Design for All

May 21, 2012

With Thomas Kinkade's recent death, the controversy regarding his status as an artist surfaced once again, reflecting the vast difference in the perception of art between the professional establishment and the general populace. That same divide can be seen in architecture. As architects, we're always pushing for better design; however, we're often met with resistance from clients who may not value or understand Design with a capital 'D'. It is often seen as arbitrary, subjective, elitist, the list goes on.

A big cause of this is that our clients and projects have changed drastically over time. For the majority of history - starting with the church and followed by private patrons like the Medicis or Familia Guell - only the rich, powerful and educated elite hired architects and served as their patrons, because they understood the importance and value that architecture can bring. 

Very few of us now have patrons, and even if we do have repeat clients, they may not be rich or powerful. Our "clients" include institutions, stakeholders, users, neighborhood associations, activist groups, basically anyone who we may need to convince to move a project forward. Often these people do not have any kind of formal design education, so their appreciation of how architecture can work for them may be limited.

Also, architects used to design only significant projects. Everything else was built by craftsmen, and there was a distinction between design and craft. However, the onset of codes and regulations of the last century has eroded the distinction and changed the business model. Now our projects range from basic grocery stores to highly designed museums, but with a lot more of us working on the former while wishing we could be designing the latter. The reality is that design is not always prioritized and often misunderstood as part of our services.

Yet even with this considerable shift in client and project types, architects have done little to really address this growing gap between the public and ourselves in terms of understanding the benefits of design. This lack of public awareness is also why architects are often glamorized, but architecture is then ultimately devalued.

In a society where art education is already in a constantly precarious spot, there's obviously no room for general architectural education. While I'm definitely not advocating for some watered-down architecture overview, I do believe that design should be part of everyone’s education. And I would also like to make the stand for abolishing undergraduate architecture degrees in favor of establishing more general design programs to catch a wider audience.

While many people think that design education is about trends, styles and aesthetics, it offers so much more. Design should be taught because it is relevant, universal, accessible and enhancing. Some of the most important design skills: critical observation, research and analysis, creative problem solving, visioning, asking "why not?", do not just lend themselves to advancing the aesthetic and physical world around us (the next coolest chair, the impact font of the year), but can have an enormous force on the world of business, social policy, law, and science.

Another worrisome factor is the significant drop-out rate of architecture students after their freshman year and even after their graduation. So instead of teaching architecture in such a narrowly defined trajectory, hoping that a small percentage of students will succeed, why not open design to more people as a general education, which they can use to springboard into a broader array of future professions whether it be architect, rocket scientist or CEO?  The realization of the value of a design-integrated curriculum is a trend that's already started: CCA offers a Design/MBA program, while Stanford has a d.school.   Furthermore, design thinking spreading beyond traditional design professions has already been pioneered by IDEO and has been followed by other design think tanks like AMO or VisionArc.

If more people understood design and its advantages, then there's a better chance that we'll have better clients. And if we have better clients who appreciate design, then architecture would be so much richer (even if architects are not).  It would take design out of the vacuum of pure architecture, and allow the conversation to be much more involved. And architectural failures, whether it's the everyday strip mall, grocery store, or famous ones like Pruitt-Igoe may have had a better chance for success because instead of ineffectively talking to our clients about design, we can talk with them about its realities and opportunities.

In the end, one thing remains consistent throughout history, there's always more demand for a grocery store than for a museum. So wouldn't it be great if that grocery store owner understood what design can accomplish?

SiJing Tan Sanchez, LEED® AP
Architect

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