When we (designers) tell people what we do for a living, the response generally is that they think it is SO glamorous. There is no ‘common’ understanding of what it (design practice) actually entails. To those we are designing for, it is seemingly luxurious. OK, it is true, end products are… ostensibly. But “getting there” is no easy feat.
I often asked myself when I was designing for hotel resorts in Las Vegas, “Where do I go from here”? In the resort industry, I was (knowingly) fortunate for padded budgets, custom demands and exposure to the most exquisite finish materials available domestically and internationally. So HOW, just how would I leave Las Vegas? Afterall, no bigger (design) splash could be made than the cannonballs (that were expected) I executed there! Right…?
Warning – No Lifeguard On Duty
When I made the switch from hospitality design to education, I quickly learned – I myself had to become educated! The design principles remained the same; however, expectations were ‘different’.
Higher Education design is less about the size of the splash and more about the ripples… End users aren’t consumed with ROI like hospitality. They are more interested in function and frankly the placement of their pencil drawers. They should be (to some extent) as these end user groups are focused on the investment in the minds of the future. Their ‘ROI’ is long-term – graduating capable adults who will be active working contributors to society.
My challenge in this new role has been educating the end user to understand function does not equal design sacrifice. They are entitled to both. Higher ed ‘historically’ has the impression that ‘stark’ and mundane equals ‘cheap’. It has taken time (and project turnovers on campus) to provide new ‘historical’ precedence… to help end users (and even my bosses) realize that ugly and thoughtless design costs the same as aesthetically pleasing intentional specifications that tell a story… their story.
It has been so frustrating to me coming from the aesthetic demands of the hospitality sector to see that the end user in the higher education realm doesn’t realize their ‘functional’ environments can be more than a 30/30 off white box (these are PhD’s correct?). But, why would they? They are researching the mating habits of moths or the interaction of children with ‘real’ objects or the assumed date of the next economic downturn. More important than the creation of the built environment? No, equality relevant (though I loathe moths). What I realized though was that they weren’t being listened to. They had no design guidance. They had no idea that pattern and interest has the same price tag as solid and lifeless. They had no lifeguard… yet here I was (am) – on duty.
You Have to Learn to Float to Avoid Sinking
Baby steps (for both myself and the end users)… Before you jump off the deep end, you (end users) need to understand that someone is there extending their arms – me (you, designers). This is our job. This is our obligation. This is our duty. This is our (design) value.
Our purpose is to guide users through the process. We are obligated to assist them in establishing intent. We need to unearth their purpose for the function of their spaces so that there are no surprises at occupancy. We need to ask questions and we need to learn what questions to ask. We need to become experts at gathering information in scope discussions so that everyone that leaves the following design reviews can buy in to the architectural interpretation. We need to gain trust… trust via baby steps.
With Trust, Comes Freedom
Once your end user realizes you are working for them, you gain (design) leverage. They will let go. They will trust you to make decisions they are unable to visualize based on your (design) credibility. Based on your interpretation of their information – the feasibility of their needs on paper. They gain trust via the reasons you have drawn out that they are unable to have something they requested. They will buy in on code issues and requirements when you can walk them through the space limitations.
Once they can see that hey – this gal (or guy) may actually know what she is talking about, they will begin to trust and most importantly, they will give you artistic freedom. Freedom to make decisions that they can’t fully visualize (without them).
Slippery when “Wet”
This process can be exhausting. There are days I wake up and wonder what I continue to fight for (especially if a 30/30 off-white box is globally ‘acceptable’). But the truth is, I am fighting for the splash. I (we, designers) make a difference. If money is being spent on new facilities or existing renovations we need to make it count. Sure (higher ed) your research equipment needs to be upgraded, but guess what, so does your learning environment. I will get your equipment integrated (coordinated with HVAC, electrical, clearance requirements etc) I promise. Trust me. But I will also change the way students feel in the space. And I promise, the psychological impact that will have will be equally comparable to the equipment upgrades in the data output.
So, (designers). Continue to fight. Have comfort in knowing You’re on Duty. Gain Trust and Trust Yourself. And in moments of (design) weakness, get out of the water for a minute and…