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Is Architecture Becoming Too Insular? … It’s Sure Starting To Look Like It!

As firms continue to self-proclaim their expertise in individual sectors, I want to know whether the architecture industry is doing more harm to itself than good. It’s a worrying world out there, and it just got a whole lot more worrisome.

  • Potts Point Wylde Street Project by Kathy Arnold and Chris Lane of arnoldlane

  • Potts Point Wylde Street Project by Kathy Arnold and Chris Lane of arnoldlane

  • Potts Point Wylde Street Project by Kathy Arnold and Chris Lane of arnoldlane

  • Potts Point Wylde Street Project by Kathy Arnold and Chris Lane of arnoldlane

In the early days of industrialisation scores of ‘single jobs’ became many jobs. Skilled craftspeople who were used to seeing a product or project through from beginning to end, watched as trades such as shoe-making got broken down into ten, maybe fifteen, steps in a factory.

As an early indication of a growing trend, the quest for specialisation has only snowballed exponentially from this point, gathering industries and sectors (including the full spectrum of A+D). Today, we find ourselves in a hyper-specialised age where there’s a danger of both individuals and companies, alike, becoming too insular. Many of today’s architectural firms proudly shout about being the leading ‘retail-design specialist’ or ‘aged-care experts’ and, of course, there are many benefits to honing one craft to perfection. Of course there are. But what often falls by the wayside is circumspection and innovation.

But what’s more, specialisation has no longer remained the purview of solely our operational, logistic or even creative processes – it’s become marketing. As we continue to tout our perfectly narrowed areas of expertise into a few discrete fields, our clients are lining up on our proverbial doorsteps expecting us to work some kind of crackerjack sleight-of-hand, summon the oracles of ‘user-centred design for healthcare applications’ (for example) to turn their project into an instant success. Perhaps I’m being somewhat hyperbolic. Perhaps. But one thing in this movement is beyond question: clients are being asked to invest in the pre-packaged success of an end-result, not in each individual stage of the holistic design process from which much of the editing, finessing and customising to their specific needs stems.

But, is this a recent development? As barriers for entry to this industry have continued to lower – never, for example, have graduate numbers across our various disciplines been higher – there is a strong argument to be made that this trend toward more insular specialisation has been continuing for longer than we might otherwise expect. Where, say, twenty years ago firms marketed themselves as a veritable ‘one stop shop’ for all manner of client needs, and where in-house designers, graphic artists, architects and change-management teams would all collaborate across several projects at the one time, the effects of two global financial crises have radically reduced both mobilised talent and each firm’s total possible capacity for current and upcoming inventory. Overheads have increased as lead times across the board have shrunk, and so too has talent retention shrivelled to a shocking degree. Perhaps, then, it was only inevitable that we all decided to focus our attentions and minimise our areas of involvement. And yet, there is a big difference between becoming focused and becoming parochial.

There is a big difference, that is, between being ‘focused’ and being ‘parochial’ when it comes not solely to our creative practice and the end result, but to our relationships with clients. While specialisation resonates with clients seeking industry authorities to provide them the competitive edge they require for a whole range of commercial imperatives, the unintended outcome for the client is the inescapable truth that we are unfortunately re-entrenching those behaviours that already have them swamped in their overcrowded market. An eastern seaboard firm, for example, that specialises in hospitality projects will more than likely work with more than one of any client’s major competitors in the same space, the same sector (hell, even the same postcode!). And, while it continues to be commonplace that a project consultant co-ordination meeting will have in excess of twenty ‘specialist consultants’ in attendance, the lack of cross-pollination and cross-sector innovation among those twenty specialists results – perhaps not immediately, but absolutely within the early life of any completed project – in the same roll out, the same approach, and largely the same outcome for the client. (And, the next year, for their competitor, and then their competitor, and so on and so on…)

Jack of All Trades … Or, Hack of Merely One?

That this industry needs to innovate and evolve to remain relevant is a moot point. The mind simply reels, and some very pointed questions about the future direction of our creative practice hang in the balance. If practices just stick to one discipline and don’t step out of their comfort zone every now and then, how can they possibly empower their teams – both veteran and novice – to learn and evolve? How can talent retention improve? How can the talent itself, retained or otherwise, improve – pointblank. How will they innovate? Sticking to the same old routine rarely sparks creativity and it certainly won’t proffer any insight into other sectors that might help ameliorate their own. After all, the definition of doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, or at least growth, is insanity – right?

“Bring a design engineer from the automotive industry, ask him to work with a mobile phone designer and watch what happens to mobile phone designs within six months,” points out global business consultant Olivier Blanchard, an expert in team and brand building across an enormous spectrum of Fortune500 companies.

“Also watch what happens to dashboard designs when the automotive designer goes back to designing dashboards,” he adds. “Cross-pollination doesn’t just introduce new ideas and methodologies into otherwise rigid systems, they transform them. This transformation is the catalyst of any organisation’s evolution.”

There is enormous value in the A+D sector embracing multi-sector experience and, fortunately, some companies are starting to realise this. Sydney-based interior design firm arnoldlane are a perfect case in point. Rather than just specialising in one discipline, they work across a range: workplace, hospitality, residential, and even furniture design. “In hindsight,” Kathy Arnold, Director of arnoldlane tells me, “the cross-disciplinarity of our portfolio was likely achieved through a combination of factors. Certainly, there was an organic element to the change combined with our desire to work across a variety of sectors. When we first started arnoldlane we were open to most projects as a commercial reality. However, as designers we were seeking or waiting for that ‘perfect job’.”

With Kathy Arnold and Chris Lane at the helm of their eponymous firm, their early and open-embrace of multi-disciplinarity caught the eye of Coca-Cola for a range of technical projects during the firm’s early years. According to Lane, “Coca-Cola sought [us] based on a desire for a fresh set of eyes to approach how they did things. This acted as a great building block and opened our eyes, too.” Having carried the perception that certain areas were “boring” or “too technical”, both Arnold and Lane came to realise, in their own words, “more and more, designers need to be natural problem solvers and collaborators. Every project presents a unique opportunity, [and] with the benefit of a good client/consultant relationship there are endless possibilities for innovative design outcomes on every project and every sector.”

Roads Less Travelled, But Travelled Nonetheless

Today, arnoldlane approach every job with equal focus on the practical and aesthetic levels irrespective of whether the vertical may be a luxury residential space, a functioning workplace or even a technical facility. But the arrival to this point was not exactly straightforward. Speaking of unexpected breakthroughs thanks to working across seemingly disparate sectors, Arnold and Lane comment that “in particular, there have been two specific moments we can easily recall. Firstly, it was designing bespoke furniture pieces. Collaborating with technical engineers, upholstery artisans and model makers was hugely inspiring and radically altered our design process.”

But that second moment carries significant weight for their current portfolio of clients, especially. “We found ourselves uniquely placed when the trend emerged to combine a residential-type experience into workplace designs or boutique hotel design processes [brought] into residential interiors. Of course, specialising in the residential sector would preclude a designer from specialising in workplace design (and vice-versa), […] but as designers we have benefitted greatly from our varied project experience and exposure to a multitude of sectors.”

“We’re constantly learning. And, the more we learn, the better the outcomes we achieve for our clients.”

After all, we’re living in an age where people want bedrooms that emulate their favourite boutique hotel, business owners want to make employees feel more at home in the workplace, and keen cooks (following the deluge of cooking shows on our TVs) want professional, restaurant-quality kitchens at home. Who better to realise these demands then than a firm with experience across all sectors?

arnoldlane certainly isn’t afraid of challenging themselves or their clients. They like to step out of their comfort zone and they welcome the opportunities that this brings to look at their practice from an alternative perspective. With a string of awards and media coverage to their name, this approach has clearly paid off. However, the biggest marks of their success are the designs themselves – always exciting and bringing something different, unexpected and certainly inspired to the metaphorical ‘table’.

It’s a valuable lesson to all practices, both in and out of our industry: innovation without diversification can be difficult. And when one discipline traverses another, exciting things can happen. “The problem we face as designers”, says Kathy Arnold, “is that through specialising and becoming an expert industry advisor means that you necessarily have to repeat previous successes.” Largely leading to a stifling of creativity, this also leads “to repetition and an insular approach.” The losers, unfortunately, are numerous: our teams lose their creative edge, our clients aren’t delivered projects which speak pointedly to their unique needs, and we end up re-entrenching them back into the competitive maelstrom from which they originally approached us for relief.

“The current speed at which projects are to be completed often results in the roll-out of cookie-cutter designs by the same ‘specialists’. While we speak a lot [in this industry] about the need to collaborate to innovate, but there’s the common view that there isn’t enough time to sit around the metaphorical design table in order to collaborate at all”.

And What Kind Of Future Does This Lead To?

“Pigeon holing? We think so.” And, quite frankly, I think so, too. In the quest to constantly become better, are we in fact becoming worse? It’s not too flippant a question. As designers and skilled practitioners such as Arnold and Lane “we were once typically used to working on a variety of projects and honing a variety of skills, watching that skills base develop. Now, we watch skill develop, and our skills base narrow”.

“It’s not too difficult to envision the next generation of design students being required to select a field of specialisation as part of their studies following an introductory course overview, and prior to having enough experience to know where their current skills lie, and where further development is needed. This would be a great detriment to their training.”

Detractors, however, would be wise to remember that the flow-on effects do not solely remain the preserve of skills and creative potential. There are enormous carry-through problems brewing that extend far beyond the A+D community itself. Do not forget that we work in a highly cyclical industry that undergoes peaks and troughs in individual sectors – due largely, one assumes, to investor-confidence in any given sector or sub-sector at any given moment. Not only will a new architectural workforce, increasingly specialised in their own discrete field, find it difficult to secure work during periods when their particular specialised sector is inactive, but we will continue to lose our problem-solving nous during critical moments of our collective economic and social experiences.

After all, I thought our whole schtick was big-picture thinking.


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