a rut, and seeking to reflect on their creative processes. 

The BIG IDEA syndrome

Trump is full of big ideas like build a wall, lock up HRC and even all those franchising ideas Trump steak, Trump uni, Trump perfume and Trump Vodka. Sadly for some there is a view that creativity and genius is something innate. A secret sauce or recipe that is embedded in our DNA. This sensibility leads to people looking for the one big idea. The BIG IDEA. Dare I say it: the big fucking idea. The secret to the universe or the solution to the particular problem. (Of course as noted in another blog when the problem is “wicked” there may not even be a single solution). Unfortunately, in the many professional cultures, for example architecture, urban design, landscape urbanism and maybe even advertising, the single idea or big idea view reigns supreme. Once you have that idea you, or the team, runs with it. But as Andy Warhol said of Trump he is kind of cheap and I think the same about the Big Idea in architecture. It’s always kind of cheap.

So, what if the one BIG Trumpian idea is crap? How do you avoid the Bad BIG IDEA syndrome (it’s a bit like saying how can America avoid Trump)? If the idea is bad you might lose the competition, the job, the client or the pitch. You might even lose the confidence of your team working on it. You might end up with a design or an end strategy that is so bad that all you can do is polish it a bit (there is a saying for this but I think I can only sustain one profanity per blog post).

Paradoxical Design can save you 

One way to get around this conundrum is to abandon the focus on the one big idea syndrome and always build a portfolio of ideas into your design practice. This is done by deliberately fostering the generation of paradoxical or counter ideas in a project. Ideas that are in opposition to the prevailing project idea. In opposition to the one BIG IDEA. In other words, its great have a few paradoxical, counter or oppositional ideas being pursued at once. Yes, it makes for chaos with contradictory ideas are competing at some point in the project but this is manageable and ensures that you are not locked into a dog of an idea. The counter ideas can help you to test and compare the prevailing idea. Not only that but you can use the paradoxical ideas in other projects in the future.

Design thinking is about constantly generating creative ideas and every project should run with and explore a few ideas in parallel. This is one aspect of design thinking that most, but not all architects, understand and are taught in architecture schools (well some of the time anyway).

Running with a few paradoxical ideas might actually save time and effort (and of course money) in the long run. The problem is that for architects or other creative design professionals changes are often seen as being unwelcome and at odds with sequential project development milestones. Changes are often seen as negative in a productivity sense; or changes contribute to rework during the construction or production process and this adds costs to project risks. Also, there is the perennial problem of how you explain changes to the client.

But, on the other hand creative and generative design is seen to foster innovation and this is at the heart of the design paradox. One way is to ignore this constant paradox but the other way is to embrace Paradoxical Design.

Paradoxical Design and innovation 

In innovation theory a number of notable theorists also suggest that embracing Paradoxical Design means recognising, but also fighting against linear and binary descriptions of the design process. As Winch theorised (sorry to get all academic here) designing can either be characterized as either a conjectural model or a linear model (Winch, 1998). He argues that the linear model is a problem solving approach which involves analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Which is all very well and dandy. But he goes onto argue that the conjectural model, a model which is arguably linked to ker-razzy assed architectural design, is more discontinuous or disruptive. For those of you reading this interested in innovation theories and systems, in Clayton Christensen’s parlance, (the elder-king of innovation academics) conjectural design is what might be termed as exploratory innovation.

In Paradoxical Design, an initial hunch or conjecture is formulated and following this the process then proceeds through a number of iterations. It is through these paradoxical iterations that design knowledge is created; in each iteration conjectures are proposed and then abandoned. The iterations, or the creative idea embodied in each one, are paradoxical because they might be quite different to one another. They may even contradict each other.

A rapid survey of architects

In a rapid survey I did a few years back of architectural firms practices in Australia in a desperate effort to churn out a quick conference paper. I aimed to find out to what degree architects pursue Radical Design vs Incremental Design solutions as design projects progressed. You can find the paper here. Its full of diagrams describing the process I am describing.

To cut a long story short, in the survey I defined Radical Design solutions as: solutions “leading to fundamental rethinking of elements of the project”, “affect the form or conceptual origin”, “change the design concept” or “a change that affects the fundamental design – so great that the concept must be re-assessed or thrown out.

In the survey which had about 70 respondents the term Incremental Design was seen as being “stepwise improvements” or “incremental refinements of an existing idea.” Incremental Design represents linear, logical, and rational design gestures and solutions.

Survey results

28% of the Architects surveyed responded by saying that “Pursuing radical design changes is a part of the practice’s normal design process.” 29% claimed that “In our practice any project the principal designer, designer teams and design architects have the time to pursue new design solutions throughout the project.” More importantly. 42% stated that “continuing to generate both Incremental and Radical design solutions throughout the process helps to identify and highlight new design issues and problems as the design progresses.”

In terms of cost benefits, 21% responded that “Continuing to generate both Radical and Incremental design solutions throughout the process outweighs impacts on project delivery time or cost.” But despite this 72% acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to discard a design solution or sketch design and start the design process again in order to achieve a better project outcome. And 65% agreed that “Creating and then culling both Radical and Incremental successive design solutions in a given project helps to achieve high quality and innovative design.

Design architects are often accused of changing their minds once decisions have been made during the project development and delivery process. Some see this as architects just being all about ker-razzy assed architects. For other professions, even creative ones, paradoxical design is not possible. This is because an investment in design itself is seen as all too costly and wasteful. Let alone running with the wolves of Paradoxical Design. But, on my town we all remember the brouhaha over Federation Square; which turned out great despite the village naysayers decrying its cost and design.Of course it is always cheaper to run with one idea. But, a badly and cheaply designed building or project has many longer term societal costs.

But if you really want to find the creative idea that is so compelling that clients, users and the punters can’t resist it then you are not going to find it just latching onto the first big idea that comes along. Thats part of the paradox I guess. You may only get there by thinking about a set of pradoxical ideas rather than one BIG IDEA.  In any case, thinking about and managing Paradoxical Design processes is a great way to build design knowledge and a portfolio of design ideas in your firm. Paradoxical Design thinking is essential to winning those clients, the big commissions and the awards.

My students in the colliding spaces studio have pretty much finished the semester. thankfully no one imploded. A few even seemed to enjoy it ! But then again as we all know archi-students will say a lot of nice things about their tutors to get a good mark. I am hoping to put their projects up on this site in the next few weeks.