The design process doesn’t start with a drawing. Instead, it should start with a shared understanding of the strategy behind the vision for the project. To be effective, you must resist the urge to draw, and it isn’t easy.

A few years ago I talked to a group of junior high students about what architects do. The first student question was of course, “How much do you make?” My answer, “If you’re asking that question, you probably don’t want to be an architect.” The next, more enlightened student asked, “What is the hardest part about your job?” I babbled on about drawing a design where structural, ventilation and electrical systems work together with the architecture. That question stuck with me and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the biggest challenge is developing a shared vision.

Establishing a vision can be easy, but most good ones aren’t.  If the process to establish the vision skips the hard questions, you’ll have a great design that will only fix the most immediate, obvious needs. The best projects begin by asking really hard questions—questions to which we might not have answers. A recent project in the education industry began with a discussion not about how many classrooms are needed.  Instead, it was about the changing face of information available to students and its impact on education. If all information is available to everyone, everywhere, at any time, what does that mean for the future of teaching and learning? What does it mean for the types of facilities you have and will need in the future? We call the process discovery. It is about briefly pausing on the question of WHAT we need in order to address the question of WHY we need it.  It is about problem seeking, not problem solving.

If asked again, I would say the hardest part of my job is not drawing a great design… it is resisting the urge to draw.

So, put down those pens, ask those hard questions, and dream a little before your next project. Don’t reinvent the past, invent the future.