Architects and Designers: Self-Definition & Keeping Work Interesting

Published on: 04-02-2015

Del Hossain takes a look at how we, as architects and designers, portray ourselves and maintain our mojo.

Satyres en Atlante Rome Louvre - Four Statues In Rome Depicting Omphaloskepsis 'Navel-Gazing'
Satyres en Atlante Rome Louvre - Four Statues Depicting Omphaloskepsis ('Navel-Gazing')

How do you define yourself, are you where you wanted to be and when was the last time you gave yourself the luxury to ‘navel gaze’. Is your self-definition based on your values, ambitions, desires or do you have a hedonic view to life, living in the moment and looking for the immediate stimulus as the reward.

Many people that have taken vocational roles define themselves almost by default by their profession, i.e. ‘I’m an Architect,’ or ‘I’m a designer’ as if somehow the person behind the title means less and the title validates their personal identities this is the cult of a profession. As one absorbs the cultural dictats of the profession, they in turn adopt the ‘architectural’ identity. In some instances people manage to shake off who they originally were in pursuit of a professional self, but often this is a conscious decision for the greater good of their career.

When we are young and impressionable, the ‘look’ of an architect could be in the pure visual identity of dressing like those in your peer group, we are all aware of the ‘Corb glasses‘ or look no further than architects educated on a staple diet of Modernism and trained between the 1960’s to the 90’s and you will see the impact of the black polo neck jumper. What did this particular garment represent nothing less than a movement in thinking to encompass an androgynous uniform, rooted in existentialism and quiet rebellion, think of everyone from Lord Foster to Steve Jobs as reflective of these pioneering three decades. This uniform has now been substituted by more mainstream representations. Mainstream popular culture means body ink and piercings are less threatening and more social identity, indeed the grads of the noughties are altogether more integrated.

The need to fit in or ‘yielding to group pressure’ Crutchfield does fashion identities, but in some cases it also dictates how you live your life.

If graduates come out of university and are trained to do just one key thing, it should be as one Architectural director recently put it to ’absorb information and then follow instruction’. Graduates certainly in Architecture and Design bring with them ‘enthusiasm’ and a ‘willingness’, which are vibrant colours in the world of the more corporate organisations. Time can however dilute these sanguine hues as experience can absorb the energy and push forward expectations. Eventually the curious becomes the anticipated whilst knowledge and confidence builds up.

According to psychologists such as Ericsson it takes us 10,000 hours of practice to achieve a level of mastery, just in time for the first 4 year ‘professional itch and move’. Is it a coincidence that this happens? In larger organisations such as BP they are aware that they employ bright people who after every 3-4 years will need revitalising so they create the opportunity of job rotations. The idea behind this is to maintain enthusiasm and challenge preconceptions and keep bright people fully focused on expanding and developing systems and technology that already works well.

In a small Design or Architectural firm this level of rotation and fore sight is not feasible, but it can take 3 to 4 years to see through a good sized design project. People are happiest at work when they are learning and performing and the motivation is in being fully engaged and mentally growing. The real question is what happens after the projects have finished? Once you have been through the process you are that much more resilient as a designer but the next experience needs to be just that bit more challenging or different to keep one fully engaged.

On a macro scale according to Gallup workers across 142 countries found that in general 63% of employees are not engaged with their work, which means a lack of focus on company goals and low motivation and even worse 24% are actively disengaged. Disengaged employees are generally negative and unhappy. As an employee you have to work hard to keep fresh not to be one of this number and as an employer it is in getting this mind set out of the company before it affects others.

It’s true that design as a profession does create more problem solving challenges then some professions, so the disengagement should in reality be a lot less. Not with standing this employers need to be thinking about managing and engaging their teams, not just for the project but for their commitment. When a practice can do no more to enhance a job role what can a practice do to retain their best staff?

We will discuss this in the next blog but meanwhile there is some comfort,  ‘life happens’ and attention starts focusing on things outside of the office. Whilst some employers may secretly think it’s unfortunate that just as an employee commands their role they get pulled by family life, in reality this may well be a saviour to hold onto key staff as they learn to multitask between a professional life and having a home life for the first time.