This is not the summer I was expecting—and I suspect I am not alone. I bike each day to empty rented office space, slide the door shut, and try to design via annotated snips, neverending chat boxes, texted photographs of sketches, and professional-from-the-waist-up video calls. Each week, I pray that my job as a designer is still viable when I show up to work—even as I feel that ever-present, low-grade anxiety that our firms can keep the lights on, get new contracts remotely, meet payroll, and manage to come out of this pandemic and protest-filled season. It is an anxious time to be a designer.
With so much out of our control, what do we do with our time when we as emerging designers are trying to find our way when faced with colossal uncertainty for the second time in the last 15 years? Whether we are students facing the most challenging job market in a century (something 2009 me could hardly have thought) or young designers trying to learn the professional ropes while working from your dining room table or even slightly seasoned professionals trying to take that next step—the opportunities for adding to our architectural foundations certainly look different than they did four months ago.
No matter where you are at in your architectural career, developing new skills has never been more important. Below are a few tools from my (admittedly meagre) toolbox that perhaps you might find useful:
- Find a champion. A former boss asked me every week when my next ARE exam was, and the minute I told him I’d passed one, he would ask when the next one would be. Passing the ARE exams are difficult—more power to you if you think otherwise—and getting all your AXP hours requires not just effort and luck, but the scheduling, mentoring, and advocacy of the higher ups. Find a mentor who will not only support you when you need help, but will hold you accountable and push you towards your goals.
- Reach back to bring others with you. I am extremely privileged, and I have benefitted not just from the graciousness of mentors and colleagues, but from active systems of whiteness and patriarchy that get me further than any effort of my own could have. We begin disassembling these systems by kicking down doors for other people. Be one of those people who advocates for others to join you at the table. Or better yet, make your own table.
- Take aim at an actual credential. Schedule the next exam. Take the night class. Block out two nights a week to study. Get new letters after your name.
- Bring a non-traditional passion to work. You are a musician? Certainly useful in detailing an auditorium. Had a knack for economics? You might just be plucked for budgeting discussions. Bringing your whole self to work, with all the passions and hobbies you learned outside of studio, adds flavor that benefits your design work, and contributes to a broader expertise that might just get you promoted.
- Cultivate writing and speaking. Good design is communication, whether visual, verbal, written, or otherwise, and being an effective communicator means managers can trust you. Read good writing. Surround yourself with well-crafted words. Submit drafts to architectural publications. Ask smarter people for edits. Go to Toastmasters. Effective communicators get in the door, stay in the room, and bring in the work.
- Identify a gap and step into it. Look around and notice what tasks and roles are getting outsourced or underserved. Facilitation, spec writing, stair detailing, historic preservation analysis, or whatever it may be; being able to keep key services in-house ultimately benefits any bottom line, and those added value skills get you noticed for specialized expertise that exponentially increases your value as an employee.
- Ask to learn about non-design tasks. While less glamorous than elegant sketches or detailed renderings, learning the nuances of business development, staffing projections, financial statements, or marketing lingo builds a foundation towards leadership. Ask to look over drafts. Be curious about the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and decisions.
- Build something. What wondrous insights—and humility—come from actually having to buy materials, measure, and assemble something into existence. Plus, you can always gift it to a non-designer if it ends up wonky.
An old mentor gave this advice—make yourself invaluable. Architecture is a big field with lots of ways to get crowded out when the projects run thin. Broadening your skills not only keeps you a step ahead, but keeps our creative minds from calcifying and retreating into what we already know.
But perhaps more importantly, now is a time to also cultivate kindness and justice—attributes and skills that never fail to disappoint and elevate.
In solidarity and action,
Michael Spory, Associate AIA
Just a Few Fun Things to Click On
Something to Talk about with Your Boss and Coworkers: AIA has developed Guides for Equitable Practice, for resourcing architects to make the business and professional case for ensuring more equitable practices in our firms, particularly towards black and minority individuals and clients. This is an important baseline, especially the personal stories in this section. Ask your supervisors if your firm has discussed and implemented these guides.
A deeply discounted Amber Book Subscription: AIA Virginia is offering a $50, 2-month subscription to the Amber Book. Sign up here.
Something to Sign Up For: AIA Virginia has formed a formal relationship with the newly launched Virginia NOMA Chapter. This is an important step, and is an effort that needs people of all skin colors to actively support minority architects. Fill out this form to show your support and interest.
Some Free Stuff for the ARE Exams: I just signed up for my last ARE exam–come join me! AIA National is offering their ARE prep course ArchiPrep FOR FREE for associate members until August 31. If you need a study buddy, please reach out! There are study groups in every corner of the state to get connected to.
Some accounts to follow: Pascale Sablan is more than a rising star–she’s here to stay, and her design work and advocacy for Black architects are worth your Instagram follow. Also find Architecture Is Too White and BIPOC in Architecture and read the stories emerging from melanized voices in design.
Something from AIA Richmond: AIA Richmond is partnering with Venture Richmond to launch “Picnic in a Parklet,” a program designed to assist Richmond restaurants and other businesses with Phase 2 of Forward Virginia. Through this new partnership with the City of Richmond, business owners can receive design and permitting assistance for their requests for more outdoor space, particularly parklets. If you know of similar initiatives elsewhere, please reach out.
Something to keep in your Google tab: This spreadsheet was started by designer Dong-Ping Wong, and it is a growing list of BIPOC firms across the nation. If you have a firm in Virginia that is not on this list–add it! He also specifically created it as a job-application resource for young designers of different races and ethnicities looking for BIPOC-led firms, so it also serves as a hiring resource.