designing for others – how hard could it be?


Are you thinking about hiring an architect?
Are you having hesitations not knowing what to expect?
Will this architect listen to me?
Will they force their design upon me?

Are you considering a career in architecture, or starting your own firm and you are wondering how to design for others while maintaining some type of design integrity? Where is your voice as the expert? What if the client is difficult?

20180903_082106.jpgLet’s tease this out with three principles that I have found help me maintain balance in my own personal design integrity as well as provide the best service to the clients who allow us to be in business.

Just for the record, there is a time to say no and no, thank you. Read here.

First, we must establish that the century-old motto ‘the customer is always right’ is a misnomer, even in other professional or service fields. Yes, I said that out loud. Besides being overused it’s just an outdated, polite way of extinguishing a potentially volatile situation and avoiding getting slammed on Yelp or Facebook.

The opposite is also untrue.

In professional service situations, the provider has knowledge or expertise that the customer requests in exchange for payment. Therefore, they need the right answer even if they want a wrong answer. This is the skill of navigating and negotiating to the best outcome for the project.

It sounds simple, but it’s not.


the one thing
Most clients I have worked with had a thing – a singular concern or worry that kept them up at night (that might be a bit exaggerated) where they worry about the project, the money and time investment with no guarantee of a result. The secret is to find that one thing (it is rarely aesthetic or visual) and address it first. It might be a roof leak, a roof line or simply the roof cost. Regardless, it becomes the initial task I figure out with my clients.

Discovering the source of their apprehension has allowed me to garner trust quickly in the relationship and generally results in considerable latitude in making design decisions. Service comes first, even if that seems obvious or ethical without giving up a reputation or meandering down a path that is incongruent with the architect’s firm’s focus.

20180903_082021.jpgchoosing battles
Commissioning an architect can be considered a unique proposal quite distinct from selecting a doctor, accountant and certainly any type of contractor. Typically, we develop close relationships with clients, and for the duration of the project, we spend considerable time together that can lead to ongoing relationships that outlast the design and construction phase. Therefore, as we pilot the design journey, it becomes apparent that even in projects where we have the greatest autonomy in design, the client will contend for a decision that might clash with our hope for the project.

I believe there are times when we quickly weigh the option against our aspiration and decide if the client’s request for a door color, light fixture or some other larger component is worth pushing back on or a simple “no problem” is in order. It is not meant to be patronizing but shows a spirit of teamwork and grants them greater ownership in a project that they are funding and in which they will live, work or worship. I’ll admit, many times their suggestion was better than mine or their request brought personality or richness to an area I hadn’t given enough consideration.


i would have never thought of that
This is the music we long to hear far above ‘I love it.’ Truly architects enjoy hearing praise and satisfaction in a job well done and one that is essentially beautiful. However, I believe that our value is better demonstrated in revealing options, ideas or solutions that exceed the client’s ability to imagine or conceive.

Call it magic, luck or seasoned intuition, but this does not occur on every project; some just cannot achieve or require that degree of cleverness. It’s a happy day for me when I see this expression in their eyes and a better day when they say the words. It means I’ve been thinking about the myriad of variables and project demands and have developed solutions that address all of them in some spirit of balance and beauty.

20180903_081952.jpgMost architects will never design anything for themselves – including their own home (that’s conjecture, but I feel safe in saying that). Therefore, we design for others – we must create, use our gifts and talents to achieve goals and living spaces for others, others that have different incomes, values, and visions that we sometimes have.

20180903_082003.jpgHow hard could it be?


My friends below might have been able to address this better than I did. Please read their responses to this #Architalks monthly post.

Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
“designing for others”

Keith Palma – Architect’s Trace (@cogitatedesign)
Just say no

Jim Mehaffey – Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
Designing for Others

Mark Stephens – Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
Designing for others

Steve Mouzon – The Original Green Blog (@stevemouzon)
Planting Seeds of Better Design

Anne Lebo – The Treehouse (@anneaganlebo)
Designing for people

Jeffrey Pelletier – Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
How To Design for Others


designing for others – how hard could it be?

One thought on “designing for others – how hard could it be?

  1. Insightful piece, Lee! It highlights the perpetual conflicts of architect and client. The best way I’ve ever found to express this dynamic is to say that “if you hold my hand, you’ll get the best work you can do. If you set my hand free, you’ll get the best work I can do. I do this for my day job; you create value in other things.” Most clients agree.

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