Key takeaways from the University of Kansas Architecture + Design Alumni Symposium
Earlier this year, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to help organize the First Annual University of Kansas Architecture and Design Alumni Symposium (titled “The 12,000 that Innovate”), which took place October 13-15th. The day’s sessions all centered around a broad analysis of the Practice of Design – with the invited Symposium presenters narrating stories illustrating the day’s three major touchpoints: design culture, societal engagement, and emerging technologies. Presenters spanned a wide cross-section of fields, ranging from architecture to graphic design to public policy to user experience. The aim of the day’s discussions was to take a very broad look at design practice as a whole – how designers foster innovation, connect with their communities, and envision the future of the practice.
I was asked to moderate the Symposium’s first session, “The Business of Design,” which specifically analyzed how design leaders foster innovation and creativity within their practices while observing the rigors of running a business. I wanted to share some insights that were presented from that session, as well as some others from the rest of the day’s panel discussions.
Innovation as a survival tactic
Often, when confronted with the challenge of remaining competitive in hotly contested markets, businesses (including design practices) will default to a standard toolkit of responses, often involving finding faster and cheaper ways to deliver the same product. Jeff Vaglio of Enclos Corp, a façade construction firm based in Los Angeles, noted that his company approached market challenges not by merely finding more cost effective project delivery methods, but by stamping out a niche as the foremost experts in high-design, high-performance façade construction. To them, innovation was not a risk, but an identity-shaping ethos that served as a survival tactic — separating the company head-and-shoulders above their competition.
In 2009, in the midst of the recession, Enclos established a research and design wing within their practice. This experimental studio explored ever-more cutting-edge processes and construction methods, uniquely enabling them to provide the means for architects to realize their radical designs. This aggressive strategy is difficult to imagine many design studios pursuing given the economic uncertainty at the time, and for a façade contractor to invest in R&D of this nature is even more remarkable.
As a result, Enclos has become the first point of contact for some of the industry’s most famous architects, and has built a portfolio of award-winning facades for high profile, high-design architectural projects around the world.
Building room for improvisation
Krista Masilionis, creative studio director at Hallmark, shared how they leveraged the vast creative capital of their employees into a stream of new product lines and inspirational material for future work.
Krista shared how design culture at Hallmark solicits ideas and inspiration from all manner of employees by hosting what are effectively “jam sessions” in their studios by providing two things: a vast array of art supplies, and encouraging designers to step away from their computers and spend time using their hands. They asked people to do things they do not normally do. Illustrators were encouraged to use only color. Digital artists were encouraged to use physical collage. People that normally had nothing to do with artwork were encouraged to draw. Creative “cross pollination” was actively encouraged and helped ideas break through the silos they may have otherwise lingered in. Furthermore, these events fit into an entire firm-wide strategy that focuses on celebrating employee creativity, and empowering designers to express themselves.
By creating a platform where people felt comfortable to freely share ideas, regardless of their “department” or “market” or “discipline,” Hallmark was able to achieve multiple goals. First, it broke down barriers between the silos that plague so many design firms. Second, it proliferated a culture where everyone felt engaged with and had ownership over design, not just designers. Third, it created an environment where improvised events and similar “underground” creative sessions happened on their own – it became self-perpetuating. Perhaps the most impressive result of these practices is that Hallmark was able to monetize the output, eventually transforming a portion of the ideas into entirely new product lines.
Question the brief
Our capacity as designers is what helps us take an initial request from a client and help them understand the true nature of their design problem.
Michael Hauser, of DesignHaus in Kansas City, narrated his experiences working with clients and helping them expand their vision. His practice might have taken the safe route and helped their clients create band-aide, narrowly focused solutions — easily resulting in a steady stream of small, consistent projects. Instead, his design team was not afraid to leap far outside the bounds of the originally stated scope to help their clients envision much more transformational solutions. Achieving client buy-in unapologetically relied upon the strength of the core design vision defined by the DesignHaus team.
Solutions combined architecture, interior design, graphic design, and user experience to envision complete strategies that confronted the core facets of clients’ needs. Working with these clients to help them develop an action plan to realize these bolder and broader strategies, DesignHaus has helped transform some of the country’s largest brands.
Don’t ask for permission
A common thread between many speakers’ messages was that while fostering a culture of innovation requires buy-in from firm leadership, successful practices, habits, ideas, and initiatives all start as bottom-up “grassroots” campaigns, often occurring without the express permission or consent of higher-ups. When these practices start to gain traction among peers and are generally recognized as “good ideas,” successful management teams help to further facilitate those ideas by allocating resources as necessary and generally “staying out of the way.” Simply put, the curation of cultural infrastructure may be top-down, but the culture itself is bottom-up. Creativity and innovation can’t simply be mandated from on high, and complimentarily, proliferation of the right cultural practices requires the vocal support of leadership and the resource allocation to make it happen.
The day’s presentations were inspiring and I could easily continue writing and recounting the many powerful insights and stories that were recounted throughout the event. My overall final impression, however, is that behind every successful story, there was a designer that understood that everything is a design problem.
Design is how we interact with clients. Design is how we position ourselves within our markets. How we engage society and our communities. What we do – and how we do it. The conference speakers’ common message was that there isn’t a line where design ends and “something else” begins. Their unapologetic belief in the power of design is what helped their practices overcome obstacles and become innovation leaders in their industries. Design is everything.