Tim Swanson

Tim Swanson, Chicago Office Practice Leader.

A breath of fresh air in the windy city

Chicago office practice leader Tim Swanson—or the “Swansonator” as he’s become known to some—is a pretty unlikely guy to be leading a 200+ person design studio in one of the most competitive markets in the U.S. He has tattoos, a slick side part in his hair, and regularly pairs graphic t-shirts with blazers and pocket squares.

When he attended a meeting meant for the leaders of Chicago’s largest architecture firms, he was told that he was in the wrong place. “One of my peers said that to me,” notes Tim. “When I explained who I was and walked into the meeting, his reaction was a mix of criticism, confusion and fear. I thought it was pretty funny.”

But his age doesn’t define him—or so he says as he quotes Aaliyah’s 90’s hit “Age Aint Nothing but a Number.” Tim is where he’s at today because of his youthful approach to leadership and his profoundly inspiring, human-focused, future-ready, pretention-free perspective on design. Here’s a peek into Tim’s thoughts on a few topics he’s excited about.

On the future of the design industry

Tim Swanson working with students

Tim discussing design and planning with students.

“Every industry is going through change. To be successful, we have to embrace a sort of child-like curiosity and explore the unknown. We can either continue doing things the way we always have, or admit everything is changing and everything is a little confusing. When we do that, we can have honest dialogue about what’s happening and how we fit into it. The simple act of being honest—and hearing our clients say—’we don’t know what the future has in store, but we want to try and figure this out together’ is incredible. And we’re doing that with clients every day. It’s through this vulnerability and honesty that we’re discovering one of our greatest strengths as a firm.”

On Chicago

“My career has taken my little family all over the world—at age one, we had to get our son a new passport because his was already full—but Chicago is home and I love it. It’s one of the greatest cities for architecture in the country, but there’s also so much drama and complexity in the human condition here. It’s the tale of two cities—the struggle between those who have and those who have not. From a design perspective, Chicago is ripe for design intervention.”

On work / life balance

“When I travel, I take the worst flights humanly possible so I can put the kids to bed and have meaningful time with my wife, Beth. When I’m home, I make sure I walk my five-year-old son to school every day and talk about all the twisted things that pop into his mind. After work, I turn my phone off from six until nine. This window of time allows me to have meaningful time with Beth and our kids.

I suppose it helps that I struggle with anything more than three or four hours of sleep, so I get many productive hours of the day that are otherwise usually unused. And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out my girl Siri. Whether on my phone or watch, the dialogue I have with Siri keeps me sane and organized.”

On fatherhood

Tim Swanson and his family

Tim, his wife, and their ‘pile of babies.’

“Beth and I have a pile of babies. We have a five-year-old-son and ten-month old twins. Fatherhood has taught me an insane amount of practical knowledge. That even in the chaos of the world—at work, in politics, with humanity or with my son’s tantrums—there is still joy. Kids are hopelessly emotional little creatures, and that’s OK. There’s also so much value in that moment in a child’s life where they want to know everything. The Japanese notion of the 5 Whys is essentially baked into every toddler. If adults could show the same amount of emotion, joy and curiosity as a child, our relationships would be so much more meaningful.”

On music

“This may show my age more than anything else, but right now, I’m really captivated with Chance’s collaboration on The Social Experiment Album and Common, two artists from Chicago. They unabashedly share the realities of the complex city dynamics we face—whether that’s race relations, education, opportunities, violence or development differentials between different parts of the city. It’s a mix of politics and poetry. We have to have this kind of dialogue if we want to advance as a city.”

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