Is It Possible to Be a Good Designer, and Also Prosperous? Both Together?

Is your design business struggling financially? Where are you going wrong? In order to find a solution to this predicament, it is necessary to understand how business and design in architecture came together.

Every being has an innate instinct to seek, or to create, a place of safety. Where birds build nests, other animals gather in the safety of herds and colonies. Those which cannot make their own shelter, seek refuge in trees, under rock outcrops, and in caves. Since the dawn of intelligence, we humans have crafted our own tools, implements, and made our own shelter. Everyone has the fundamental right to shelter. When did an architect/designer ever matter? At which point in history did a specialist come into the picture?

Birth of the Specialist: Time, Effort and Abilities

In the process of evolution — with the dawn of intelligence — man came upon three realisations:

  1. That his personal time was limited and non-renewable;
  2. That he had a unique skillset. That he was the very good at doing one particular thing, and the others weren’t as good at doing that same thing; and
  3. That few others had their own set of unique skills which allowed them to do some things better and faster than he could.

Time, being finite, became our highest valued personal resource. It wasn’t long before we realised that not all uses of one’s time are equal. It made sense to not waste one’s time doing those things that we were not good and quick at. It was quicker to have someone else who was skilled at the job to do it. How someone capitalized on the strengths of their abilities, how they spent their time and efforts” defined who they were. The specialist was born.

Creating shelter takes time. Designing anything requires skill, and consumes valuable mental effort. In time, a few who were better at doing one thing offered their expertise in exchange for another skill that a fellow human was better at. This was the best way to conserve one’s finite resource of time. People bartered skills with each other. This was the birth of business for the specialist. The more skilled a specialist became, the more valuable was his time. And so, time’ became the basis of all transactions. As the number of transactions increased, barter or trade appeared more and more impractical. In place of goods and services to exchange, man felt the need for something smaller, universally acceptable, measurable, and pocketable. Soon, weighted chunks of precious stones and metals gave way to standardised gold and silver coins, and eventually money became a currency for time.

Time is Money1

One must not forget that, on this time-line of our evolution, the birth of the specialist and of commerce were concurrent, and came about as a consequence of each other. One cannot exist without the other. Take away commerce, and the specialists lose importance — they are left to build stuff for themselves. And, without the specialists and their special products or services, having commerce becomes meaningless.

If Time Is the Basis of All Transactions, What Then Is Profit in Business?

When you exchange less of your time for more of someone else’s time/abilities/money, you will have more time left for doing the things you love — time for work, pleasure, family and friends. That’s when you have turned profitable. The higher the amount of your time-profit, the greater the amount of freedoms you can enjoy. Freedom translates to happiness, giving meaning to the time you put in for the work. It determines your quality of life. Knowingly or otherwise, every businessperson strives towards greater freedom.

To be free is to have achieved your life. - Tennessee Williams

Freedom gives us the ability to become all that we never thought we could be.

Freedom and the Exploitation of Time

A majority of fresh design graduates start at low-paying jobs, or if they are new entrepreneurs, their talents are often exploited by opportunistic clients for low reimbursement. This is extraordinarily profitable for the client. For, he has obtained a much higher time–profit, compared to the designer who has given up too much of their skill for much less freedom.

By the time a designer learns (by trial, error and experience) how to conduct his business profitably, the most crucial foundation years of his firm have been wasted — those years when both one’s creative and physical energies are at their peak. In the process, many lose heart. Survival’ can force some to resort to unethical professional practices, or to cut down on the quality of their deliverables. A small number succeed in staying true to the ideals of professional conduct. In effect, the Herculean efforts of the professors of design’ turn out to have been made in vain. Eventually, even the teacher is left disenchanted and passionless.

Why Do People Build?

Schools are built to enable efficient transfer of learning. The municipal office building exists to allow the easy administration of the city’s public services. The court house provides a place for judges to address people’s grievances. Shops and malls exist to facilitate a hassle-free buying and selling experience. More and more every human activity has become transactional.

Almost all the activities which precede or succeed the on-the-drawing-board” stage of an architectural project have bare little to do with design-related aspects. Instead, they pertain to the ways that transactions happen. Forces of economics and necessity are behind the germination of an idea, and the eventual creation of products, individual buildings, and even cities.

In the complexities of building in the real–world, cost and schedules are critical. Multidisciplinary teams working in tandem, with all their attention focused on completion, are paramount to the success of a project. The criteria which the designer may have deemed important during the design–stage may have surprisingly little overlap with the factors by which the client, the end–users, and allied industry professionals (who are a part of the project) will eventually evaluate the success of a design — both upon completion, and when in continuous use.

While necessity’ brings about the need for a building or product, economics’ brings about the ability to eventually create it. Because of this, it is easy for clients to consider design as a secondary and supplemental activity in the process of building. What is secondary, is not important. What is not important, does not warrant respect. And yet, without design there is no value to the building. An architect faces this paradox with every project. In the interest of self-preservation, architects find themselves tasked with continually justifying the importance of design” to clients. In an ideal situation, it would not be so.

But why does the architect’s valuable effort appear to be so insignificant when the business talk starts? Most designers assume that clients know the importance of design. Rather than throwing light on the value that good design brings to the project, and how it makes sense to it’s commercial bottom line, they focus on the art” and styling” aspects of their work.

Puny Gods

A self-glorifying god-view of the artist-designer places art” and his enlightened” world-view above all other aspects of the project: wrongly misplacing the authority of the creator from the conditions that gave way to the project, onto himself. The designer’s god-complex causes the wants’ of the designer, the client, and the end-user to differ. This misaligned intent” for the project results in a conflict of egos and eventual loss of respect.

In the life of a project, one may think of the client as it’s father; and the conditions that gave rise to it, as it’s mother. It is the designer’s job to nurse it to good health, and to turn it over to its users, in whose hands it will mature. And in that respect, an architect cannot claim ownership over his design. His skill-set alone is his own. A design practice is a service offering, not a product to be consumed.

How to Begin It Wrong

Designers usually think of ideal design as a state of Utopia. In the classroom, designing is implied to be an altruistic pursuit: something whose ultimate aim is the betterment of the human condition. And, when the aesthetic aspect of design is discussed, due to its seemingly non-quantifiable nature, it is often construed as an art–form, sending it out of the the common man’s grasp. This mystification of design results in a misguided self-belief that creation and design is an activity to which a designer is exclusively entitled. A belief that does not resonate with the non-designer client — because that which is mystified, cannot be quantified, and thus is hard to place a value upon. You cannot bill the client for subjective notions and perceived value additions. A few may fall for it, but not all.

People rarely commission architects to design buildings for Art’s sake.

Tragically, the designer’s romanticised view, that architecture is an art, has resulted in poor artists. Because, this tendency of designers: of ennobling their work — and making themselves, the high-priests of design — at the cost of dangerously down-playing the business aspect of the profession, eventually leads to poverty. Poverty in-turn leads to the mundaneness of everyday living. This drudgery, in-turn leads to the poorly designed products and banal built-environments that surround us.

A majority of people think that design is styling. Few understand it to be more than merely giving shape to a shell: about it being about the guts. But not many acknowledge that architecture cannot exist outside the realm of economics.

It is not enough for a designer to understand the principles of design, aesthetics and technology. The moment we purchase a simple product at the corner shop — instead of making or growing it ourselves — we have stepped into the circle of commerce. The transactional nature of our very existence in society makes it necessary for us to understand business.

As long as we create for the consumption of others, we, and the things we do, cannot step outside the sphere of economics.

We’ Have Value: Arriving at a Valuation of Our Time

Sometimes you are offered a better fee than you were expecting, or a ridiculously low price. In extreme situations such as these, it is easy to tell whether selling a product, or doing a project is worth your time or not. But normally, with a lot of tasks and client inquiries, it is less clear if it would be worthwhile to take up any particular project. Should you be working the next couple of weeks on this quick project for a client that will pay you ₹20,000 immediately, or work on the design for another client which will pay you ₹2,00,000 over the next four months? If you do take on the quick job, and if it will set you back by 2 weeks on the design of the larger project, are you in a position to put in those extra hours to cover up for lost time? Would it affect the quality of your deliverables? When one values their own product or services, one becomes instinctively aware of a trade off between efforts, quality of deliverables, and their time.

We make decisions like these everyday, but most people go by guesswork or their gut–feeling on the matter, and never calculate the value of their time. The bottom-line of all transactions, the profit — your non-negotiable free time, your freedom, suffers.

What is the worth of your time? To arrive at a general idea of this, quantify the two aspects of working on any project:

  1. How much time do we spend on it? This includes time spent on the drawing–board, in meetings, in commutes to site, to client’s office, and to municipal offices, on work–related calls and emails, and other project related activities.
  2. How much did you earn in the time spent working on it? This is the amount of money you have left after deducting rent, wages, taxes and other business expenses from your top–line revenue.

Add-up the hours spent on all projects and clients over the period of a year, including the one’s which didn’t take-off but took-up your time. Divide the net take-home amount by the total number of hours, and you get what you earned per hour of work.

In all likelihood, you will find that the value of an hour of your time is depressingly abysmal; much lower than what you thought it would be. If after you arrive at this hourly earning rate, you feel that you have been billing your clients unjustifiably low figures, it will do well to remember that the client has paid you for some of your time”, not for all” of it. Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion2. How you failed to negotiate better rates, or squandered away your free–time on work, is your fault alone.

The Things We Do’ Have a Value: Valuating the Design Proposition

When selling a service or product, it’s value must be wholly understood by both parties in order that a transaction of equals may occur. Intangibles are hard to place a value on. How does one value” a professional service such as design? To arrive at a value for the design intervention, we have to have a clear understanding of what success looks like for everybody involved.

As an architectural project becomes more complex, more time is spent on business tasks than the actual design tasks. But focusing on design for business” doesn’t mean that we have to give up on the decisions that the principles of design” dictate. A balance can be achieved through an understanding of the concerns of all parties involved.

Getting the client to understand the value of your design service, provides meaningful outcomes:

  • When the value that design brings” is understood as the most rational means to success by the client, it allows everyone to easily quantify the service offering.
    • Quantification enables both parties to arrive at a mutually agreeable amount of fees. When it makes sense to both the seller and the buyer, neither will feel unjustified, in after thought.
    • Once your services are quantified, it allows you to justly rationalise the time and resources that you must allocate for that project’s successful completion.
  • Valuation sets expected quality standards.
  • It helps define the nature of the design–deliverables.
  • Valuation allows others to respect your skill sets, and your time.

The Way Out

Most passionate’ teachers in design schools, in their pursuit of the lofty and noble ideals of art & design, forget to teach their students that one’s professional work, apart from being guided by principles of aesthetics, ethics, and sustainability, must also necessarily lead to the designer’s financial well-being and familial happiness. The business of design” must be dealt with in school — with an emphasis that is on par with the principles of design. How easy it is to forget that education’s objective is served only when it successfully enables every student to work and live-out their lifetimes with pride, dignity, and relative prosperity!

This vicious cycle — of the poverty of the artist–designer, and of poorly designed products and spaces — can be broken by incorporating within our work-ethic the notion of design as a business,” and not just an art. Business happens with the exchange of objects of value”: money in exchange for the time required to provide specialised skills, or to make specialised products.

Today’s Architecture Curriculum in India

Architecture, as is taught today, lacks any allusion to the business” aspects of the profession. Curricula of technical subjects such as building services and construction processes, materials and specifications, architectural details, and professional practice are out-dated by decades, nor are they given the high importance that they command on-site. Structural systems are taught the same way that they are taught to students of Civil Engineering, literally copying the B.Tech course curriculum in toto over to B.Arch programs. It never crossed anyone’s mind that it must be taught differently to students pursuing highly creative courses such as architecture.

Student work in design studios is heavily tilted towards the art” of design. Student’s solutions more usually overly designerly”. Curricula are not structured to allow one’s creativity to show in solving technical problems in architecture (sourcing, detailing, processes and services), and very rarely are issues of ecology, social contexts, politics and identity discussed in great depth in studio. By displacing issues of sustainability, technology and socio-economics from their proper place of importance in studio, we create architects who are ill-prepared to face the realities of today’s conditions with any success.

Current architectural school programs are geared towards creating artist-designers” whose art can only be valued subjectively” in the market. Over the decades, such a mentality in the studio has precipitated a situation in practice where architectural service lacks a universally acknowledged standardised scale for remuneration (by the public). From the initial consultation stage to every kind of service, an architect’s fee is up for negotiation. We forget that it is easier to market the technical authority of a professional — such abilities are easy to understand for a client, and are also readily quantifiable. Superiority of technical knowledge and an unquestionable skill-set to exercise their creativity differentiates a professional from the quacks. As seen in the case of doctors, accountants, and lawyers, in the eye of the clients, it separates qualified professionals from those whose expertise is derived from Google. No amount of legal lobbying at the Hon’ble Supreme Court can confer sole authority to design on architects. Instead, changing the focus of architectural education, as well as the ways in which architecture is currently practiced must be attempted.

  1. One’s time is a precious commodity. The sentiment for this phrase dates from ancient times, but the exact wording is most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin in his Advice to a Young Tradesman (1748): Remember that time is money.” Charles Dickens elaborated on it in Nicholas Nickleby (1839): Time is money . . . And very good money too to those who reckon interest by it.” — From: time is money.” Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. 2015. Farlex, Inc 18 Sep. 2020 https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/time+is+money

  2. More on Wikipedia

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