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Opinion: Thinking outside the design box

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While architects are most commonly thought of as designers of buildings, the skill sets employed by the profession’s brightest minds can help us identify and address the significant, interconnected issues facing society today and in the future.

Architects are problem-solvers at their core, and I believe the profession will continue to rise in visibility as our culture more fully embraces the value of “design thinking” as a strategy for creative problem-solving at multiple scales.

Design thinking involves skills of analysis and creativity that are increasingly recognized as central for success in a variety of fields. Simply put, it is a way of tackling complex issues by clearly defining the problems hidden within them, then identifying creative ways of transforming the problems into opportunities.

Design thinking frames problems in human-centric ways, rather than as occasions for the aesthetic expression of the designer. It also involves iterative and hands-on processes, relying on multiple cycles of prototyping, testing, feedback and redesign. This provides an effective language for collaboration.

While students considering careers in architecture often worry about the artistic or technical demands of the field, it is their capacity to become design thinkers that is most predictive of success. Schools are thus increasingly emphasizing the softer skills underlying this way of working: critical thinking, visualization, empathy and communication.

University enrollments in architecture and related programs have edged up nationally, and Drury’s architecture program has recorded a 60% increase in first-year students over the last five years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 4% increase in demand for our graduates through 2026, in response to overall growth in the building industry. Architectural schools are charged with preparing students for leadership within that industry, and they’re assessed and accredited based primarily on a long list of mostly technical criteria central to it.

In the real world
Despite this understandable focus on individual buildings, architects have long been known for their attention to design at broader scales. Frank Lloyd Wright famously designed not only ground-breaking houses but also tables, chairs, dinnerware and even clothing to complement them. At the other end of the spectrum, architects’ interest in the urban scale extends at least back to the Roman architect Vitruvius, who authored the oldest-surviving treatise on architecture. It included an idealized design for a city.

Unfortunately, this interest in things either much smaller or much larger than the individual building has too frequently been presented as excessively controlling or even arrogant. Again, Wright is a commonly known example of this, given the stories of him demanding clients hang curtains of his choosing.

Such extreme examples are unfortunate in that they too often shape inaccurate public perceptions. Most architects have little interest in imposing their vision on clients. They know the best design stems from a deep understanding of clients’ and users’ desires and needs, as well as the realities of budget and technical feasibility.

In the classroom
Architectural education aims to foster this more realistic and supportive attitude, while still valuing creativity and innovation. Key to this is a renewed emphasis on design thinking as central to our profession. As design thinkers, architects are trained to identify and analyze problems and to work with others to address these in ways that are both strategic and creative.

Directing our creative interests and capacities toward real problems can help us define the value of design in more productive ways. When we are successful, clients and building users should see design not as some costly added layer disconnected from the “real” purposes of their buildings. Instead, good design should be understood as the intelligent creation of things and places that are more useful, inspiring, healthy, inclusive and meaningful.

This vision of design also can explain and strengthen architects’ longstanding interests in design at many scales. Architecture students and recent graduates are especially concerned with the applicability of design thinking to complex social, technical and environmental problems, from the shortage of drinking water in developing countries to strategies for making more walkable and sustainable cities.

And as design-thinking strategies are adapted and applied in varied fields, collaborative problem solving becomes not only more essential but also more plausible. It’s even influencing the new university-wide curriculum at Drury. While architects will continue to work mostly on specific buildings for individual or institutional clients, they also are becoming key contributors to a vision of design as a complex and shared pursuit aimed at the public good.

Our buildings and our communities stand to benefit from this.

Robert Weddle is dean of the Hammons School of Architecture at Drury University. He can be reached at rweddle@drury.edu.

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