Designing for Others

July 7, 2014 — 37 Comments

There is a secret that all attentive architects know: Don’t give your client what they ask for, give them what they need. Better yet, have them be a part of the design process.

In order to create personal and successful designs, you need to develop a relationship with your client that goes beyond providing functionality solely based on their requests. Unless you are designing for troglodytes, there will probably be bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, some living areas, and sometimes the odd side room etc – but it’s important to understand how each client will want to use these spaces in order to give them what they want. The aim is to create a home that is uniquely theirs, reflects their personality, and has been designed according to how they will live and occupy each space. Unfortunately, what a client needs is not necessarily what they ask for … and it’s up to me to know the difference.

Ranch Sketch 02

Part of my role as architect is to be an interpreter and translator – to listen to what the client is saying and then to digest, interpret, prioritize and re-issue that information back to them. The goal is to ultimately protect the client from themselves, scrape away all the nasty bits of conflicting thoughts and imagery they have been assembling, and present back to them a clearer and more representative picture of what they are after. I truly believe that design professionals are better at the job when they are able to develop a personal relationship with the client along the way; It makes it easier to help them create a house that suits the way they really live, instead of how they think or hope to live.

Ranch Elevation 01

Ranch Elevation 01 small color

This isn’t anything that I haven’t said in one form or another several times on this site … but I was struck by something the other day that made me pause and think about it and it’s relevance to how I practice architecture – or at least how I want to practice architecture. We don’t design buildings for ourselves, we have clients. Frequently those clients have come to us because they’ve seen what we can do and they’ve decided that they think we are a good fit for them and their project. Sometimes that means you get hired to do the same sorts of project as you’ve already done. It’s not all that uncommon that a new client will point to one of our projects and say “I want this” … but not always.

Ranch Sketch 01

Sometimes these new clients come to us based on the experience of a previous client – and since a vast majority of our work is based on personal relationships and word of mouth – this new client isn’t as familiar with our work or with the full range of our abilities. We currently have a project in the office that is in the design development phase, that is an interesting mix of traditional and modern, and that is fairly different that the other work you might find if you searched through our website. In the case of this project, there isn’t another project that this particular client pointed at and said “I want this.”

Ranch Elevation 04 color

Ranch Elevation small color

So how do these projects come to be? How and why do these folks come knocking on our door? I can only assume that we haven’t been identified with a particular style and as a result, only get asked to do that sort of project. (That and the fact that most people seem to like working with us.)

The project I’ve shown up to this point is just being developed but it isn’t very hard to see that is doesn’t look a thing like the KHouse Modern project I’ve been covering on the site here for a while. But they shouldn’t look like one another right? These projects were done for different clients, in different parts of the country, and with different aesthetic goals. In fact, I think the only commonality between the two is us … the architects.

Michael Malone design sketch 04

I know that there are architects out there whose practice exists to create a certain identifiable product. Most architecturally trained people could tell if they were looking at a Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid project … but I am not Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. While I might want their bank accounts, I struggle with their projects on many levels, one of which is that the work is so identifiable with the architect, and not the person or place with whom they are serving.

KHouse Modern BIM terrace view Jan 2014

Believe me, I am not passing judgement on those architects … they are creating more than just architecture. Meanwhile, I am still enamored with the idea that the client is still in there somewhere – that they are getting what they want while still getting a little bit of me in their project (that sounds different from how I imagined it in my head).

KHouse Modern BIM Alley view Jan 2014

I’ll also confess that part of the reason I have been thinking about this is due in no small part to the last post I wrote – Schematic Design isn’t “Architecture”. I shared this post on a LinkedIn forum and I was summarily told I was wrong … that Schematic Design is indeed “Architecture”.

To summarize that post in a few words, I was at a meeting with some new clients and we were developing the programming (what rooms, spaces, and functions would be needed) and going through the beginning stages of schematic design (adjacencies of the programming and initial aesthetic conversations). As I was sitting there with the clients going through the process, I mentioned that we were “diagramming” the house and that it was great that the clients felt comfortable enough to take the pen and sketch out their own ideas as we were talking through the creative process. During this time of creative collaboration, we would be sketching diagrams to clarify our talking points and I would say “This is a diagram, this isn’t architecture. Your house will not look like this.” I don’t know about you, but I thought that the experience was pretty cool. Right?

Well, not according to a lot of the people in this particular LinkedIn forum. I was told:

  • “The problem with sketching in front of the client is that they can get attached to something I will want to revise later.”
  • “The question is when to get compensation and for what ‘Architectural’ work. The problem here is not Schematics but Semantics. Be clear boys and girls, be very clear and don’t give away the farm too soon.”
  • “No client has the patience to be part of that process. That’s why you need to keep them focused on the questions you want to focus on.”
  • “No wonder architects are undervalued if they don’t consider their own design work architecture.”
  • Schematics is architecture. It is the basis of architecture. It could be submitted as evidence  of design intent in a court of law if you drew one schematic but delivered a different more completed design later.”

While none of these comments changed my mind to my assertion that schematic design isn’t an end to a means, but part of the journey. The “Start” of the journey. Maybe using “Quotation Marks” around words is confusing for some people – I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure some of those people actually read the article because their comments see ludicrous.

I read those comments and I thank my lucky stars that I get to practice the way I do. I haven’t felt the need to put up barriers to protect myself from the client. I still think collaboration is the best way to have a successful project. It is the thing that allows me (and the office where I work) to opportunity to design different sorts of houses for different sorts of people. Maybe trying to like your clients more than your buildings creates the sort of practice where I think it’s cool to sit around a table and pass a pen back and forth with the clients. Besides, if the clients wants to do something that I think is a mistake, shouldn’t I be able to explain why they shouldn’t do it? I suppose I am the parent in this relationship and it’s my job to protect the client from themselves – but not by excluding them from the process, but through educating them on the process.

So far, I think I’m doing it the right way.


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  • Gergana Zafirova

    I am currently working on my final year’s “memoire” exactly on the subject of how architects and their clients communicate in order to create a functioning home and I would like to say that this article just answered all the questions that i have been trying to ask architects but never got a response to. Thank you very much for writing it.
    I would also like to ask whether i could use some quotations for my paper, the link to the original article will be included of course.

  • Helene

    Hi Bob! I really enjoy reading your website, but as the same time as you inspire me to become an architect, you kind of scares me too. I have huge interest for interior and architecture, but I’m scared that I can’t work with it. I don’t know if I got fantasy to create houndreds of houses and meet my clients needs. How can I know if I can do it?

    • Like all things in life, you don’t know if you can do something until you try – and when working in a creative field, your education will continue beyond the time you spend in school. If this is something that you want to do, you need to commit to yourself to try.

      Best of luck

  • Jack Romigh

    Bob, I think you have written a primer on the practice of Architecture.
    To me you are very correct in helping the client understand what they need. You are right that schematic design is not, strictly speaking, architecture; but it is part of the architectural process (by law, in Texas, it has your “stamp” on it).
    But including your client in that initial design process is a brilliant adaptation of “traditional” practice. I have used the charrette process with commercial, institutional and even retail clients in the past, but barely, peripherally, with residential clients. I put it in a recent proposal, and I hope they opt for it.

    Again and again, I am impressed with your insight; and more so with your ability to explain it…and explain it well. You really should think about publishing some of these in some hard copy form, specifically for those thinking about going to, or who are in, architecture school.

    • Thank you Jack – I appreciate you taking the time to make my ego just a tad bit larger. While it has been recommended that I turn some of these posts into a book, that sounds like a lot of work – don’t know if that’s something I can take on. I suppose we’ll see.


  • Hi Mr. Borson.

    The more I read your post, the more I appreciate your approach to design. I think you are one of the few architects who struggles in this way.

    It is a selflessness way, in opposition to the excessive egocentrism of others, even if they have produced great achievements. I think many small residential jobs are more rewarding humanly than great masterpieces.

    It is an art, and you have yourself summarized : ” Part of my role as architect is to be an interpreter and translator – to listen to what the client is saying and then to digest, interpret, prioritize and re-issue that information back to them. ”

    “protect the client from themselves” , Here is an interesting topic for a future post. Could you tell us what dangers you protect your clients, please.
    postscript : Sorry for my “squidgy and wonky” english …

  • Will Thompson

    Hi Bob,
    This is a very thoughtful article. Thank you.
    I have been lucky enough to have spent several decades working in the business. Discerning the personalities of our clients early on and how to communicate with them often has more to do with a successful process than anything else.
    It is refreshing that you allow others inside the workings of the business. There are so many stories to tell.
    Will Thompson

  • Kane Hadley

    I love this post. Architects are the stewards of their community. Clients come to them for help in a process that they want to be a part of, but is beyond what they know how to do or where to start. When you collaborate with a client and take care of them then they’ll take care of you, and a strong connection will form for life.

  • Lisa Mactaggart

    As a landscape architect designing exterior living spaces, I have to have 100% commitment from my client or my design won’t last a season. In fact, if it isn’t nurtured for a couple of years after installation, it won’t even become what I had envisioned.
    After reading your post, I think my method sounds very similar to yours. I am thinking it takes a great deal of confidence to sit down and draw in front of a client. As I have gotten better at drawing and listening to clients, I have become much more open to letting them peak inside the box of the design process. My experience has been that clients develop a greater appreciation of my expertise when they begin to see the thought process that leads to the final form. It seems to working well for me. Most of my clients are referrals or repeats. Once a client has used me to help with a design, they often return to me for other projects. A small deck in town can lead to a site plan for a cabin. I think this occurs because they have a great time working with me and I facilitate an enjoyable decision making process on what could be a lot more stressful and possibly not as successful without my assistance.

  • Geoffrey Cavalier

    It would seem like the perfect architect would be excellent at understand the client’s needs and wants, relaying to them options, as well as allowing the client to understand architecture, and designing an architecture that the client would have built if they would have been an architect themselves.

  • I agree on almost all points (though I would have to read the first article before commenting on the role/classification of schematics in architecture). I will say this about LinkedIn in general: the people there are playing to a larger audience. This is reflected in the typical ‘one-upmanship’ tone of the comments. (quotations used because I made that word up)

    • The LinkedIn article really did take a turn because there are a handful of folks who routinely hijack the discussion to make it about the ax they are always trying to grind. I think there are currently around 45 or 50 comments on that forum and less than 5 probably have anything to do with what I wrote.

      • It’s events like this that make me really consider removing my LinkedIn profile. It seems that reading (critically or otherwise) and comprehension is in short supply.

  • thearkitkt

    Thanks for the great post, Bob.
    Im a young designer (with 5 years experience working at a firm) still in grad school and I’m going through a tough time right now with a client who are having a difficult time taking my advice seriously. After countless hours of designing for what I think my client needs, they are not giving up what they want. The result is a design that I’m projecting to be largely over budget, with plenty of wasted space. These are all things I’m confident I will work out for a successful project. I just wanted to lay a precedence for the following discussion:

    As much as I push what I think is best for the clients needs, they push back with more “wants”. The process ends up becoming a perpetual feedback loop where I try to revert their wants into something that works functionally for their needs. What ends up happening is that the client is often surprised with the result. Some clients don’t like to be surprised. (the common problem of changing one thing butterfly effects everything else)

    I want my client to be involved in the design process as much as possible. Part of my approach is that – my client is the designer, I just make it work.

    Bob, what advice would you give to someone who feels like they have lost control of the design with a pushy client? I need to regain control while still maintaining a good personal relationship I’ve built up with the client.

    • Managing personalities is not the same thing as managing a personality, a project, or a process. If someone is a disagreeable sort of person, there’s not a lot you can do about it other than try to ride as high above the fray as possible. I like to think I am pretty easy to get along with but I still have had my moments when my clients think I am an idiot (and in some cases they might be right).

      You can only do your best and try to keep things professional. Once in my career have we tried to fire a client. The irony was that in our efforts to get them both in the office at the same time so we could tell them it wasn’t working out and we would rather parts ways, they fired us for not listening to them when they kept telling us they both didn’t need to be at this meeting. We never did tell them why we were trying so hard to get them both in for this meeting, we got what we wanted and we left it at that.

  • AlmostJane

    Personally, I think the collaborative process is always better, regardless of the situation. As a teacher, I can just imagine how things would have gone in my line of work if some of those Linked In architects had been parents of my kindergartners.

    • There is a certain “I know everything” aspect to this conversation I haven’t really touched on. I can only imagine how much more parents are like that when it comes to their kids. Yikes!

      • AlmostJane

        One of the most surprising things I’ve learned in 36 years of teaching is that even very young children can be incredibly different at school than they are at home. And that even though parents usually know their kids the best, they don’t know everything about them. Teachers and others can know things parents don’t. This is where an open mind and a collaboratiive effort becomes so important.

  • Tina Ryan

    I feel like flushing my eyes with holy-water after seeing those toxic LinkedIn comments.

    • those comments go on and on – these were just some of the highlights from the first page. I finally chimed in and regretted it almost instantly. It reminds me of the phrase, “don’t argue with idiots, they’ll drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” I don’t like calling them idiots but some of the things they say make me wonder why they bothered comment at all since they think so differently than I do – what’s the point?

      • Brenda

        “don’t argue with idiots, they’ll drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” I think I need to embroider that on a throw pillow! It’s fantastic, thanks for sharing it!!

  • Dan Killebrew

    Bob, I really enjoyed this mornings post and agree with your approach to both creating architecture and client service. I want to work with those clients who don’t become so precious with one concept that they can’t see the value of another. And it’s my job to show them how. Thanks. Keep it focused on why we are what we are.

    • Thanks Dan. I was trying to think of an analogy along the lines of the parent and the child. It’s my job to tell the child no in some regards but educate them on the reasons why I said no so that they know how to act in a related but unique condition. If I have to resort to explaining myself with “because I said so” I’m not doing anybody any favors.

  • Kerry Hogue

    wow, glad I missed that series of posts on that forum. It makes me wonder though how they provide services to their clients.

    and this statement “The goal is to ultimately protect the client from themselves” is so accurate. this should be a primary goal of all architects. most clients do not know what they do not know. and a lot of them do not know that.

    • you tell me the ingredients and I’ll cook the meal … you can be my Chef du cuisine if you like, and together we will make a terrific meal. Collaboration is important and I can’t imagine not allowing others a voice in the process. Maybe I’ll change my tune when I become famous and people are hiring me for art that looks like a house.

  • Mark Wilson

    Hey, Bob – Question that comes to my mind is about the culture of the LinkedIn commenters. Previous generations of architects were strictly trained in the apprenticeship model in which the licensed architect demanded absolute obedience from the trainee. After an appropriate time apprenticing under the master, the trainee was given a short leash until proving themselves. Do you think that training process for previous generations of “old school” architects contributed to their comments? Seems that more and more, clients are asking for a collaborative process.

    • I suppose that is a possibility since I don’t know the individual circumstances behind the individuals who left comments. I did take the time and look through some of their websites, and concluded that most didn’t seem particularly old school, but not necessarily the most professional of service providers.

  • Bob – I think the commenters on LinkedIn missed the point. If they’re that worried about guarding their interactions with the clients, then I wonder how successful the client/architect relationship is. We followed a process fairly similar to what you described except with a college dormitory project last summer. The biggest difference was that we didn’t have the luxury of sitting around a table drinking beer and eating meat sticks due to the sheer volume of players – it was done in a small lecture room with four of us from the design team standing up at a marker board while the 10 or 15 representatives from the college talked to us about what they wanted to accomplish through that project and we tried to synthesize it through diagrams (thank goodness for digital cameras). It was one of the most fun schematic designs I’ve ever worked on. Collaboration with the client has given us the opportunity to build their comfort level with our firm and our strengths, leading to more work with them, so I cannot think of a better way to start the process…

    • I think most architects are energized by the charette process so why wouldn’t the client enjoy it as well? I can imagine that there are some clients who think “I am paying you to do this so I don’t have to”, and to a certain extent, we get that on our projects as well but not until much later when we are detailing out windows.

  • Lora

    Hear hear. Keep on going, Bob. I don’t agree with the comments either (but thought the same thing as you about “did they read the article?”).

    Aside, Is the above the “alpha” house you mentioned previously? Interested to know this project’s context.

    • No – the “alpha” house is one of the Wisconsin projects that is still in “notes on paper” form. The two projects shown above – the first one is a house in Oklahoma and the other is the KHouse modern that is currently under construction here in the Dallas area. I am only a “consultant” here in the office on the Oklahoma project, it’s not my project but I’ll work on it to make sure that things move along technically and that the workflow through the office is covered by the appropriate resources.

      • Lora

        Ah. I recognized KHouse, but wasn’t sure about the other.

  • Robert Ross

    If you don’t include the client you might as well spend your days
    designing for planbooks. The way I see it our job is to give the client
    more than they ever dreamed of. Why else would the seek us out?

    • Interesting that you would phrase your comment the way you did – one of the commentors admitted that most of his work is done for builders, that he doesn’t ever meet the client and that he rarely sees the final product. In his defense he did acknowledge that the way he works is completely different than how I work and as a result, the design process is different.

  • Very true Bob. An architect who feels the need to exclude a client from the process… what are they trying to hide? Clients who are involved more and understand the process more will actually *value* what architects do more.

    • client involvement is so important – that’s one of the things I keep beating me drum to.

      • walter

        depends – we don’t all get great clients or clients willing to learn, much less thoughtful, intelligent, etc.; a lot of clients are clueless, often distracted, have no time, into making money or whatever and would rather you figure it out – that’s what they pay the architect the big bucks for, supposedly – as long as you give them what they think they want.