This post is part of the ArchiTalks series where a group of architects all post on the same topic at the same time. This is the 42nd topic in the series, entitled "Designing for Others". Scroll to the bottom to find the other posts in this series.
One of the things I learn over and over again is that each client is different. Heck, even designing for the same client is different sometimes and I'm not your 15 yr+ vet (yet). Learning how to be a part of and manage a relationship between your firm and a client that hires your firm is a key part of understanding the Architect's role. One of my highest ambitions is to be capable of managing projects with large, complex scopes & stakeholder groups. Some types of government and levels of security require off-hours work, extra time, agency requirements, duplicate documentation, and complex contractual relationships.
When I started my current job, I was asked to lead projects I would have never done by myself before. "Doing" an entire project with minimal direct day-to-day instruction entails learning all sorts of peripheral tasks and information, including a new and pretty large emphasis on your relationship with the client, your consultants, and the constraints (schedule/ fee/ scope) of the project.
When you're the point of contact, starting and ending the project is your responsibility. To start out a project, we have process for an internal kickoff with everyone involved in the project. We usually know something about the client or what they want and we establish the information we know for the team. At my office, we have over 400 people. That is a lot of resources and a lot of why I feel we are successful is our already broad and diverse services. We design for most market sectors, so when we talk about the design process and create standards, they really have to work for everyone in the firm. When we talk about serving our clients, not all resources are created equal, and some basic info might not apply. But we can start by asking ourselves some basic questions like:
1. What does the client know about the design process? The construction process? Do they have specific requirements that are public, easy to find, or readily available?
2. What does the client want to build and how will that impact the development? Is the site undeveloped or previobut
3. What is the context/ surrounding area/ culture of the place in which the building(s) will occupy?
4. What is the general scope and program of the project?
5. What is the construction type and occupancy of the project? What are the expected systems or design implications for the building type, the energy codes, ancillary certifications, code requirements, and local jurisdiction requirements?
6. What are the clients "lofty goals"? What is their culture or heritage or history? How will their new project support their goals and how do we define our role in order to meet those goals?
7. What are our initiatives related to the design industry? How can we help our clients manage waste, infrastructure, energy use, water use, resource consumption, and create an ideal environment based on their goals?
All of this information can help us to establish how we will frame our first interaction and questions to the client. The more experienced you are, the easier it will be for you to fill in the gaps. On the other hand, Architects always try to come to each project with a "fresh" mind, and the more experience you have the more likely you might be to jump to conclusions.
The process we use to discover what the client needs and what we should design includes a series of interactive activities, concept generation, associations, mood boards, and self discovery to arrive upon the first stage of the design. The "Little" way is to start by problem seeking. That is, we can't know we're solving the problem until we understand what the problem is.
This can occur in one or many meetings with the client's key stakeholders. Usually, we try to invite one to three people from each stakeholder group to be present in the visioning session. This process is fluid enough that it works with lots of projects, but definitely is more appropriate for new or renovation projects that are larger than 6,000 SF and requires the Client to provide input from multiple user groups. A successful visioning session usually has less than 40 people, and preferably around 20 to 50 for only one "moderator".
These meetings work best when one or more people are assigned the recording that is not the moderator. One of the best ways to listen is to do that and only that. The recorder should not be responsible for keeping track of the clock or moving discussion along if needed. The role of the moderator is to host the activities we talked about above - getting the most out of a visioning meeting usually results from positive, non-judgmental interaction and feedback. Discovery is the most important part and setting that expectation from the beginning is critical to allowing equal speaking power. If you're breaking visioning into groups, you can do this strategically in order to maximize or minimize the variety of comments and discussion.
Part of being a leader of a team or a moderator for a visioning session is creating your relationship with the client. They want to be respected, heard, and have their concerns met in a concise and active way. Wouldn't anyone? Especially our clients that are our consistent, repeat business, it shows we not only hear, but continually hear. If we are doing a new type of project with a repeat client, we also want to make sure we haven't missed or assumed anything. The following methods for discovery and design are my favorite activities & the best way I've found to interact with our civic clients.
1. The Big Why/ The Big What
Asking the "why" and "what" questions can give you the best background and help to define the design goals of the project and establish your measurements of success that you will refer to at the end of the project.
Why are you undertaking this project?
Why is success for this project important?
Why is it a priority now?
What does success look like?
What will each user group experience when the project is done?
What are your goals?
2. Who You Are
Asking your Clients to tell you who they are in different ways will give you the context and culture for which you're designing. This is a critical discovery question, and for different project typologies and clients, may take a while to define. Start with these questions, but be prepared to take a deeper dive based on the answers. The questions are best asked verbally and responses written and passed to the moderator for the moderator to read aloud to the group. This can help protect the privacy of the contributors and encourage that variety that you may be seeking. If that is not an issue, encourage folks to call answers out loud while someone (the recorder) writes them on a marker board for all to see.
What are the Client's shared values? Do all the anticipated user groups share the Client's values, or are they more varied, or even in conflict?
What is the internal identity of the Client? How do employees see the client and their company? What is the external identity of the client? How do outsiders looking in view the client? What is the implication of them being either different or similar? What does the Client want to project?
What services does the Client provide that helps to contribute to their identity?
What makes the Client (or user groups) unique?
What makes the client or user groups similar to their competitors?
What are some ties that the Client has to the micro, local, and regional community? Start small and go bigger.
Who do you admire and how might that impact your space?
For example, we discovered one marketing company that hired our firm had lots of avid hikers who agreed that being outdoors was one of their mostly-shared hobbies. Our graphics team designed their wayfinding graphics and their conference rooms were all named after hiking trails in their area! It was such a great touch for a small company with a strong identity, and giving them some personal connection with their work environment was a special moment for me as a designer.
3. How do you Work?
Ask the user groups & stakeholder representatives how they work now and how they wish to work. The results of this can be best portrayed in a then > now chart that shows things that work that might remain the same, and the transformation between the current practices and the possible future practices. Ask them how they might need to work in the future and how they might transcend their current working environment in order to meet unknown future needs.
This stage might require some reassuring for some stakeholder groups as discussing new possibilities can always take an unanticipated turn or spiral into complaints. The moderator's job is important in leading the discussion for this item. Keep the discussion high-level and address those concerns and fears that will come up. Access to resources, processes between departments/ user groups, and management styles are all relevant and important to discuss. This is also an item that any firm could spend hours on, so just remember you will be back to this question during both SD & DD phases.
Cultural shift & change management are themes that will reappear if the Client is willing and able to change something about themselves as part of this process. It is YOUR job to figure out to what extent the project will affect change, and to what extent the change will effect the project design.
Sometimes, goals I have personally (including all sorts of environmental & wellness-focused initiatives) can also be beneficial to a client. Especially if we are the only Architect or Firm serving them, we have what I would consider a right and certainly the duty to inform a client of goals we also find worthy of pursuing. Something I find hopeful is that it's not hard to find someone around my age or experience who is also interested in pursuing some type of design specialty that is also focused on energy conservation/ net-zero design; wellness- and anthro-centric design; or community-based design.
All of these goals are something we might share with our clients, so we try to look for them or the possibility of positive change. Incorporating the Client's management of themselves & their goals can be hugely beneficial to a project & the Client's future. Managing physical infrastructure (think retail or restaurants - you have the front end experience and the service experience) for facilities, utilities, grounds, large sites or urban blocks, and multiple types of employees is complicated and complex. In addition, the federal (sometimes state/ local) government often has grants, programs, and guidelines for things like solar power, safety, education, etc. Seek out topics and certification systems that will be future design questions so they can be considered early.
4. Affinity Diagramming
An affinity diagram is simply a tool that organizes a collection of thoughts into concepts. For a design charette, that could include suggestions for space types or programs to be offered or just "things". You may have pre-determined categories in order to help jump-start people's imaginations. Make sure it is ONE idea per card. The more instruction the better for this one as people tend to want to follow the rules & that is a simple trick to make your sorting easier. I tend to use the following designations to help organize the cards as they are passed in to the moderator:
1. Indoor/ Outdoor/ Either
2. Private/ Public/ Community/ Personal
3. Performance/ Aesthetics/ Systems & Equipment
4. Required Services/ Programs Offered
5. Group Activities/ Individual Activities/ Low Activity/ High Activity
6. Noise level/ Light level/ Feeling (cozy? spacious?)/ Materials
Affinity diagramming is a great graphical process once the cards are on the wall and they are sorted into their categories. It can start to suggest relationships between spaces & departments utilizing arrows between the categories. Recording the number of duplicates can also give you an idea of how supported an idea or space or program is. Discussion should only happen after the diagram is sorted & all ideas posted.
4. Adjacency Planning
One of my favorite diagrams is the adjacency matrix. It is the easiest way to understand priority and hierarchy in a large program with diverse groups & functions. One of the best ways to be great at adjacency planning is to do it a ton, but aside from that, just being as methodical as possible is a great start. An adjacency matrix is understandable and logical, and forces a client/ user groups to define their priorities. A lot of opinions aren't often priorities, but based on recent emotions and experiences, so the client's own definition of "standard" can sometimes be skewed.
5. Equipment and Systems Comparison Matrix
Technical components of buildings are important and are often a huge cost component. Including "auxiliary" spaces like storage and back-of-house spaces, maintenance in areas that are worked the hardest is usually the most costly. If you're a large campus, often considerations go much further than just one round of design & construction of a facility. Another great way to go about stakeholder-based design is to receive input on the systems and equipment and delegated design components that will be required to meet the needs of their project. A few big categories are as follows:
- Mechanical systems
- Lighting systems
- Acoustical systems & noise control
- Water use & plumbing systems
- Fire alarm/ fire protection/ life & fire safety (this relates back to building type & size)
- Stormwater management
- Security systems & audio/ visual systems
- Other unique project-specific specialties
I've found these five questions have always worked really well as a starting point. The more you know, the more specific you can be, and these starter questions can help you find that jumping off point.
In the end, we all in the profession of Architecture know each client is different and unique. Stepping out of the box to work with new clients is important, but the pointed and narrow questions can only be asked when we understand the broad goals of the project and typology. The best way to serve a client is to go for it and continually renew your involvement and your excitement. These questions can help remind you why the emphasis on their goals, culture, and passions started the project to begin with. Getting to be an expert in Client management is a long road, but you have to start somewhere. For me, lifelong learning is the best goal, and learning about our clients is the best way to serve them.