Thinking Like a Client: Bridging The Perception Gap
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
by Joel Luna. Published in BluPrint Magazine's Business of Design Special Issue, 2016
Among all the professions, design is probably the most unique in the sense that the Client often has a valid opinion on the solution as much as the professional. This is very different from other professional fields such as law or medicine or accounting or engineering where the Client’s opinion is usually subservient to that of the expert’s. This is largely due to the less exigent nature of design relative to other professions. Design often deals with the realization of dreams and aspirations. But whose dreams and aspirations? All architects dream of creating the best building or landmark, of coming up with an idea that will outlive them and win the approval of their peers and elevate their stature in the profession and ultimately contribute to a better built environment and a larger body of knowledge. Architects often have a dream project and seek clients who can commission them to realize this. Clients on the other hand, aspire to build or own a particular building, whether that is a dream home, a commercial structure or a public facility to satisfy a personal or commercial need. Clients seek Architects who can address their need.
There are a few extreme situations where Clients simply want a “drawing” of the structure they have in mind, or where the architects design for themselves, expecting their Clients to sponsor their design philosophy or style. These types of projects typically don’t end well, where one’s needs are disregarded to favor the other’s. Most of the daily struggles in the project development process, however, are typically caused by misalignment of perception and can be addressed by understanding the differing viewpoints and by seeking to bridge them.
Difference in view of the role of the Designer (Who Owns the Design?): There tends to be some lack of clarity in the perception of design ownership. The designs per se belong to the Architect being the author and owner of intellectual property. The building, however, belongs to the Client or the owner of the facility. This fundamental distinction is probably at the root of the numerous differences in perception, power struggles and arguments throughout the design process. While the architect, as author of the design, will pursue design integrity and excellence consistent with his/her professional principles, the Client will pursue design responsiveness consistent with his/her needs as building owner.
Disparity in their view of Design (What is it for?): The Architect tends to see the design as an end in itself, while Clients see design as a means to achieve an end. For Clients who are real estate developers, the end to be achieved is often economic in nature. This difference in view has numerous implications. While Architects would like to spend as much time to uncover the real design problem and come up with the best and most unique solution, Clients, on the other hand would like to arrive at the final design quickly and affordably to allow them to build the project and to either occupy or to bring to market in the shortest possible time. Design is often just one step in a lengthy and complicated process particularly for Developer Clients.
Clients value predictability. They would like to know what the building would look like, how much it would cost to build, how long it would take to construct, what the impact is on operations and maintenance, etc. In an increasingly complex industry of high specialization, cost variability and multiple approaches in construction contracting, it is the professional who best understands the impacts of their designs on construction, procurement, marketing and facilities management who can provide the best advice to the Client to reduce unpredictability of outcomes.
Disparity in the definition of who the Client is (Who is it for?): Whoever commissions the Architect will understandably see themselves and their customers as the clients. Architects, on the other hand, may design for a larger “client” base to include the broader public and at times, even future generations who will see and use the facility. Thus, the context which frames the design is often one that should be articulated and expressed early on. Apart from the direct occupants of the building, the Architect should work with the Developer to identify other “stakeholders” of the project whose needs will have to be considered in the design. These could include visitors, the surrounding neighborhoods, or the public at large. Both Architect and Developer should agree on who the building should address and engage.
Another implication of this disparity is that the design agenda tends to be very different between Developer and Client. Developers are concerned with design items that directly impact cost, amount of revenue-generating space (efficiency), constructability, marketability, profitability, operating costs, etc. Architects, on the other hand, tend to focus on more abstract and less quantifiable items such as spatial quality, sense of place, form, context, symbolism, visual expression, etc. Both agendas are valid and at times are not even in conflict. Often, there are common interests such as functionality, user-friendliness, visual appeal, uniqueness. The aim of the design process should be to try to surface these confluence of agendas with the goal of arriving at a solution where both are satisfied.
Disparity in perception of the process of Design (How is it done?) Clients would understandably have a limited familiarity of the nuances of the design process. Architects follow a meticulous yet non-linear process of analysis, discovery, conceptualization, iteration and refinement of an idea until an ultimate solution emerges. The process is deliberately made invisible to the Client, giving the Architect some space to incubate the designs with minimal intervention until they are fit to show to the Client at specific milestones. The design process is thus like a “black box” from the point of view of the Client--where one can toss in the building program and owner’s requirements (which are not always clear nor consistent) on one end and designs magically come out on the other. While often overstated, it remains true that a collaborative approach where Client and Architect participate in a continuous design dialogue often produce the most mutually satisfying solution. Many Clients do have design sensitivity, deep customer familiarity and practical knowledge of many aspects of the building they intend to construct and Architects can learn from them. Similarly, Clients can learn from the diversity and depth of technical experience of an Architect. It is in this constant dialogue that the Architect will uncover the real problems that need to be solved by the design and where the Client can learn to appreciate the complexities of the solution. If successful, the design is a joint creation, the result of which both Client and Architect can claim credit for and derive pride from.
Disparity in the temporal aspects of the design (When is it for?) Architects would like to craft a vision for the project—an idealized end-state image of how the structure will look, feel, be used in the future. If the architect is successful in convincing the Client, then this idea gets built as conceived in the Architect’s mind. Once the building is complete, however, the Architect’s role is essentially done but the responsibility for the building remains with the Client or its occupants for the rest of the building’s life. Thus, while Clients will definitely benefit from good design, they also bear the burden of living with any flaws that the design may have. For instance, an intricate detail for hotel interiors may look impressive visually, but if it turns out to be impossible for the housekeeping staff to clean, then it is a failure of design. Many well-intentioned Architects may desire fancy forms, exotic materials, intricate detailing, cutting-edge technology or innovative solutions that will make the buildings responsive to both present and future conditions. Many Clients, on the other hand, will tend to be more skeptical of newfangled ideas and prefer less-risky solutions that are tried and tested, easy to maintain and operate and that will ensure appreciation of property value over time. Essentially, both points of view while different in purpose, come from the same objective of making the building responsive to both present and future conditions.
Basically, Architects and Clients share the same goal in creating special places, but arriving at the solution requires the marriage of differing considerations and motivations. The perception gap is best bridged by Architects who are sensitive to the concerns and the views of their Clients. Architects are most effective when they collaborate with the Client in interpreting the problem and when they define the multiple considerations that will influence the design, including those that extend beyond the Client’s stated requirements. In the end, Architects are enablers. They provide advice and design solutions that will allow the Client to make sound decisions about the building that they (not the Architect) will build, spend for, own and operate.