MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

10 ideas for better design competitions that inform better projects, too

The go-nogo debate, when considering responding to a Request for Proposal, includes an assessment of the capacity of the firm to respond to the context of the request. That is, do we have the ability to respond with sufficient ideational and representational robustness to deliver what the client seeks? Can we get what they want done done in the time they want it done?

The RFP we were considering had at least one member of our team saying no. I think the measure of his response was based on a conventional method of developing a project and the sequences of development, presentation and approval.

I took a different tack, and thought that the time frame demanded an approach similar to developing a submission to a design competition. Competitions, never sufficiently resourced, demand an energy and focus that is distinct from normal project processes. We produce creative and innovative ideas and use critical and spare methods to present them in a very compressed time.

It made me wonder, also, why we do not use such effective processes in the normal course of our work.

Coincidentally, writing in the Design Observer, John Thackara reflected on his experience as a juror in design competitions. He observed ten faults in the way competitions are staged, and offered ten suggestions for improvement.

I offer a link to them here, because I think that his suggestions to improve the process also inform the way we do our work in other contexts. In a quick companion to Thackara's list, here are some rough starter thoughts of our own:

  1. Consider the client's design brief, his program, as a challenge. If we haven't written the program, it is probable that it does not contain much of an articulation of what the client is trying to do and why. Nor will it contain much about how the client sees themselves and their project in a larger context of business, society, culture and history. We, however, have been brought into our profession with a rich background that places architecture and its practice in that larger context. We are also critical, in a thoughtful way, about how much of the world around us could be improved. Why not approach our client's project in this way?
  2. Take the opportunity to develop a rich set of internal connections, seeing the project not just for production, but also for development. The time and fees that set the context for project design and delivery are immediately limiting and compromising. They force us to focus on deliberate and efficient processes, and the team is set to produce. Projects, however, offer the opportunity for rich connections between people and great opportunities to develop and improve skills and aptitudes. There is no compromise to the project and, indeed, great probable benefit to it by paying attention to individual and team development opportunities as the project progresses.
  3. Identify something in the project brief that evokes attention and commitment to meaningfully advance the quality of daily life. Every day, millions of people do things in the buildings we design. Make thoughts about how their lives are enriched or improved by designing the life of the building after occupancy, and not just the processes that put it on the earth.
  4. Invite other disciplines as co-designers, not just as consultants. We tend to parcel out tasks to consultants whom we've invited to the project for their own perceptions, knowledge and reflection. Using them as co-designers, however, enriches what we do and what we can achieve by drawing them to a great intimacy with the purpose and mission of the project.
  5. Consider the project beyond its footprint. Every building exists in, is influenced by and, in turn, influences a broader context of connections over time.  Consider the building as a tool and understand how, beyond occupancy, it can assist what others are trying to do , as well.
  6. Research the real world. If we engage in research before designing, we tend to look at typologies, styles and solutions. But the projects we look at have themselves been commissioned to do certain things and, as we know, have influenced other moves that may not have been initially intended. Seeing them and learning from them in this real world context can contribute considerations for a much more robust design solution.
  7. Make stories about life in the building, not just about the development of form. We can improve the performance of our clients, the return on their resources and their own development as patrons by imagining the life that people will live in these environment, and telling stories that inform why certain design decisions were made with those stories in consideration.
  8. Discuss the criteria for success with the client. Help him develop his own critical mindset about a more meaningful future in the process.
  9. Engage others. We once invited friends of our designers to come to a presentation of our work and offered them the opportunity to comment on it. I do not know why we do not do this more. We engage the support of others on our Boards. why not engage generous outsiders to perform a similar role of adviser or commentator on what we do?
  10. Engage project management as stewardship. Beyond the management, application and control of ours and our clients resources on projects (on time, on budget) consider the longer life, role and importance of the building and act as stewards of its success.

As always, I'll appreciate hearing your thoughts. What can we learn from our experience with design competitions to inform how we approach projects in daily work?