Archive for the ‘Being a new designer’ Category

Death of the Generalist

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

The Generalist is dead. It pains me to say it, because I am one. I want to know about everything; I want to be good at everything. But there isn’t enough time and there is too much, way too much, information. This has really hit home since I’ve started my new design career. Taking a building or an interior relocation from start to finish is extraordinarily complex and the sheer volume of expertise and information required is astonishing. As much as I want to learn it all, I’m beginning to realize it may not be possible.

Take Thursday, for example. In the morning I did some occupancy calculations for a client who needs to obtain permission from the city for an unusual buildout. This required me to understand several sections of the International Building Code, a document not known for its clarity, to say the least. It took me hours to parse the code language until I was satisfied I’d done the calculations correctly. People build careers doing nothing but interpreting the IBC. Later, I walked through a construction site where I was involved in discussions about fire alarm wiring, carpet laying, the proper use of plastic laminate, and the lighting levels in a corridor. Each of these involved a different trade, represented on the job site by a team working only in its single trade. In the afternoon I reviewed some specifications for office cubicles. There are those whose entire job is to understand the intricacies of systems furniture. In the evening, I went to a reception at a high-end furniture showroom that employs a pack of salespeople who do nothing but deal in this furniture.

All these specialists. It makes me, the generalist, want to cry. Not because I don’t appreciate the depth of knowledge that these specialists command, but because I know I can never learn everything that all of them know.

We need all these guys. No one of us can ever learn everything all the specialists involved in a design project know and we could never build a building or refurbish an office floor without all that knowledge. Architecture and design is a business of specialists and I’d better get used to it.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to cave in and become one of them. The design business also needs people who know enough about all these different specialties to see the big picture – people who may not have the depth of knowledge that the specialists do, but who understand the various processes well enough to ensure that the results really do resolve the client’s problem or need.

The difficulty, of course, is managing the overload of information that’s available. New designers have to learn a lifetime of information in a really short time to be even passably competent, even at one specialty. Becoming a semi-expert at all the aspects of a design project is one big challenge. Bring it on! Maybe the Generalist isn’t dead after all.

Pod vs. Bullpen – my turn

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Today was the first day I sat in the bullpen, our studio having at last moved from the pods. (See previous posts: Cubicles and Bullpen vs. Pod) Once I got my workstation all arranged, I rather liked it. It’s light and airy and I enjoy being able to look out over the room and see who is there. I did, however, drag an extra table into my space giving me a right-angled worksurface to use, and I think that makes the otherwise straight workbench actually usable for me with my middle-aged eyesight.

I’m right in the big middle of the space, so there is a lot of activity all around me – people constantly walking past, a floor printer right behind me, an adjacent table that today attracted first a meeting then a plate of brownies (THIS is dangerous) – but today I wasn’t distracted. So far, it appears that people, on my floor at least, aren’t having any more trouble collaborating than they did in the pods.

This is only the first day, but it’s interesting that my initial reaction to the bullpen is different from what I would have expected given the results of my class study (see Bullpen vs Pod). Without further research, I can’t say why, but perhaps as I continue to work in the bullpen, I’ll have some better insight.

10 things new designers should know

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

I’ve been a designer at a big architecture/design firm for four months now. Here’s a list of 10 things designers in their first job with a firm should know, in no particular order.

  1. People. Introduce yourself to everyone you encounter whose name you don’t know or don’t recall. Don’t be shy about saying you think you’ve met but have forgotten their names. Build relationships. Help people out when they are in a pinch with their projects. Be friendly and cheerful.
  2. Computer filing systems. Learn how your firm’s labyrinthian computer files are organized. A list of the computer drives and file name abbreviations is not enough. Make someone go through this in detail until you understand it from top to bottom. You don’t want to be the one who “loses” some file because you didn’t save it to the right location.
  3. Learning. Soak it up. Attend every vendor presentation and every learning opportunity your firm offers, even if it means you have to work late to make up the hours. Snoop around in the library. If you don’t know a computer program that the firm uses (Illustrator? Revit?), get the firm to train you or buy a manual and learn it on your own time. Get LEED certified as soon as you can. Plan on taking the NCDIQ exam.
  4. Activities. Get involved in firm activities. Join a group, help organize an event, participate in the firm’s community service activities, serve on a committee. Get involved in outside organizations that benefit the design profession or the community.
  5. Work hard. Know that you will have to work some long hours, hopefully not every day. Know that you can say you are already fully booked when someone asks you to do a task and you know you can’t get it done in time. Know that you will feel very satisfied when you’ve done a good job. Sometimes, no matter how busy everyone around you is, you won’t have enough to do. When this happens, go to every project manager you can find and ask for work. Keep at this until someone gives you something to do, something billable.
  6. Assert yourself. Ask the senior person who does what you like doing to help you get more of that kind of work and keep asking. If you are really good at something and the firm isn’t taking advantage of that skill, let people know you can do this and keep reminding them. Make sure the higher-ups know how hard you work – toot your own horn.
  7. Questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even about something you’ve already done or you should have learned in school. If something doesn’t seem right, speak up.
  8. Decisions. Pay attention to how decisions are made. What decisions can you make? What decisions can your project manager make? What decisions need to be made by a principal? It’s likely that no-one will really tell you this, even if you ask, so observe and keep asking.
  9. Clothes. Dress like the person who has the job you want to have in 10 years. You’re not in college any more.
  10. Money. Start saving for your retirement and keeping a budget from day one. Seriously, even if you are in your 20s. Take advantage of all the firm’s employee benefits, like 401(k) plans, “cafeteria plans”, etc. Learn how your firm reimburses you for taxi rides to clients’ offices.

Bad offices

Friday, May 11th, 2007

One of my pet peeves is badly designed, uncomfortable office environments. Creating an office environment that’s built for its users – pleasant to be in, comfortable, efficient, attractive – seems like such a no-brainer. I just don’t get why every office has to be white or beige, why office chairs and computer set-ups are so darned uncomfortable, and why only some people get to have windows and views and others are crammed into artificially lit interior spaces. Here are basic needs: some degree of privacy, opportunities for both quiet and collaborative work, enough space to efficiently do the job, good lighting and temperature, furniture that doesn’t send you to the chiropractor, a glimpse now and then to the outside, and some modicum of individual control over the environment.

So why is this so difficult? Paint, carpet, and upholstery with a little color have got to be the same or nearly the same price as beige paint, carpet, and upholstery. Workers freed from furniture-induced neck cramps and given a view of nature, will, without question, be more productive. What I am itching to have is the freedom to design decent office environments and really workable workstations instead of punching out cookie cutter traditional spaces.

This outburst is triggered in part by the fact that my office is moving us from cubicle pods of four or five people (which are actually pretty nice, dispite Dilbert) to rows of workbenches all lined up in one big white room. About a third of the people have moved into the new space and the rest of us will move as soon as the retrofit is accomplished. I’ve been watching and listening and, so far, I haven’t heard anyone say they like the new arrangement. Some are diplomatic, saying “we’ll get used to it” or “that’s just the way it’s going to be”, but others are more frank, noting that the space is too bright, too noisy, and too public. I’ve heard complaints about lack of storage space, wobbly worktops, too-high desktops, distractions, and layout inefficiencies.

Although this space was designed before I started working at the firm, my impression is that the new arrangements were instituted mostly to fit more people into the real estate. Perhaps real estate is so expensive in DC that crowding is an economic necessity, but I really think there might have been some other way to achieve the same end. It’s possible that the new space is also meant to foster collaboration and innovation, but I haven’t heard anyone even mention these words.

I’m trying to reserve judgment until I have a chance to try the space out myself, but frankly I’m a little shocked. I know change isn’t easy and it’s possible that people are reacting more to the change than to the actualities of the new space, but from the sound of it (and the look of it), this new arrangement is not working.

I hate to admit it of my new profession, but sometimes practicality seems to take last place in the race to design something trendy. In this case it appears that the committee that designed this new workspace forgot to consider how architects and designers actually work and forgot everything they knew about privacy, distraction, and lighting. Chalk it up to a learning experience.


Thursday, March 29th, 2007

At work I sit in a cubicle. Well, actually a pod of five workstations, but it’s systems furniture built of metal and fabric-covered panels and so it’s a cubicle in my mind. Next door to our pod is another pod and so on down the row. Before this job, I had a private office. I like the pod better.

I thought it would be distracting to sit in an open seating arrangement, but it’s actually quite nice to hear what’s going on around me – I feel a lot more connected. My pod-mates are right there if I have a quick design or process question, I can hear folks discussing their projects, giving me a feel for what the firm is working on, and of course we spend a bit of time socializing, which brings us together on a personal level. People move around the office constantly and are often figuring out design problems or strategizing in fluid groups. Plans, models, and materials are spread on every surface so I can learn what more experienced designers are up to. Everyone who sits in the cubes is approachable for help on a problem or just to chat. The office really does buzz. Even with all this activity, I haven’t had any trouble keeping my mind on my work.

Everyone isn’t in cubicles, however, and this presents an interesting contrast to the general collaboration that goes on in and around the pods. Some of the senior staff sit in glass-walled private offices and although I walk by these offices often and can see through the glass walls, the mere presence of the wall causes me to think twice before stepping inside to ask a question or chat. It’s a barrier to communication even though the people within would probably be more than happy to talk with me.

In a couple of months, those of us in pods are moving to an even more open arrangement of workbenches – long linear tables with some low storage above and below. Everyone in a row, exposed. It’s meant to encourage even more collaboration and many of the designers seem to be excited about it.

Collaboration is, of course, the hot topic in workplace design, so it will be instructive to compare first-hand how it feels to have been in a private office, now in the 5-person pod, and soon in an open row of workbenches. Workbenches have a tradition in the creative professions that doesn’t exist in other professions, but the clear trend throughout the business world is toward increased teamwork. What I learn from my own experience should be helpful in designing for other professions. Sitting in even closer proximity to so many designers should also help me learn to be a better designer. This is good stuff.

Hitting the wall with Revit

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Someone needs to write a decent manual for Revit. I’ve made it most of the way through Autodesk’s book on the program, Mastering Autodesk Revit Building, which as far as I could discover, is the most comprehensive manual available, and have hit a wall. I now understand the basics, but can’t figure out how to do anything beyond since the manual doesn’t cover advanced topics and the on-line help is worthless. In otherwords, I can’t really design anything interesting after having finished this book and can’t troubleshoot my modeling quandries.

For AutoCAD I have a thick third-party manual called the AutoCAD Bible and that has served me well – if I have a question, I can find an explanation since the book simply goes through the program’s features and explains all aspects of each of them. The Revit book, on the other hand, is a training manual that takes you through a series of exercises that allows you to put together a couple of simple buildings, but its “click this – click that” approach doesn’t really explain what you’re actually doing or how you can use the commands for other things, and it doesn’t go into topics that aren’t involved in modeling the two buildings that are the result of the exercises. As a result, the book doesn’t serve as a reference and can’t successfully be used to figure out how to do something that’s not covered in the book. Revit is a complex and powerful program, but its features are worthless if you don’t know what they are and can’t learn how to use them.

I suppose as the program becomes more widely used, someone will write a decent manual, but c’mon Autodesk, you should have done this from the get-go. Give us a way to learn all the features of your program.

On starting a new job

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

It’s been 5 weeks since I started my new (and first) design job and I’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know what I’m doing. I was in my old job for over 12 years and have been a single mom for even longer and I was quite used to being in control, to being the one who knew how to get things done, to being the expert. Not any more. Some aspects of my new job involve things I’ve done before and that comes fairly easily, but most are completely new despite the fact that I’ve been studying this field for four years in my graduate program. Every day people ask me to undertake tasks I know nothing about with the apparent expectation that I understand how to do whatever it is they need. I can feel my face fade to blank and I feel like a fool having to ask them to explain what is quite clearly, to them, a no-brainer. Shouldn’t I have learned all this in school?

So here I sit, exhausted by all this not-knowing, wondering if I just missed 90% of what I was being taught in school, wondering whether I have the mental capacity to catch up, wondering why this firm hired me in light of all this ignorance. My guess is this is how every person feels when they just start a new complex profession and I am striving to keep this perspective. Ask me again in 6 months.