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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

How to Be a Successful Designer?

A few hundred architects and students have worked with me during the last 25 years. Many of the promising people whom I expected to succeed failed to do so in their design careers. Why they don’t become successful is for a variety of reasons and I will try to explain that in this article. I will be very happy if this blog post is beneficial to at least one person. I do not intend to do any motivational writing and you may agree or disagree with my arguments, which is quite natural.

I am not giving the usual tips on "how to become successful", and it is better for you to listen to one of the motivational videos for that purpose (they talk about confidence, courage, consistency, taking risks, competence etc.). I don’t have a degree in architecture or design. I studied Civil Engineering, and just managed to pass. Out of the 54 papers I had to write, to get my degree, the least marks I got was for the architecture and the town planning paper. Whatever the case may be, now I do all kinds of architectural projects.

The last five years had been the most struggling period of my career. I had my vision, dreams and hopes. I was trying to mentor the young team I had. I had never worked in an office and so, I had to learn everything from scratch. I did not know how to run an office (as pointed out by my architect son). Even when working with Laurie Baker, I was prominently at the site, and that too only for nine months. Irrespective of everything, I was sure of one thing; I was determined that I would not make any compromises or give up on my dreams.

Lessons From the past

The lockdown period gave me ample time to think about the ways of taking my office to the next level. I was also doing a detailed analysis of what had happened in my office and what improvements would be required after the lockdown to improve efficiency. It gave me the confidence to venture into many things, I had never thought about. I was able to go back and think about my past. It was an opportunity for me to learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid them again in the future.

After my analysis, I concluded that my failures were on the following accounts:

  • Building a team is pivotal. I never tried to build a team I could rely on.

  • It was vital to have a system in the office. I never tried to have one.

  • I never gave importance to my health and family.

So, all these mistakes needed to be corrected to move ahead. At the same time, I also apprehended that the main factors of my success could be the innovation and creativity I bring to my clients. However creative you are, no client would be willing to tolerate an unprofessional attitude. I have been trying to emphasize this for the last five years. Therefore, think about the past, and present conditions; analyze where you went wrong; then make a clear decision for the future.

Explore, Innovate, Focus and Create

Educating the young graduates on on why less talented become successful in architectural practice.

Now, let me come to the title question. Some of the professionals settle for average quality work. There may be many reasons for this- the professional fees might be less, the time to do the project would be limited, the attitude of the clients might not be favourable, etc. They might think that they would do high-quality work once they start an office of their own, but it is very difficult to make that happen. In order to be successful in a career, it is important to produce high-quality work against all these odds. The public is watching your designs and nobody would understand the circumstances or restrictions under which you had to design the mediocre final product.

Talent and Skill

Great work is more than talent, especially in the design field. Many youngsters are very talented but not skilled. But they have an attitude problem and they think they can do anything, given the right circumstance. They blame their academic institutions for having a lack of opportunities. Academic exercise and practice of architecture are completely different. One has to produce excellent results, regardless of the conditions. Thus, management skills are essential in this situation and the more you use them, the better you may be tuned as a professional. The sooner you develop these skills, the sooner are the chances of you becoming a seasoned professional.

The Seed of Knowledge and Creativity

The thoughts and approaches of architects are different. But, many of them hardly read or increase their knowledge. 90% of the architects/designers do not try to pick up knowledge during college or in their initial years of practising under a master. Moreover, it is crucial to ask questions as well. One of the biggest issues I have found with the young architects and designers is that they do not ask enough questions. They are very good at documenting, but they seem to fall short in analyzing. Likewise, it is very important to never stop learning. They need to realize that knowledge is the best weapon. They need to plant the seed of knowledge so that it which can grow into big trees.

A lot of people ask me how I am able to get all these kinds of different and unique projects. All projects come to me as ordinary projects; it is for us to convert them into unique ones. Creativity is the raw material here. Creativity is not inborn or is not something that comes from the subconscious mind. It is very powerful and very difficult to quantify. Unfortunately, it is said that creativity is suppressed in many schools and educational institutions. Many students have complained to me that the teachers are not able to show them the correct path. It would be helpful if teachers understood that there is no right or wrong in architecture and that everything depends on the context.

Educating the young graduates on on why less talented become successful in architectural practice.

Commitment and Passion

There seems to be a lack of commitment and passion in many at the early stages of their careers. These qualities are paramount in every stage of your life. Do not think that you will develop passion and commitment when you establish your own office?. That is not so. When you establish an office yourself, countless other issues crop up. You will have tonnes of ideas, but no projects to try them on. When you do get projects, many compromises would have to be made. For example, the client may not pay you the agreed fees, the contractor might not listen to you because you are young, the client might try to overrule you in some cases, your practical knowledge in construction would be limited etc. You have to deal with the clients, contractors and many others too. By this time many would end up doing average quality projects. Then their chances of becoming successful would also be limited. This is where your commitment and passion gives you the strength to keep moving forward.

The All-Important First Job After Graduation

The first job is pivotal for an architect. Meeting Laurie Baker changed my career. If I had not worked with him, I would not have reached this position today. I learned everything afresh since I did not have a degree either in architecture or design. In addition to learning, one has to contribute to the office in the best way possible. I have found many people becoming only sound observers and nothing more. You will never learn unless you give back to the office.

Educating the young graduates on on why less talented become successful in architectural practice.

Change Your Mindset

Many say that they are unlucky. What they do not realize is that luck favours the prepared mind. The big architects and designers did not become successful all of a sudden, or because they were lucky. They became successful by their hard work. They might have gotten one or two projects by luck, but to survive in a project, luck alone will not suffice; hard work is required. The great physicist Issac Newton once said that if others would think as hard as he did, they would have gotten similar results. The tendency of youngsters is to always blame the situation; “I am a fresher, how will I know” and so on. They will do the same throughout their career and will not reach anywhere.

Besides, I think the present generation is after money. Money is not a measure of success. Only 5% of 100 practising architects will be successful, and only half of them will make huge money. They will be able to reach that stage only after 10 years. It is a constant struggle. It is said that Le Corbusier survived by selling his paintings. When Louis Kahn passed away, his office ended up in huge debts. So, The money will come at a later period. When you go after money alone, creativity takes a back seat.

On a Final Note,

There can be no shortcuts for hard work and it needs to be applied in the right direction. There is no point in blaming the academics or the tools. Architecture offices are not factories producing drawings. If one does not realize these facts, one may become obsolete whenever the competition rises up. One of the trends I am finding in India is that a firm that is doing well goes down after 10 years. I don’t know why this is happening. Most of the foreign architectural offices get to their peak when the principal designer is above 60 years old. For instance, Frank Gehry did Bilbao museum when he was 60 plus, Le Corbusier designed Chandigarh in his 60s, IM Pei did some of the most famous projects in his 70s and 80s, Laurie Baker did most of his projects in his 60s and 70s and so on. Why do most Indian architects retire by the time they are in their 60s? Architecture is a creative profession. Unlike sports, it takes several years to become successful and it is a never-ending process. Here, the more one knows, the more they learn. The more they learn, the more they do. The more they do, the more they progress in life.

Educating the young graduates on on why less talented become successful in architectural practice.

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