Driven by advances in building and information technology and accelerated by the tumultuous period of global economic restructuring that commenced in 2008, architecture and interior design practice are today confronted with the necessity of fundamental change. According to the “Building Futures” group at the Royal Institute of British Architects and US-based “Design Futures Council,” both of which recently published studies on this very topic, a great deal depends on what happens in China and other emerging markets, where many European and US firms now have offices. And that is not only because these are the most vibrant markets for architecture and design services, but also because the demands placed on practitioners in these markets are fundamentally changing the way buildings are designed and delivered, at home and abroad. Both studies suggest that all sectors of the A/E/C industry will face increasingly fierce competition that will, of necessity, force practices large and small to compete less on cost and more on value. In the very near future buildings and their interiors will be valued almost entirely based on performance—economic, cultural, environmental—and only those firms able to create these and other forms of added value will survive. Disruptive technologies like building information modeling and integrated product delivery will enable all firms, even those competing solely on the basis of cost, to design better buildings and deliver them more efficiently. But in such a fiercely competitive global marketplace, efficiency alone will not be enough to guarantee market viability. The real differentiator will instead be design.
One of the unexpected consequences of the economic downturn has been that the debate over the value of architecture and design is now focused less on style and the exquisite, designed object, and more on the economic and societal value added by design. And that is because almost everyone now acknowledges that we need new design values as much as—perhaps more than—we need new designs. The most promising development, in this regard, and one that affects architecture and design practice as well as design education, is the growing recognition that design is not only a product—a table, building, plan or landscape—but is also a creative process and a powerful engine of innovation. Design, as we see in examples ranging from Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in Spain to the Apple IPod, has become an important feature of our increasingly innovation driven economy. But it is not only the design that is important. What is perhaps just as important is the value added by what design leaders like David Kelly of IDEO call “design thinking,” a form of design prototyping that follows a classic distinction made by business and innovation guru Peter Drucker between problem solving, which answers without questioning the problem given, and therefore adds nothing new, and innovation, which interrogates and reforms the problem given and adds value by creating new knowledge and new products not anticipated in the problem. Problem solving shapes the known while innovation coaxes into existence the unknown. Design thinking is a “thinking by doing” in which plausible solutions are prototyped, interrogated and redesigned. Prototypes, which IDEO call “the shorthand of innovation,” are not, however, variations of a projected final design—they are not guesses extrapolated from the designer’s perfect idea about what the final design might be—but are instead “what ifs” that the designer uses to drive the innovation process itself. The designer uses the prototype to “think through” as many factors as necessary—material, cost, fabrication, etc.—and adjust the design accordingly. Not only are the assumptions of the problem given transformed—opening the way for innovations—but also with each prototype new design knowledge is generated that can be shared and discussed among teams of designers whose additional input further enhances the innovation process.
Design thinking is a thinking by doing that helps us begin to see what new values of new design practice and education might look like. Cheap, fast and adaptable, so that hundreds of iterations can be designed, sorted, and discarded. Big, bold, and dumb, so that clients, stakeholders, even other designers, can engage in transparent, productive discussion that might lead to better problems and better solutions. And finally, apposite not perfect, so that if the design needs to adapt to changing conditions, it can do so with minimal effort and cost. If architecture and design is to thrive during and after the current economic downturn, it will have to adapt to these and other values of the “good enough” revolution, where the quick and dirty have eclipsed the slow and polished and the cheap and simple have eclipsed the expensive and complicated. It is no wonder that in such times, business schools, the military, and engineering schools have embraced design thinking. The question remains whether design schools and colleges will join them or will continue as they did before the downturn. What is more certain, however, is that architecture and design offices and design schools unwilling or unable to innovate, communicate, and adapt, will soon be left behind, comforted only by the memories of those expensive, incomprehensible, perfectly designed things that not too long ago fascinated us all.