Tichenor & Thorp Architects

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Seven Crucial Business Principles Designers Need to Know

This is part of AD PRO’s Designer Takeover, in which working designers contribute stories to the site. Here, Brian Tichenor and Raun Thorp, principles of Tichenor & Thorp, share some of the most important lessons they’ve learned over the course of their careers.

We met in graduate school during a masters of architecture program, so some of the lessons we learned started there in the design studio—and not all of those lessons were from the professors. In our new book, Outside In: The Gardens and Houses of Tichenor & Thorp, we talk about—and illustrate—many things learned over several decades of working as architects and landscape designers. Here are just a few important lessons—from the studio, from the “school of hard knocks,” from our clients, our colleagues, and from working together:

· Never forget that design (which, for us, includes architecture and landscape design) is a service industry. We are solving functional problems for clients who need aesthetic and functional solutions. Listen to your clients, and to their ideas, and give them the best version of what their dream is for their house, garden, or whatever else you’re designing for them. Design should be a dialog, not a dictum.

· Develop a “big idea” for your design scheme: It can be a narrative or a design “parti” (as they called it in the studio). This must drive the design intent, no matter how small the project. Though it may seem obvious, it not always is. Good design has to have a strong underlying concept, and that must inform the major and the minor details of a project. Sometimes, with clients, you can’t be that obvious about pushing that idea, and sometimes you may need to have more than one. The best ideas take the clients’ dreams and desires and shape them into a clear, core, design concept that’s strengthened by the designer’s expertise.

· Edit. Edit. Edit. This is as important as the big idea: Don’t gild the lily—unless the big idea is gilding.

· The whole is not always the sum of the parts. Make sure that you look at the “whole” picture. Because we do houses, buildings, and gardens, it’s especially important that the interior, the building, and the exterior all work as one. Again, this may seem to be an obvious approach, but it’s not. So much architectural training focuses on buildings, and the surrounding garden or landscape is fit into the resultant leftover spaces. We talk a lot about this in our book: the importance of working from the outside in. Start with where the most important views are, and make sure the gardens and the rooms that will look out onto those views are designed together. Think about the views both to and from the windows, and how one moves out to the garden.

· Have a sense of humor. This isn’t heart surgery—it’s design.

· Over the years, we have learned to very carefully evaluate potential projects using three simple criteria:

1. The Client
2. The Project
3. The Budget

Again, this may seem obvious, but it’s not. This lesson was learned the hard way. We had more than a few project interviews early on in our partnership and one of us would see the potential of a truly amazing project, but the client was difficult or didn’t have realistic expectations for either the program or the budget that they had in mind. The bottom line is that the architect-client relationship basically a marriage—you’re in this for the long haul, and the liability is on our end. We used to evaluate potential projects using these three criteria and decide that if they didn’t have two out of three, we would have to say “no.” We soon realized that the one non-negotiable is the client. It doesn’t matter if the other two criteria are acceptable, or even exceed expectations, if the client isn’t a fit. Trust your instincts on this one. We’re extremely fortunate at this point in our careers to have an amazing group of clients, many of whom we’ve had the immense pleasure of working with for many years on more than one project.

· Communicate, communicate, communicate. Nothing is more important for a strong relationship with clients, and nothing upsets a client more than calls or correspondence that’s not returned in a timely manner. Even if there are rough spots, talk them out. If you overlooked an email and are sending a late response, apologize. It’s that simple. In the world of architecture, almost every insurer will tell you that the primary cause of lawsuits is lack of communication between the design professional and the client.

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