Sunday, August 21, 2011

Expanding the Design Professions

Several years in a row after 2008, architects’ average salaries have barely changed. While many attribute that to the “great recession,” some have started to wonder if a fundamental shift had begun to occur in the demand for architectural services and if the time had come to think about the value that designers might bring to clients and communities outside of conventional practice. Other professionals see this as an abandonment of the field and have resisted the idea.

The science writer, Richard Panek, wrote a book published in 2004 entitled, The Invisible Century, Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes, that has a great deal to teach designers. Panek observed that at the end of the 19th century, some scientists thought that we had discovered all there was to know about the physical world and that science had come to an end. That didn’t happen, of course, because with the 20th century came the discovery of “invisible” phenomena, from Freud’s explorations of the human subconscious to Einstein’s revelations about relativity to Max Planck’s descriptions of quarks. That opening up of whole new worlds ripe for scientific investigation made it “the invisible century,” as Panek calls it. While scientists continue to study the physical world, the invisible one has greatly benefited human understanding and opened up whole new areas of study.

The same, it seems, has begun to happen in design at the beginning of the 21st century. At a time when a lot of the job opportunities for designing and constructing physical structures have begun to wane or at least not grow very quickly, work in a number of other areas not directly associated with buildings have begun to open up for the design community. In almost all cases, these opportunities exist in what we might call the “design of the invisible,” be it the design of services and systems, applications and infrastructures, features and flows, products and policies, processes and procedures. This expansion of the design professions into such “invisible” realms comes at an opportune time. Unemployment among architects has reached record levels, and especially young people have begun to vote with their feet, seeking out the unconventional application of their design skills, whether or not traditional practitioners approve. A terrible economy can open up incredible opportunities for those willing to open their minds.

The ethical issue here revolves around that question: is this change good? Some see the good as inseparable from tradition, a perspective that assumes that the world evolves slowly and incrementally, and that rapid change brings more bad than good. That conservative ethic abhors revolutions. Others see the world as something in constant and at times destabilizing flux. For them, the good gets continually redefined as things change and new requirements emerge. Both sides want the good to happen, but how they achieve that could not be more different. While one group seeks to hold back change in order to preserve what they know, the other sees change as the primary way in which good things happen for people in the process of adapting to new conditions.

The conditions we live in, of course, could care less about our ethics. If demand declines for what we have done in the past, we must respond as creatively as possible. We may not yet fully understand what it means to design the “invisible” world, but we will only know by starting to do it. And for those who like such a change, do not despair: plenty of work remains to be done in the visible world, as scientists also discovered. So onward!

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