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Advice for Young Architects, The Business of Design

How To Design For Others

Unless you are an architect guided only by your own ego, you need to learn how to design for others. Your clients will be unique individuals who may have needs and preferences that are completely foreign to you. Here are some tips to hone your skills at understanding the needs of people unlike you.

September 3, 2018

Tips to help you design for clients that are nothing like you.

I am not a lot of things. I am not a grandparent, I am not a chef running a restaurant, I am not a pro cyclist. However, I know that each one of these types of people have specific design needs — a bunk room for your grandkids to stay overnight, and an efficient kitchen and back-of-house that works for your space, a good ledge in the shower to shave your legs so road rash isn't so bad… These are just a few examples of the very particular and specific needs that many of us have.

At the start of the year, the group of us architects who write these ArchiTalks series blog posts were asked to submit topics. This month’s topic, designing for others, was mine. Architects are a funny bunch of people, as it is a key part of our job to get in the head of people who are usually not like us. While, as a phrase, “the others” reminds me of the TV show Lost, the point is, it includes all the people who are not just like you.

Our job as architects is to learn and understand the cultures, experiences, and needs of people and companies who are very different from us. We don’t need to emulate their behavior, but we do need to understand why it is what it is, what supports it, and how it works in the context of the environment around it. When architects fail to connect in this way, their design becomes solely ego-driven, producing buildings that inadequately serve the needs of their clients.

Having the opportunity to understand the nuances of a diversity of clients has been one of the most rewarding parts of my profession — but this takes effort and constant learning. Over the years, I’ve found the following tricks to help broaden my education and better serve all of my clients.

  • Do your research. Quite frankly, when you meet someone who is different than you it is OK that you don’t know everything (or even a little) about what is driving them. We can’t be born with information. What we can do, though, is go out on our own and research. Google, read, and figure out any information that may help you understand the issue. Remember that your clients, “the others” in this case, aren’t expected to be your professors. Come to them with some knowledge and not an expectation that it is their job to train you.
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even after you do your research, you are going to miss things. Go ahead and ask those clarifying questions and expand your knowledge. I’ve found that I can better communicate with someone if I come to them with a base level of knowledge already – it helps us have a good conversation to clarify why something is important to them.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Now, let me give you a weird example. I live in a house with no females. My husband and I have two boys. Guys in our house tend to prefer to keep the toilet seat up, but I also know that many women would definitely appreciate not sitting down into a pool of toilet water. I know enough to understand how miserable that can be, and therefore keep the toilet seat in our powder room down at all times. I’m just a nice guy. But ladies, all bets are off in the master bathroom.
  • Sketch! One word may mean something different to you than it does to someone else. Sketch in front of them and try and translate words into a confirming visual. It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • Temper your opinions about style. Sometimes people have aesthetic preferences that are completely at odds with yours. On the surface, it may just seem like a lot of people like a lot of ugly stuff, but the truth is that why they like something is often really useful information that can help you create their dream space. One of the reasons we design in different styles here at Board & Vellum is because we enjoy the challenge of getting into someone’s head and satisfying their design goals even if they don’t align with our own personal style. I may not want to live in a certain style home but I should be able to appreciate that someone else may, and it is our job to deliver the best damn version of that for them.

In the end, I’ve always felt it is better to push the boundaries of our knowledge and design for people unlike us, rather than to sit in an echo chamber of people who already agree with what I like or think. For me, that’s one of the fun parts of my job, and so I’ll keep on designing for others.

This post is part of the ArchiTalks series originally spearheaded by Bob Borson of Life of an Architect. Historically, he has selected a theme and a group of us (architects who also blog) all post on the same day and promote each other’s posts. This year, the themes have been selected by a variety of contributors. This month’s theme was selected by me, Jeff Pelletier of the B&V Blog at Board & Vellum, and is: "Designing for Others." To read how others interpreted the theme, please explore the links below.

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
"designing for others"

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Designing for Others

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Anne Lebo - The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people

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How To Design For Others

Unless you are an architect guided only by your own ego, you need to learn how to design for others. Your clients will be unique individuals who may have needs and preferences that are completely foreign to you. Here are some tips to hone your skills at understanding the needs of people unlike you.

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