I have been a practicing architect for almost 30 years. When people find out what I do, there are three comments that often result, the most common being, “I wanted to be an architect, but I’m not very good at math”. (I just heard this the other day). The second is, “I thought about studying architecture, but I’m not good at drawing”. The third- “That must be so fun, getting to design all day”. In my opinion, to be a successful design architect, the first one is not so important, but the second one certainly is. Since the horrifying experience of taking Calculus, I and Calculus II in my first year of university, I have literally never done any math beyond basic algebra, but I draw almost every day. Whether you use a pen and paper, or a stylus on a tablet, visualizing our design studies is paramount to our process.
The third comment, “That must be so fun, getting to design all day”, addresses one of the main points of this article. As with all design professionals, indeed we are not designing all day, and on some days, we do very little or no design, as instead, we are answering emails, making calls, doing research, marketing, responding to clients, contacting vendors, doing payroll, doom scrolling, dreaming about the weekend, or a host of other tasks needed to be a successful freelancer or firm owner. This article is not about giving design advice- design is your job. This article provides practical advice, based on what have I learned (for myself) about the practical side of the design profession since the early 1990s.
Though there is much specificity about the practice of architecture compared to other design professions, I think that many lessons about having a successful design practice have commonality. We have clients coming to us with a need for a problem to be solved- a problem involving creativity and an intellectual, visual, or spatial concept. They need us to create a unique expression, based on their design brief. We are better at that shit than the general public. We know how to take all those inputs and synthesize them into a cohesive design solution. Our artistic or design vision guides the creative process, but I believe to be holistically successful, the most effective creatives are not only good designers, but also good managers, good organizers, good negotiators, and good communicators (graphically, verbally and in writing). I will use examples from different design professions, but again, many of the questions and challenges we face in practice are similar or the same.
In the first part of this commentary, I will touch on four main ideas that I think are important to consider as part of how we interact with our clients and what value/ service we provide to them, beyond the literal delivery of a visual, a campaign or a building. The second part is mostly practical advice- what are some small business-related things to keep in mind to maintain and enhance our professionalism.
Especially for solo, small- or mid-sized businesses, when they are looking for design help, it is often focused on one, or a very few things. “We need a new website, because our online sales are going down”. “Our logo is looking outdated; we need to keep up with the competition”. “We are having a child and need to add onto our house”. Many times, only the most astute and successful clients will look at the long-term picture. Mr./Miss New Website or Logo Client, is the reason your online sales are going down really because of how your website looks and the design of your logo, or are there concerns about the quality of your service or product? Why do you have such lack-luster customer feedback on Amazon? Is that really because of your website or logo, or are there more fundamental problems? Mr. and Mrs. New Parent, do you really need to spend $250,000 making a new addition to your house, when you have two existing extra rooms crammed full of boxes and other dusty shit? Being external observers, design professionals have the ability (or should) to look more holistically at the situation. We know that design problems are multi-faceted and inter-dependent.
Many of my early, modest design projects were for suburban middle-class or upper-middle class families. The two biggest “needs” were for bigger kitchens and MORE STORAGE. I am not exaggerating when I say I toured houses with PILES of clothing on the floor 80cm high and walked through basements where I had to turn sideways to navigate through the boxes, toys and STUFF stacked up to the ceiling. After seeing this repeatedly, after the client would explain what they needed, I got in the habit of asking, “Why don’t you try getting rid of a bunch of stuff first? Do you actually USE any of this stuff? When was the last time you used this or that? I don’t think you need a new garage.” Usually, the clients were quite surprised at this line of questioning. After a time, I could put an estimated dollar amount on it. “If you didn’t build this new garage, you would save $85,000 and you would get your basement back.” The design brief was to design a new garage, but in some cases, it was actually not the best solution. Though we all have bills, rents/ mortgages to pay and other expenses, it is also a form of design logic to set limits.
Do not think of educating your client in a demeaning or pejorative way. Being a teacher as well as an architect, I take the task of education very seriously. When I am in the process of helping someone achieve a level of education, it is only with the best intentions. Tell your client what you have learned about them and about their business/ design problem as you have invested your time, energy, and research into it. Take time to explain to the how your design and your solution can help them succeed. Take time to properly explain the design to them.
We have been asked for our insight, our creativity and for our ability to solve-problems in a way and at a level our clients cannot achieve. Show them how a beautiful design can help their business grow, can make their working environment better, can give them a unique visual identity that they are proud to associate with. By giving them MORE than what they asked for- by giving them insight into how we can help them to succeed in ways they did not even realize, means to provide what is best, not just what was asked for. One of the most memorable and “achievements” for me as a designer was seeing two clients’ eyes widen and smiles broaden as I explained the solution to them. When I finished presenting, they said, “Oh, it’s so wonderful, you understood exactly what we needed”. It was a very small project, but the recognition that I had used design to touch someone’s life on a fundamental level was very rewarding.
By explaining confidently, efficiently, clearly how and why you have arrived at your preferred, proposed solution, it will reinforce to the client that you have been engaged in the process and methodical in deriving the right solution. It will reinforce that design solutions do not appear magically, or the phrase we all hate, “Well, with that software, you just press a button, and it designs it for you…”
In extreme contrast, however, regarding the process phase of design, there is the famous story of renowned graphic designer Paula Scher’s 1998 design for the mega-financial services corporation Citibank. Scher and her firm, New York-based Pentagram, were paid an estimated $1.5 million USD for the design of a new logo. Scher drew the core design of the now-famous logo on the back of a napkin, within an estimated five minutes. Technically, that works out to a rate of $18 million USD/hour! In her defense, Scher commented, "It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds." The overall process of refining the design and formalizing the big rebranding concept of course lasted for many months.
The second half of this article is a list of small, seemingly obvious things to keep in mind, as you develop your free-lance, or expanded design business. Generic lists like these are available on many blogs, self-help websites, but these are personal suggestions, made from what I feel worked for me, and I’m sure that not every other design professional will necessarily agree with my advice. You decide for yourselves… Most of these suggestions are about interacting with your clients or how to present your ideas.
to choose from, but the alternate should be viable and be prepared for a scenario where they choose the one you don't want. This will likely be a point where many designers will disagree with me. If you feel very strongly that there is literally only one appropriate solution (there almost never is…) then present that one, but be prepared to defend it to the death, especially if the client does not like it. You can and should emphasize which solution you feel is the best one, and if the client does not like it, ask them why and be prepared to explain it further.
On the other hand, there is the famous story about the world-famous graphic designer Paul Rand and his 1986 logo design for Steve Job’s NeXT computer company. Jobs paid Rand $100,000 to create a visual identity, which did include presentation of a unique 100-page proposal book, that walked the reader step-by-step through the conceptual process to the final outcome. When Jobs was asked what it was like to work with Rand, he said, “I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people.’” You can say Rand was either incredibly confident, or incredibly arrogant (most people say he was both) but most of us are not famous enough (yet) to get away with his “single solution’” approach.
Show and describe to the clients that you have researched and properly understand all the major factors surrounding the problem to be solved- their location, their industry, their goals. It shows diligence and professionalism to show that you know at least SOMETHING about their broader business, even it if it not directly related to the specific project you are working on. Unless you are an incredibly good bull-shitter, it is normally easy to tell when someone is not well-prepared and trying to improvise to mask ill-preparedness. At least as a teacher, it is normally crystal-clear when presentations were done at the last minute.
It doesn't matter if it is in-person, on-line, or any other meetings or presentations. That seems self-evident. Shit can and does happen, however. Confirm the time of the meeting the day before. Make sure you have a direct contact number to the primary person in charge, so that you can call (not text) them if it is a real emergency, and you are running late or must cancel.
Don’t babble. Their time and your time is valuable, especially if they are paying you hourly. Don’t talk about how great YOU are, talk about the merits of the design. Focus on which aspects of the design directly address their needs. Describe how you have addressed each of the points of the design brief. Focus on why you think this design stands out.
Preferably a funny or witty one and related to that project or client. “When we were driving over here, I recalled a story my Aunt Betty used to tell me about……” “When we were creating the three options we will present today, it reminded me of a story about the world-famous graphic designer, Milton Glaser. One time, in a presentation, he…..”
Stuff breaks. Stuff crashes. Repeatedly. Bring a backup, if possible.
Double check for typos, misspellings and other grammar mistakes, especially if you are presenting in your native language. Given the prevalence and ease-of-use of AI and correction software and apps, especially with typos and misspellings, it is very hard to have a completed document/ text with more than a very few errors. Have someone who did not work on the project proofread it. Having a flawless presentation reflects your commitment to quality and could partially make up for shortcomings in the proposed designs themselves.
I hope the comments made above are helpful to you and your evolving design practice. I wish they were more inspiring, but they might help you some day anyway. Many of us became designers because of our love of beauty and the intangible benefits that brings to the world and to ourselves, but we are often told (and especially to design students), “Oh, you’ll never make any money being a designer.” Oh yeah? Just go talk to Paula Scher. She once got paid $18,000,00 an hour…