Design: relevant?

So I receive an email today from our business development guy: “the reason your lost work with [your client] is because your work was not timely and accurate…  Good design is irrelevant.

I design neato things I can’t talk about until they’re almost under construction. So you get a massing model of something that doesn’t look like anything.

Now, we are doing another project with this client.  I had thought we had lost it.  Turns out he meant another project, which, honestly, we did not have the bandwidth to do at the time.  So after several hours of worry burning a hole in my Saturday afternoon, that got clarified.  I had not lost a project for reasons unknown.

But it got me thinking: our industry is pleagued with people screaming about what’s wrong with our business. The most common crap I hear is that our work is becoming “commoditized.”  I started reading one book which began with a mantra about commoditization and how technology was going to “fix” that.  I stopped reading.  Lets start here:


1: an economic good: as

     a : a product of agriculture or mining;

     b : an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment; or

     c : a mass-produced unspecialized product

2: something useful or valued 

3: obsolete: quanitity, lot.

4: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price

5: one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market

(source: Merriam-Webster dictionary;

I am guessing that the whining comes from definitions 4 and 5.  The funny thing about architects is that we think we are special: the fact is, all industries struggle with this every day.  Even, say, manufacturers who produce items in high saturated markets, like common raw materials or whatever widget you want to think of.

Something else that looks like nothing

So a service industry is screaming worrying about the trouble of being commoditized?  Are all of you saying that price is the only driver?  Surely not.  I used to work at big firms.  Those firms do not charge small fees.  But people keep coming back to them.  So price, in itself, it not the issue.  All of this complaining about our fees not being big enough due to “commoditization” – to me – is just crap.

How do you add value?  Isn’t that what being in a professional service business is all about?

Hmm.  How about listening to your client?

The whole reason I got that project was good design…  I took a new look at a project that had already gotten all of the way though CDs.   The new development team wanted to take another stab at it because the original program didn’t match their requirements, but at the end of the day due to a down and dirty exercise between planning and building officials I was able to pull out $2 Million from the project due to pulling off an entire floor while removing full subterranean parking.  Does that mean the other architect was bad?  I don’t think so.  There are many reasons why designs end up the way they are and I always give the benefit of the doubt – there was a reason why it was the way it was.  In fact, because of the timing, the zoning had changed and the density was able to be increased after that design was done (so I did, actually get more units with less floors).

So I thought that was relevant.

I still think it is.  But, it did take me a while to complete.  There was lots of back and forth with the client.  There were a lot of late nights, tense conversations, negotiations with authorities, to get it done, and it took a while.  And I was just starting a company.

So it was hard, and we produced.  And we grew.  We hired some great talent that made a tense situation much better.  I thought things had improved until I got that email… Then it turned out things had improved, I had just taken it the wrong way.  However, it got me thinking: do I KNOW what my clients want?

I think I do.

I was told good design was irrelevant.  I don’t think it is.  But: do I KNOW what they want?

Everyone is different in this industry. I’m amazed, for instance, at the time for design and construction that is given for people in the high end residential sector.  We don’t have that luxury in the commercial business for the most part.  Being given a year to design an office building… is unheard of.  So one has to expect that every type of client is different and each set of priorities is different.  The trick is knowing what those things are.

There is a lot of market data about high volume sector like retail or B2B organizations or whatever.  What about smaller service oriented businesses?  Typically we work with people on a very personal level: you’re almost friends.  Sometimes you become friends.  Sometimes you start as friends and are never the same thereafter.

How do you know what your client wants?  What is important to them?

Oh Dear God.  You have to ask.