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How Hiring an Architect Is Like Hiring a Product Design Firm

With the potential for an upcoming expansion or move I have as of late been talking to a number of architects. Sitting on the opposite side of the table (buying rather than selling) has been a really interesting experience. It struck me pretty early on how similar selecting an architect for me must be to selecting a product development firm for many of our clients. When it’s not something you know backwards and forwards, how do you make a good choice?

In the Buyer’s Shoes

The jumping off point for our search was Web research. We spent a decent amount of time reviewing past projects, evaluating firms’ respective design aesthetics, considering their size and core competencies. This research led to a “short list” of firms to interview further.

Once we had the list we brought the design teams through our current space, gave them a tour, and tried to explain what we are about. While our current space is nice, we have experienced significant growth (both in people and capabilities) over the past couple of years and we want our new space to adequately represent this new reality. We also want the new space to be a strong representation of our brand — namely conveying an internal focus on excellence with the external result for our clients being “accelerating innovation.”

The office.

We added so many new workstations to our current space, we had to fold up and retire our Ping Pong table.

Beyond that there are the functional requirements (meeting space, collaborative spaces to befit our multidisciplinary processes, noise control, an open/current space where people can also get stuff done; and, of course, a brewery for our brewmaster). That’s roughly how I defined our needs — and I also showed them a representative floor plan and talked about space allocations for our different teams and our workshop/lab/studio space.

Much like in product development the architects presented their capabilities and their ability to address our needs with presentations and proposals. We selected two firms to present in person and ultimately selected one firm to design our future space.

Being the client was the ultimate exercise in user research. As salespeople, we would love to listen in on prospective clients’ decision processes.

I think it’s generally agreed that people buy emotionally and then justify that decision rationally — which was probably true in this case as well. Beyond that, I can’t state any truths about what makes a person buy, because that decision is highly subjective. But being the buyer gave me some insight into the kinds of considerations that go into buying design services.

Tips for Tire-Kickers

Like some of our clients who aren’t familiar with the product development process when they come to us, I didn’t — and don’t — know anything about architecture or interior design. But I know enough to know that, like product development, an architecture and interior design project is likely to be a long process riddled with setbacks, decisions, and loads of details. It’s a big-ticket item with a deep learning curve, and the pressure to make an informed choice can be overwhelming.

Having just gone through this experience, here is the advice I’d give to future clients who are kicking our — and other product design firms’ — tires:

Do your best to define your needs.

Do you need a designer? An engineer? Ten development experts from various fields? Are you looking for technical expertise? Aesthetic eye candy? Robust engineering? Or all of the above?

Consider how and how much size matters to you.

Size is important relative to scale — make sure the firm has the scale to accomplish what you need without maxing out its capacity. Conversely you don’t want them to be so big that your job doesn’t matter and you can’t get them to return your calls. Another word of warning about large companies: If you find great people, make sure you are actually going to be working with them and not passed off to someone else who may or may not be great.

Gauge passion.

In interviewing the different firms I was really struck by the difference in style, energy, and passion. I am a quiet introvert, but I appreciated the passion that some firms showed (and maybe I should show a little more…!). It’s great to see that spark of excitement and to feel that they are going to bleed with you throughout the process. Some people came off as cool and professional (almost sterile); some came off as indifferent; and some seemed genuinely excited by the opportunity and its challenges. Obviously you need chemistry, but passion for your project and an eagerness to solve your problems is key.

Gauge chemistry.

It’s important to remember two things when considering your chemistry with the firm you’re going to hire: 1. Who do I want to spend the next year or two with? 2. When some unexpected and terrible thing happens — who will I trust most to “make it go away”?

Look for talent over experience.

I would argue that it’s more important for people to be bright and talented than it is for them to have direct, relevant experience. I see this internally, too. Hiring someone smart and fast-learning means I am more likely to more often be saying “Wow, great work or idea,” than the alternative, “Why didn’t you consider this?” Look for and ask about tangential experience. Part of the team we hired have backgrounds in fine art, which we like because a space imbued with creativity is on our wish list.

Ask for clarification of lingo/jargon.

Listening to architects rattle off standard phase names and acronyms that I only vaguely understood was both humbling and eye-opening. It made me realize I probably do the same to prospects without even realizing it.

How many times have I talked about breadboards, proof of principle models, DFMEA’s, DFA, DFSS, FEA, CFD, alpha prototypes, beta prototypes, and phases like concept gen, concept development, concept refinement, and engineering development without realizing I may be leaving prospects behind? From now on I’m going to go lighter on the insider lingo/jargon. As for you, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification!

Shopping For A Design FirmPeople Make All the Difference

In the end we went with a smaller boutique firm over a larger one with more relevant experience. The larger firm was probably more qualified but didn’t convince us that they would be sweating out the details with us. They seemed more focused on implementation than design. We ultimately decided that a truly unique and considered design was more important than the relative safety associated with working with a larger firm.

Our hiring decision was based on their portfolio and their people. Just as when clients hire us, we’re banking on experience, aptitude, and attitude. In making our decision we didn’t prioritize relevant experience. We went with talent, chemistry, and demonstrated passion for the gig.

People make all the difference! Once you strip away all the branding, the catchy phrases, and the slick graphics — it’s about the people. When you hire the best people you get the best results. Of course we have no idea how it will turn out (we’ll let you know), which leads me to the last piece of advice: If you were leaping off a cliff with someone, who would you want holding your hand?