Futures Rambling #78
By Laurie Aznavoorian

At a writing workshop I attended a few weeks ago the facilitator made a surprising statement; ‘Everyone thinks they are a writer’. Her comment was not directed at the ten people in the room who had toiled for years producing manuscripts, some published and others not, but to countless others who make absurd statements over glasses of Zinfandel about how they were thinking about maybe someday writing a book. The point being, there is a difference between intentions and actually doing the hard yards.

Participants of the workshop came from a number of industries: architecture, IT, public service, gambling and the sex trade (no kidding) and could relate to the comment. Because they knew watching episodes of ER or House does not qualify one to diagnoses illness, viewing CSI NY, Miami and Las Vegas provides no real knowledge of how to solve crime, and my personal favourite, selecting a paint colour or living through a kitchen remodel does not make you an architect.

There is a difference between the professional and hobbyist, that difference is that design professionals: architects, interior designers, communications, graphics and experience designers etc. do not just create something that looks good, they create designs that provide value to the end user and that is a very different outcome. Unfortunately, design professionals do a poor job of articulating what that value is in a language that is meaningful to their client and therefore deal with the negative ramifications of this shortcoming on a daily basis.

Add to this the influence of new technologies and procurement models for design services: open source, crowdsourcing, contests and competitions that take the best ideas and only pay the winner or no one at all. For most designers this is far from a sustainable business model because the time spent on the work has nothing to do with compensation. Winning or succeeding is more a factor of luck, whim of judges, or the personal preferences of people who may have questionable qualifications, or lack the experience and know how to identify a superior design solution.

Crowdsourcing is not something we come up against in architecture and interior design; never the less assuming it won’t creep into our lexicon would be at our own peril. Speak to a graphic designer and mention crowdsourced logo competitions and you’ll receive a litany of reasons why this is bad. Crowdsourcing should not be confused with outsourcing, where jobs are moved from higher to lower paying regions; the practice guarantees an equal quality of work for lower cost. Crowdsourcing combines ideas from people all over the world, qualified or not, and follows a pay on satisfaction model. It does not guarantee a similar quality of outcome.

Most industries would consider such a situation ludicrous, whether or not you like what your doctor, lawyer or accountant did, they would still be expected compensation. However, the question of payment is the least of the problems with these models, the real issues arise from the inability for the designer to capture a competent brief, interact and educate the client about the pros and cons of one solution over another. Since the average person does not really understand graphics, digital communications, interior design or the technicalities of architecture, having a professional navigate the decision making process is critical.

All good relationships are built on trust and those between client and designer are no different. Ideally, communication would be constant throughout the project and in the end the outcome would be the result of discourse and collaboration. Forgoing this opportunity for interaction is the main problem with many of the new methods for procuring design services popular today.

When we whine about the insurgence of design competitions being used to award commissions we are singing an old tune. 140 years ago The Royal Institute of British Architects began a debate on the value of design contests, and as far as I am aware, it continues to this day. On one hand it can be argued design competitions devalue the work and create a host of problems for the profession as a whole.

A number of these were identified in a 2013 exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York that addressed the hidden stories and politics behind architectural competitions. Noted were tricky ways architects broke anonymity rules and the unlikely chance of a poorly named entry proposal being a successful winner. They labelled competitions as ‘breeding grounds for clichés in architectural representation, and finally identified the real quandary, hours and hours of unpaid work generally done by interns barely earning the minimum wage if they earn a wage at all. For years the profession turned a blind eye to interns providing services for free for the opportunity to work with an internationally famous architect. Unfortunately, Obama’s executive order on the minimum wage will not change that situation in America if it still exists; it only applies to the public sector.

Considering the other side of the coin, competitions alter the course of design by bringing new movements to the fore. International competitions, in particular have broadened our notions of what is possible by calling on the creativity of architects around the globe. We would not have our own Sydney Opera House if it wasn’t for an international competition won by an outsider, and relatively unknown architect, Jorn Utzon. And moore recently if it hadn’t been for an international competition Thomas Noakes from Australia would have never won the Doritos ad competition and millions of Americans would have been denied a taste of Aussie sophistication. See for yourself it will make you proud, particularly if you’re an Aussie. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugo7Y2lRsxc

This highlights another benefit of the competition process, it allows new players to compete regardless of their prior experience in the region or project type. We saw this in the recent Flinders Street Station competition where the people’s choice award went to a team of Melbourne Uni grads: Eduardo Velasquez, Manuel Pineda and Santiago Medina. Although they didn’t win the competition, their entry got us all thinking and talking.

Of course thinking and talking does not pay the mortgage. In researching this piece I read one blog that suggested the last thing you wanted to do was win a competition, because it would signify the end of self-indulgent fantasies and force the architect to listen to clients, local politicians, health & safety certifiers and fire regulators.

The blogger was having a go at Zaha Hadid, who didn’t get a paying commission for 25 years, he claimed her reputation was “based on images, not real-life.” While it may be true that it took a long time for Hadid to warm up, something she could only have done with rich parents or some kind of supporter behind her, it’s hard to see how her work did not become more refined, some might say palatable, from the many international competitions she entered.

Hadid is the recipient of, and only woman to win The Pritzker Prize; her life’s work has been on display in the Guggenheim and she runs a practice of 350 people in London. She is 69th on the Forbes list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” and was named by Time as an influential thinker in the 2010 TIME 100 issue. If that is not enough, she was listed as one of the fifty best-dressed over 50s by the Guardian in 2013! Architectural competitions have been very, very, good for Zaha, and prove that when it comes to architects it’s all about flash, not cash.

Sources:
Doyle, John; “Did We Just Overlook the Next Opera House?”; The Age; January 24, 2014
Dunn, Zach; “The Real Problem With Design Contests”; The Blog of One Mighty Roar; posted January 16, 2009
Kubey, Karen; “The Competitive Hypothesis” Domusweb; posted February 13, 2013
Stevens, Gary; “How to Become a Famous Architect Without Building Anything”; Dr. Garry’s Place http://www.archsoc.com
http://www.ethicsingraphicdesign.org; Contests—who wins?; Posted on Jan 23, 2013
McKiernan, Patricia; Creative Professionals and Ethics; Graphic Artists Guild; August 7, 201

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