What is good design? Do you think good design happens automatically?

For my entire career, I have been interested in design culture and am motivated by the power of individual expression and perspective. Encouraging ideas and creativity within our offices is not only invigorating, but is essential for sustaining a practice focused on design excellence. How do we advance and nurture design culture? Here are four ways that I’ve seen work well in our St. Louis office:

1. Believe in design excellence

In order to create a true culture of design excellence, everyone needs to be engaged with the goal of improving each stage of a project. From every level and every discipline, we constantly need to be asking ourselves, “How can we make this better?” A successful design process requires a concerted effort among talented individuals who seek to improve the aesthetic or technical solution to a design problem.  The process starts with the guidance of design leaders and incorporates the habitual practice of drawing and testing solutions followed by frequent doses of critical review.


An informal pinup session in the St. Louis office.

2. Be courageous and foster risk-taking

Design culture requires a willingness to be vulnerable and take risks. You put your ideas out there.  Sometimes they stick and sometimes they don’t, a natural result of the trial and error process. In the St. Louis office, one of the mechanisms to foster risk-taking is the Idea Series, a grass roots initiative started back in 2010. The Idea Series is a platform that gives individuals and people in small teams a chance to investigate ideas and bring them in front of the office. Individuals design posters, orchestrate events, and invite everyone in the office to participate in pinups, videos, lectures, building tours, etc. They get firsthand experience in developing leadership and presentation skills while engaging in dialogue with others who seek to learn more and push the envelope.

Idea series posters

Various Ideas Series posters created over the years.

3. Start regular, informal pinup sessions

Project pinups are one of the best ways to foster design culture. They bring people together, encourage dialogue and get design work out in the open. In St. Louis, we incorporate pinups throughout the year as a part of the Idea Series or at informal times depending on schedules. We may have pinups that include projects “on the boards” or “in construction documents”, or we may have more in-depth presentations on one particular project or topic.  There are several benefits to project pinups:  1. They encourage comrade around the work that we do, 2. Pinups increase general awareness of project work around the office, 3. Mentorship opportunities increase for colleagues interested in learning more from other individuals or project teams, and 4. Design quality improves through review and learning from others.

4. Submit for awards and celebrate success

Recognition by respected architects is important part of validating the work we do. The process of submitting for design awards is an act of editing and clarifying the best and most important aspects of a project. In our office, we have a process and structure to how we approach submitting design awards. We’ve had excellent submissions and have been fortunate enough to be highly recognized by local, regional, and national design award juries. Check out all of the winners this year.


“Illuminated Gateway” by Allison Mendez – AIA St. Louis merit award in drawing.

Design has deep roots in our culture and our Vision. We constantly need to be pushing the envelope and promoting great design within our offices. When this happens, our work, our clients’ satisfaction and our firm improves tremendously.

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