Clear communication and a calm, confident approach will take you far, advises Ceilidh Higgins.
It’s hard to know what I should say to you, my younger self, for possibly you wouldn’t believe me or maybe I simply needed to learn some of these lessons for myself. At first it’s obvious there is so much to learn, but after a few years of work experience, it’s easy to think you have reached the top of the learning curve and you are starting to know all the answers.
Working as a graduate architect or interior designer (and, from what I know, an engineer or a project manager) is very different from the way we learn to work at university. The amount of time you spend on different tasks bears little resemblance to the reality of an architecture office, with all its time and cost challenges. When I was studying, design units made up at least half the course credits and probably took up three quarters of our time, with very limited classes on business or even construction – and that certainly isn’t the reality for most architects or designers working in or running an office (even if you choose to call it a studio).
Initially, you will learn so much about detailing and construction, budgets, planning and the realities of delivering a project – likely much of the focus for a few years will be your technical skills. For most of us, though, there are even more important lessons to learn – lessons that are not always technical and perhaps only come with experience. Learning is a lifelong process and should never end. Be open to the lessons life will teach you – both inside and outside of architecture and design. The first step is sometimes realising what you didn’t know before.
Meditate (or practise yoga)
It might seem like it has nothing at all to do with your work, but meditation will make you better – at whatever you do. Meditation helps you focus. It helps you to be more creative and to be calmer. And by being all of those things, you also help your teammates, your clients and your boss. I’ve had a regular yoga and meditation practice for five years – attending yoga classes and using the Headspace meditation app – and it has changed the way I work. I’m more productive, less stressed and able to work less hours and still achieve my goals. Other people enjoy working with less stressed people.
Recently, one of my clients told me that they found my calm approach and confidence in managing their project was helping them not to stress out too!
Less stress helps you think more clearly, which also helps with the next two lessons.
Communicate! It’s the most important thing you do
It doesn’t matter how good a designer you are – if you can’t communicate your design, then your career won’t go far. But it’s not just communicating designs through drawings, models or other visual mediums that is important in architecture. We spend more of our time communicating than anything else. You communicate with your client, with your team, with subconsultants and contractors. You communicate via phone and in meetings, through email, drawings, reports, room data sheets, spreadsheets and models. All of these are different modes of communication. To be effective, all of these means of communication need to be understood by somebody else – and often somebody else with a different level of experience or education to you, who may speak a different first language or maybe just has less time, involvement or interest in the project. All of these things are barriers to communication.
It’s important to remember that communication is not primarily about you providing information (then we would call it information, not communication). Communication is about providing information in a format and structure that the person receiving the information can digest and understand. How many times have you been part of a series of emails that go back and forth because the two people involved are not able to clearly identify the relevant issues and provide clear and direct instructions as to what actions need to be undertaken. For example, recently we had a tender set due on a Friday. Early in the week, the project manager indicated we would receive the final client feedback on Friday. What he failed to tell us in the initial email was that the program had changed for other reasons, and we would not be required to issue the documentation for another two weeks. It took four more emails for this information to be extracted from him! (And with five people reading each email, that’s a serious waste of productivity). While some people would suggest simply picking up the phone, I would say it doesn’t always deal with the whole problem. In some cases it may solve the immediate communication issue, but can still lead to interpretative issues down the track when there is no record of that communication and it relates to a contractual issue.
So, how do we learn to communicate more clearly? Practice is certainly important, but not the only thing. Clear communication is not just about the words (or pictures); it’s also about the format and the order or the story. It’s about space, bold headings, grid lines in a spreadsheet, line weights in a drawing. All of these formatting elements can help provide clarity in your communications. By telling a story, taking your audience on a journey, people understand where you are coming from, and when you get there, why you are proposing the particular solutions you are.
Learn by seeing what others do. If you find a website, a presentation, a spreadsheet or a drawing is really clear and easy to read, think about why and how you can emulate it. I also find it’s helpful to think about the other person’s perspective. What are they trying to get out of the project? What is their agenda? What are their key issues? If I only have a short time to get their attention (either in person or in writing), I should be focusing on what matters to them.
Don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions
As a younger graduate, I was often quick to go to my boss, the project manager or the client as soon as a problem arose on a project. I didn’t want to get in trouble for not keeping the right people informed. One day there was some problem on one of the office fitout projects I was delivering internally for my company. I can’t even remember now what the problem was, but I think it was some sort of delay on the part of one of the furniture suppliers or subcontractors, which would prevent us moving into the office on time. It was certainly something of significance to the project, and completely outside my control. So, straight away I rang my manager on the project. And I was given an earful! I think he yelled at me for over an hour (unprofessional on his part), but what he did manage to communicate to me was that I should have waited before calling him. And he was right.
It’s pretty rare that you can’t wait half an hour or even a day before passing on problems. You should use this time to come up with solutions and recommendations. In this instance, for example, our options may have been to delay the move, hire temporary workstations or put more pressure on the non-performing subcontractor – or some combination of these options. It would have been much better for me to go to my manager presenting all these possibilities, with research into the costs or pluses and minuses of each one and a recommendation of which action to take. It shows you are proactive in dealing with problems and you can be relied upon to solve problems.
Hire your successor
This is one of my favourite pieces of advice I have ever received. It was coincidental that someone said it to me just at the time I had interviewed a talented designer to back me up in my role as design team leader. She had asked for a higher salary than I was on, and I had felt pretty threatened by that. But hearing about the idea that you should always aim to hire people who are ambitious and want your job, leaving you free to move onto the next level in your career really resonated with me. We all want to work with a great team. If someone is good enough to make you feel they could do your job, then it follows that they would be a great asset to your team (as long as they don’t want your job right now). I hired the designer (not on a salary higher than mine though!) and didn’t regret it. Now, I would have no hesitation in hiring someone who I thought wanted my role in the future – even if by future I mean a year or two. I would also add that you should always aim to hire people you think will be incredible at what they do – and not just settle for average. While not everyone is a leader, you will find people who are incredible at documenting, or producing graphics, or reviewing spreadsheets – and one thing these people all have in common is a passion to always improve the way they work.
You can learn lessons from someone you don’t like
It’s probably important to note that two of the lessons above I learnt from the same project manager – and I didn’t always like the way he behaved or treated me. But that said, I still learnt. If someone is intelligent and has things to teach, don’t let the fact that you don’t personally like them get in the way of learning. Just don’t make them your mentor!
An accomplished and skilled interior architect with experience in workplace strategy, design and implementation. Ceilidh Higgins’ speciality is work – both the places we work and the way we work. Her day job is Senior Associate at FutureSpace, working alongside an award-winning team of interior designers and architects. FutureSpace is a cutting edge design agency leading the way in creating the future spaces in which people will work, learn and live. Ceilidh works across workplace strategy and design, delivering workplace projects from as small as five people through to upwards of 1000 people. Ceilidh also researches, writes and speculates on the future of work and the impacts of technology. You can find her blog at The Midnight Lunch.