Life in college for architecture students is remarkably predictable for those of us who have been through it. Despite the fact that I am 29 years removed from my own time in studio, very little appears to have actually changed. There are a few notable differences but I am not going to talk about them today – instead, I am going to focus on lessons learned. The post I am writing today is the result of answering some variation of “What should I know?” or “How should I prepare?” type emails over and over so I am going to collect that information and refer people to this post when it is appropriate. I more than welcome comments of either similar or dissimilar experiences down below in the comment section. I believe that my opinions reflect the majority but by no means should you assume that everyone falls into this one single box.
If I could go back in time and give myself advice on what happens and how should I handle my business in architecture school, these are the items I would focus on.
10 Mistakes Architecture Students Should Avoid
1. Understanding what matters
Going to college prepares you to learn how to learn and as a result, for many students, this is the first time they really have absolute control over what, when, and how they go about their business. Nobody who has been to college thinks that life is all about focusing on your schoolwork, you need to learn how to be an adult. However, the key to finding success is striking an appropriate balance between things you have to do, the things you should do, and the things you want to do. This probably sounds like something your parents have said before, and they were right. It is important that you dedicate the appropriate amount of time and energy towards your classwork (which is probably more than you are anticipating) but you need to find ways to be a complete person. Sleep, volunteer, exercise, study, spending time with friends – all of these things matter, and for the students who lean towards one end of the spectrum or the other, they will struggle until a balance is found.
2. Caring too much about what your professor thinks
Your professor is just another person – no better and no worse. When I reflect back on my time in school, there are only a few professors that made an impact on me in the short term, and even fewer that provided an impact on me in the long term. Your professor’s job is to teach and inspire, to open your mind up to new possibilities, and help you make the connection between disparate items, they are not there to pass judgment on you and evaluate your worth as a person. You are in school to explore your own thought process and go through educational exercises that will teach you how to take your own opinions and life experiences and build that into your own critical thinking process. You have to do this for yourself – your professor can’t do it for you.
3. Caring too little about what your professor thinks
All that bit that I wrote above in #2 comes at the peril of ignoring your professor. They undoubtedly know more than you do and the issues you might have with them have more to do with learning how to communicate than their lack of knowledge and consideration towards your genius. All too frequently I hear from students who tell me that their professors don’t teach them anything and then go on to explain to me how their work is terrific but the professor “just doesn’t get it”. One thing I have noticed is that all of these students seem to think that if you don’t agree with them, the shortcoming is on your end. It is imperative that you remain open to the possibility that you missed the mark and that by listening to the viewpoint of someone else, you might make some real progress and experience personal development.
4. Design for the “The Big Idea”
When you are presenting your design to the jury, you need to have a “big idea”. All design projects, at least the really good ones, are built around a central organizing concept that will help direct solutions and decisions. If you look at your project and can’t tell me what the big idea is, that’s a problem and it means you are out in front of yourself in the process. Design studios in architecture schools are always about the big idea because the main skill set that all emerging architects need to develop is critical thinking. I don’t need to know your furniture placement or the layout of your bathrooms, and I don’t care where the copy room is located – these things are all subordinate to the “big idea”. Why are you proposing a particular solution? What was the concept that drove you to this solution? Figure it out, articulate it, and then let it guide you the rest of the way.
5. Networking Starts Now
Of all the things that are different now than from the time I was in school, this might be the one thing that has become considerably better. I did exactly zero networking when I was in school and if it weren’t for the personal relationships that I accidentally forged with the studio professors I had, life might have gone quite differently for me. Social media and the internet have essentially eliminated all doors and your ability to reach out and connect with people who you admire, the people who inspire you, is laying right at your feet for you to do something – anything. I tend to want to work with people who are problem solvers and take matters into their own hands – I am not a hard person to find and chances are pretty good that I will respond to you if you reach out. Do this with people who matter to you.
This seemed like a good time to bring up volunteering – something I didn’t even consider until I was in my mid-20’s. Getting involved is just about the most rewarding thing you will do as a grown-up. This is where you will find your best friends, the people who think like you and have the same value structure, people of integrity. Volunteering will be the thing that brings so much value to your life, the thing where you will feel pride and connections to other people. Even if you are an introvert, you can find a way to make a difference in a way that brings value to the human experience … so why wait until you are out of school to start that experience? This entire website is a form of volunteering and I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt that thinking this way has changed my life.
7. Life Outside Architecture School
Most students pour their hearts and souls into their projects. They spend an exorbitant amount of time developing concepts, preparing drawings, building models, etc. Most of that time has come at the cost of some other aspect of their life in order to dedicate themselves to this endeavor. As a result, students frequently associate the work that they’ve pinned up on the wall with who they are as a person.
Don’t do that.
You will actually become a better architect if you are able to bring all of yourself to the process and not just the academic side. Volunteer, have a hobby, go camping – literally anything – but set aside some time to be more than a student.
Architects are procrastinators by design, it’s built into our process and refined during our education when we spend hour upon hour up at the studio. Work for a little while … go see what that person is doing on their project … work a little more … etc. There is a pattern here and while there is some time being wasted, there is also time spent processing information whether you realize that’s what’s happening or not. Stepping away from a project during the process allows a person the ability to re-evaluate the validity of the concept they are pursuing and exploring. The idea you thought was genius is in fact total crap, you just didn’t realize it at first.
The difference between procrastinating and making good use of your time is the ability to fill in the gaps with meaningful and productive uses of your time … making a tape ball does not qualify. In order to have the ability to make good use of those gaps is to have a plan, make some preparations to know what needs to be done, and formulate a process on how to get there. I am a master procrastinator unless I take steps to make sure I am covering all my responsibilities. It’s one thing to procrastinate in school, but it’s far more serious to procrastinate when people are paying you for your time.
9. Comparing Yourself to Your Classmates
I almost left this off the list – not because it doesn’t deserve to be here, but I’m confident that every single person does it, and what’s worse, is that it can actually be used as a tool for motivating behavior. One of the advantages that going to a highly competitive school provides is that your classmates can elevate you to accomplish greater things simply because they are doing great things (the “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality). The reality is that we all have different skillsets and the trick is to avoid trying to be something that you are not. If we all spent our mental resources figuring out what we are really good at and then working at developing those skills, we would move along our development much quicker. This is far easier said than done – I didn’t recognize my own natural predilections until I was in my mid-30’s and that’s when things really started to change for me.
10. Being a Perfectionist
This one was saved for last because it is as applicable to me today as I write this post on a Sunday afternoon as it is to an architecture student who spends extra time and effort to produce as much work and at as high a level as possible. I am a terrible person to be preaching this because I spend way more time than needed in my pursuit to make something as good as I am capable. This frequently comes at the sacrifice of many other aspects of my life and at a certain point, you will start to experience diminishing returns. Being a perfectionist isn’t about obsessing over every single thing, it’s about giving equal time and effort to everything that you do. It isn’t sustainable and eventually, everything will suffer. Instead of achieving some level of greatness, you will provide less than you are capable at everything.
So there you go, 10 rock-solid pieces of free advice that you didn’t ask for. In that spirit, take this all at face value because it might not apply to you … but it probably does.
Cheers – and best of luck,
PS – if this article was relevant to your situation, you will probably find others in the “Do You Want to be an Architect?” series of some value.