Times are a Changin'

The design industry has always evolved, but a recession and a new (unemployed) generation of workers have reshaped the landscape in less than a decade.

05.01.2011 by Viveca Bissonnette

Since I was exposed to the design world at a very young age—my father was an architect with his own small firm and my mother was an urban planner—there have been industry changes large and small. Advancements in technology have ushered in a revolution in the design process. Firms are now global, not just bi-coastal. Marketing budgets have been completely redesigned—goodbye Lunch 'n Learns, hello status updates and banner ads.

We have learned to cope with a whole new set of challenges, most of which hinge around the recurring shortages of time and money. We have redefined normal and are making do with less.

Back in 2006, as one of ten designers featured in an Interiors & Sources article about the next generation of designers, we were questioned about how we felt about the current reality and the future of design. At the time, there was a lot of talk about how there would be a larger percentage of older workers in the profession and a smaller pool of younger workers available to replace them upon retirement. It was a very real concern at the time. Little did we know that a disastrous economic crisis was around the corner that would introduce a whole new set of complications and challenges for young professionals and established professionals alike.

Today, the reality is that there are no guarantees. Whether you're a design assistant or principal, you have to stay one step ahead of the game to remain competitive. Shrinking budgets, timeframes and teams are the norm these days, replacing our earlier fears of an aging workforce. Today, change has become the new normal, and innovation and flexibility is the key to success.

Part of that change is the welcoming of, and adapting to, a new generation of designers now entering the workforce. These young workers have different needs than I did when I first entered the industry. They need quick responses to their work, lots of encouragement and thorough feedback. They thrive in a fast-paced environment and know how to market themselves in 140 characters or less. While we're mentoring and encouraging them along their design path, they are also teaching us about social networking and the latest trends. They're encouraging us to engage in meaningful dialogues about design decisions, and have thoughtful discussions about their shortcomings and achievements.

Unfortunately, these young professionals are dealing with the difficulties of job scarcity in record-setting numbers. More than half of graduates in the class of 2007 had job offers when they finished school, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That figure dropped to one-quarter of 2008 graduates and for the class of 2009, it was fewer than one-fifth. Statistics like that are hard to swallow, but it gives me even more respect for the young designers who are beating the odds through persistence and hard work.

Other challenges have been more visceral. When we think back on 2006 and the peak of the housing bubble, many of us forget that during this time millions of people all around the world were dealing with the devastating effects of one natural disaster after another. In 2006, the U.S. was still recovering from the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina; in February 2006, a massive mudslide in the Philippines killed thousands; and in May, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia, killing more than 6,000, injuring at least 36,000, and leaving some 1.5 million people homeless.

These were not minor occurrences, but events that changed the course of millions of lives. But if you can look beyond the destruction and loss of life, there was a bright spot. In that time, designers stepped up and engaged in an outpouring of support and a creative use of their skills through humanitarian design. While millions of people around the world were fighting to gain access to the essentials—shelter, food and clothing—design organizations were teaming up to create impactful solutions, like houses that could be assembled in 15 minutes, lightweight and durable tents to keep out the cold, and low-cost, multi-use furniture design solutions.

That's just what we do. We take a problem and we run with it. We use our creativity and skill to make the world a better place. And I, for one, am proud of what we've accomplished and continue to accomplish. As much as we try to define our profession by words and titles, in the end I believe we're really defined by the way we respond to the events that are out of our control. The results speak for themselves.

IIDA President Viveca Bissonnette, FIIDA is vice president and design principal at Hollander Design Group in San Diego, Calif. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or iidahq@iida.org. Learn more on the web at www.iida.org.