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The Rate of Change Has Changed

With designers working longer hours with tighter budgets, it's led to new trends in both how work is approached and what employers expect.

07/31/2014 By Carrie Neill

The design industry has seen significant changes in the last 20 years. Designers work longer hours with tighter budgets, and demand more from sub-consultants and vendors than ever before. At the same time, they’re dealing with an increasingly informed client-base, who have unprecedented access to information about design processes and trends, and issues like sustainability and building performance.

This increased demand on designers’ time and knowledge base, combined with a volatile economy, has led to new trends in both how designers approach their work, and what employers expect. Firms are looking for a new kind of professional, with skills across multiple disciplines—“Hybrid dynamos,” as IIDA President Elect Scott Hierlinger, IIDA, design director at Nelson put it at IIDA’s Industry Roundtable, “with entrepreneurial spirit, who are not afraid of anything.” Firms want employees that are critical and strategic thinkers, who can multitask and are comfortable with change and shifting responsibilities. It’s as much an economic decision as it is a response to the changing industry.

Increasingly, firms are now looking to the younger generation, "the millenials," as a conduit for fresh, creativity-sparking perspectives. Employers value their questioning nature, novel thought processes, and strong experience, namely a range of software programs and social media. Millennials were the first to grown alongside technology; it has been an everyday constant in their lives for as long as they can remember. Their ability to incorporate the continuously changing landscape of technological programs into their skill set has provided a huge advantage, but it’s not just software know-how that makes them multi-disciplinary practitioners. Design programs and universities are increasingly adopting interdisciplinary curriculums, like Harrington College of Design’s “100% Designer” philosophy, which focuses on several tangentially related design disciplines in its coursework, to give students a broad knowledge base.

In addition to taking advantage of the millennial brain capital, firms are asking hybrid employees to grow their business in related markets, hoping to offer even more diverse opportunities for their staff. Steven South, IIDA, LEED AP, a senior associate at Perkins+Will and IIDA NY Chapter President, is one of several resident “futurists” at P+W’s New York office. South first started working in a “futurist” capacity when he applied for a grant through P+W’s Innovation Incubator program to research trends in technology and social media in the workplace. He wanted to consider how trends like augmented reality, life hacking, social media, crowdsourcing, and cloud computing affected the built environment, and started collaborating with others in the New York office and firm-wide. He’s now working with several colleagues to develop different ways to look at the integration of technology and the workplace.

A current project of South’s is an app that allows users to provide real-time feedback on space. As people leave a conference room, for example, the app would text them with a series of questions. Did the space meet their needs? Did the lighting and AV work? Was there enough room for everyone?

It’s an app that companies can roll out to their employees to improve their understanding of their space, and it adds yet another potential service point for P+W. South works with multiple design teams across the New York office, coming in during the charetting process at a project’s inception to bring a technology point of view. He says he likes to get involved as early as possible with a project, so that design teams understand technology shouldn’t just be a component that’s tacked onto the end of the design process.

The hybrid designer may have been a reaction to a changing workplace and an economy that demanded increased production, but the role seems here to stay, having been embraced by both firms and employees. And, as IIDA CEO Cheryl Durst reminds us, there is room for every type in the design world: “The workplace is a mini-civilization: There are tribal elders, harvesters, hunter-gatherers. It has culture, community, conduct, code, a creed, and commerce—all the building blocks of a civilization.”

Carrie Neill is Editor-and-Chief and a writer for the IIDA Perspective Journal. You may reach her at