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Bridging the Gap Between Design Education and Practice 

Like many architecture and design students I did not set foot in a professional environment until after my studies were complete, and to this day I can recall exactly what I felt after spending my first few days at my first firm: a mix of panic and disarray and a worry that there was no possible way I could possibly survive a career in this field.

It wasn’t that I disliked the work. I just felt overwhelmed by the taxing hours, the intensity of the office, and the fact that for the first time in my nascent life as a designer, I had to think about how the designs I was creating would need to serve my clients’ needs in ways I had not experienced in school.

To some this is a trivial detail, but in actuality it’s an important and subtle mind shift that many young designers struggle to make. The curricula at architecture and design schools often focuses on teaching students to think like design directors and to make choices based on aesthetic value and theory, however a successfully functioning firm needs more than just design gurus, they need sharp business skills and people that can sell compelling visions to meet a client’s needs. School can sometimes place the practice of architecture and design in a vacuum.

This approach tends to imbue students with a very focused skillset, but it neglects to help students understand that once they leave school and join the profession that vacuum disappears. Design in the real world is a tool businesses, organizations, and communities use to achieve some tangible goal or result, and design concepts and decisions must therefore be made on more than just the basis of aesthetic value and theory. Those decisions must be made with an understanding of the client’s business and the measures that client wants to achieve.

This lack of awareness causes significant consternation for many young architects and designers who spent their time at universities thinking only of aesthetics and then enter professional environments where they’re required to consider budgets, utility, function, logistics, and business and social trends. Schools give these students mastery of the practice and language of design, but could do a better job in equipping students to effectively sell a compelling vision that meets the client’s needs. Designers must translate their technical concepts into language that can be understood by the layman and resonates with a client’s value system.

Finding ways to better integrate both education and practice is of paramount importance because doing so will better equip students and emerging professionals to step into practice with confidence and set them up for success. No one can fully anticipate the first step into your first job, but both the design industry and academia have a responsibility to better prepare our students for what’s to come. And firms like ours need to help schools translate what’s going in practice so that students have a sense of what they will confront when practicing.

With this goal is mind, Gensler set out to establish a stronger bridge between the study and practice of design by creating the Professional Practice Case Study Series. Based on authentic project scenarios completed by Gensler practitioners, the series gives readers a sense of the logistical, business, and design challenges architects and designers tend to encounter when working on real world projects. It gives a glimpse into how design theory can be applied to accomplish client goals and move initiatives forward, and it shows all the complex professional relations that play integral roles in completing project work.

The Professional Practice Case Study Series is one tool that we hope will help architecture and design student, as well as emerging professionals in both architecture and design and other industries, understand the skills they will need to dovetail their academic expertise of design with the business of design to achieve professional success. And we hope it will become one component in a push for a more holistic approach to architecture and design education. If there’s anything that my career has taught me, it’s that the best architects and designers function as integrators and never stop learning. Their curiosity extends beyond just architecture and design; they show an interest in understanding social trends, logistics, and the burgeoning fields. Their willingness to work from an expansive base of knowledge allows them to bring highly abstract design concepts to fruition in manners that are compelling and have considerable real world impact. They connect the dots in ways other people cannot and think in nonlinear ways.

If we can incite architecture and design students to step outside their own worlds to put them in and think more about the real world implications of their work, we’ll not only better prepare them for professional environments but will teach them to be more creative and to expand the boundaries of architecture and design even further. When you look at a project not just from the perspective of a designer but from the perspective of a client, you almost always end up creating more interesting work.

The Professional Practice Case Study Series is one step in creating a more holistic approach to design education, and we hope it will inspire other schools and firms to move in a similar direction.

Carlos Martinez is a hybrid architect, designer, innovation seeker, and strategist. He passionately advocates for the strategic importance of great design and is constantly seeking to create memorable spaces that honor their roots, delight users, and elevate expectations. And while he considers himself to be an eternal student of the power of design, starting in 1987 and for 26 consecutive years he served as adjunct professor of design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Send Carlos your ideas and questions at carlos_martinez@gensler.com