Double vision

In the week that the RIBA’s four-year strategic study into the future of architecture is concluded, Jeremy Myerson asks why the design industry has made no similar preparations

This week the Royal Institute of British Architects concludes a unique four-year investigation into the future prospects for architecture with a high-profile seminar in London. The RIBA Strategic Study of the Profession, as the exercise is known, has left no stone unturned in its quest for knowledge on what lies ahead for architects in the next millennium.

In a massive, multi-faceted research programme, there have been special studies on the impact of information technology, on fee-competition, on managing innovation, and on how to create a more positive image for the profession. There have been trend surveys in key market sectors such as retail, leisure, offices and housing, extensive focus groups with architectural firms and clients, and even a roadshow canvassing opinion in Britain’s schools of architecture on priorities for change.

According to RIBA President Frank Duffy, who led the strategic study from the front, the exercise has been essential to prepare for the transition of architecture “from a learned profession to a learning one”. It certainly shows that the architects are serious about survival.

All of which begs the question: shouldn’t the design profession be contemplating a similar strategic study to prepare for its own future? After all, many of the issues – technology, fees, public perception, education and training – are familiar. Most of the markets are identical.

I have met very few designers who aren’t interested in the future of shopping or the workplace.

But while the architects prepare and re-tool for the next century with a series of powerful visions of change now in place to guide future policy, the design profession seems to be sitting around doing nothing of a strategic nature while the world around it transforms at a bewildering pace.

Architects can at least now draw upon a body of knowledge assembled with the express purpose of informing their journey into the unknown and addressing the issue of the

erosion of their authority. Designers, however, face an uncertain future with no equivalent intellectual props at hand.

If architects are concerned that project managers, quantity surveyors, design-and-build firms and others are stealing their work, then design consultants must be worried by the inroads made by engineers in product development, design-and-print firms in graphic communication, or shopfitting and office supply companies in environmental design.

If architects are concerned about the relationship between the architecture schools and practice because there are currently more than 12 000 people working their way through the seven-year system of architectural training, then how must designers feel at the thought of more than 50 000 students currently on full-time art and design courses in the UK? Every year around 9000 new graduates flood on to the design jobs market.

If architects are still coming to terms with the effect of information technology on the way buildings are conceived, constructed and managed, then is technological change any more understandable for designers in an era of virtual reality and the information superhighway?

At a time when two of the great twentieth century design disciplines – product and graphic design – are on a collision course due to multimedia developments, where is the framework so desperately needed to guide us through the maze?

Of course, it is not hard to see why the design profession would find it difficult to undertake a strategic study of its own. In truth, it is scarcely a profession at all: it has become a large, sprawling, fragmented industry, comprising many different disciplines and special interest groups, represented by a plethora of competing professional bodies.

While the RIBA provides a single, strong focus for architects – albeit one much criticised for being old-fashioned – the refocused Design Council does not as yet fulfil the same singular professional function. Many would suggest that it never should.

There is, however, support for a strategic study within UK design institutions. “It’s a very good idea,” says Ian Rowland-Hill, chief executive of the Design Business Association. “The questions the RIBA has been asking are those designers should ask. Next year the Design Business Association will be ten years old and we must address what we’re going to be about in the next ten years.”

For Rowland-Hill, the issue of a strategic study is not if, but how. “Everyone in the design profession has got to pull together,” he says. “With our conference this autumn, Ten Years On, we’re going to do what we can to get the debate going. Personally, I think the refocusing of the Design Council missed an opportunity in that the review was too narrow. It could have been widened to look at the future shape of the design profession as a whole.”

The question of who speaks for design is one which David Kester, director of British Design and Art Direction, admits would be an obstacle to getting such an exercise off the ground. “A strategic study would do a lot of good in terms of such issues as education, selling design internationally, and resolving tensions between different areas of design,” he says. “It could be interesting and exciting. But the alliance of major players needed for such an initiative would be very difficult to arrange. Design is such a fragmented industry, and that message unfortunately comes across to clients.”

Research by the RIBA into what clients think about architects could be summarised, says Frank Duffy, as “love the product, hate the delivery”. In other words, clients appreciated design quality but criticised architects heavily for lack of project management skills in terms of adhering to budgets and deadlines. Architects were seen as arrogant and aloof, unable to respond effectively due to the insular culture and infrastructure of their profession, and more interested in meeting their own introspective criteria for success than client needs.

Doesn’t all that sound familiar? Many designers would be hard-pressed to avoid a similarly damning verdict, although it must be said that the designer’s closeness to the market is a factor which has enabled design groups to encroach on the architect’s traditional territory of office and retail refits in recent years.

Such sharp criticism stings, as Frank Duffy admits, but at least architects have taken it on the chin and are prepared to do something about it. The design profession still seems blissfully unaware of many of its most apparent shortcomings, despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence, and seems unconcerned about the fate of tomorrow’s designers.

One of the most positive aspects of the RIBA Strategic Study was the strong sense of social idealism and utopianism which is alive and well in the architecture schools. Both students and staff were united in a belief in design for human needs, in the ethical and moral dimension of their work. Again, a similar picture could be derived from the design education sector, where ethical and environmental issues are strong.

It would be a travesty to let all this optimism and idealism go to rot as the design profession travels blindly into the unknown, a myriad of industry voices all cancelling each other out, without any coherent research to guide it.

Perhaps it is already too late. Perhaps the design profession is simply too large, fragmented and divided to pull itself together for a major strategic effort. Perhaps salvation can only be sought in design on an individual level. But perhaps enough influential people will recognise why a strategic study for design is so badly needed, and set the wheels in motion to make it happen.

Without researching and analysing the context for designers, the profession will enter the next century not in the vanguard of change but floundering in the slipstream of massive technological and social transitions. And the bitterest pill of all will be to see architects, who have lost so much ground in recent years, right up there at the pinnacle of the innovation pyramid simply because they had the foresight to prepare the ground for their own renaissance.

Jeremy Myerson is Professor of Contemporary Design at De Montfort University.

Latest articles